How To Live With Complex PTSD

Amber Murphy

Many survivors of abuse, sexual assault, accidents, and army veterans have Complex PTSD. This trauma disorder affects an individual’s thoughts, emotions, relationships with others, and general quality of life. You can learn to cope with PTSD if you receive the proper treatment, but it does require a lot of time, attention, and effort to work through reversing these effects. It’s possible to live a normal life after a trauma though you may have triggers pop up throughout your life, causing difficult emotions and pain. In this article, we’ll go in-depth on how to live with Complex PTSD and treat it to be more manageable in your everyday life.

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What Is Complex PTSD?

Complex PTSD is created from prolonged periods of having to deal with intense traumatic experiences and an inability to make sense of them. The form of PTSD that most people are familiar with is an anxiety disorder that stems from one isolated event like a car crash or natural disaster. Still, Complex PTSD is more associated with an entire period of traumatic time taking place in one’s life.

In the United States Military, many soldiers suffer from this disorder as they enter combat for the first time. It usually begins after the soldier has served in the war for between two to three tours. Soldiers’ high stress levels can manifest a range of problems, including substance abuse, anxiety disorder, depression, and compulsive behaviors.

complex ptsd

How To Live With Complex PTSD

There are several treatment options available that can assist you in living with Complex PTSD. While you may not find a single treatment option that works well for you, many people have found that an integrated approach can help with the symptoms of PTSD

It will be essential to connect with mental health professionals who are skilled in dealing with specialized trauma and PTSD. This mental health professional could be a therapist, social worker, trauma counselor, military psychologist, psychiatrist, or professional counselor. It is always best to see a professional who understands the symptoms of PTSD to receive the best treatment. It’s also a good idea to seek help from someone specializing in the type of trauma you lived through. For instance, there are sexual assault trauma counselors who understand the patterns, behaviors, and challenges a rape survivor goes through. Thus, they’re able to provide you with specialized therapy in dealing with that trauma.

While hiring a mental health professional is highly encouraged to help you cope with your Complex PTSD, remember that it’s okay to fire a counselor who doesn’t support you in the way you need support. Not all trauma counselors are equal. If you find a therapist who makes you feel more panicked, don’t be afraid to look for another professional. To get the help you need, you sometimes need to find someone who helps create a safe environment so that you can be honest about your experience. That way, you’ll be able to heal from your traumatizing experience.

Some people find that a combination of medication and therapy can help to treat Complex PTSD. If you feel as though you need to find an effective treatment option, it would be good to speak with your doctor about your available options. Unfortunately, there are no medications that treat PTSD directly. However, you might be able to treat symptoms, such as anxiety or depression.

Many people with PTSD want to stop PTSD nightmares from occurring. Some doctors recommend a heart medication, which suppresses your nightmares. From personal experience, that medication doesn’t work very long. For me, it lasted about two weeks where I had a dreamless sleep. Then, one night I had my worst nightmare and stopped taking the medication because I was too scared. The reality of trauma is you can’t suppress it to make it go away. Sometimes, you need to go through the hellish nightmare of Complex-PTSD head-on so you can restabilize yourself. The most effective way to overcome the trauma is to go through the trauma. There are no miracle pills that will make your brain process the pain with ease.

Additionally, finding a support system from your friends and family is essential for living day to day with Complex PTSD. It can be difficult for people experiencing Complex PTSD because it can feel as though you are by yourself in a situation since others can’t relate to your experience. Reaching out to others and finding support from people that have gone through the same type of trauma can help you better cope.

Common Signs And Symptoms of Complex PTSD

The following are the most common signs and symptoms of Complex PTSD. While not everyone who lives with a traumatic experience will experience all of these symptoms, many people deal with them.

1. Flashbacks

When a survivor is having a flashback, they may feel like they have traveled back in time to that traumatic event. They may feel the same emotions, fears, anger, or pain from that moment.

2. Negative Self-image

In many cases, people with Complex PTSD develop a negative self-image due to low self-esteem. They may relate to themselves as being weak or ineffective. They may blame themselves for the traumatic event that took place. Many people have heard of fight or flight as a typical response. However, in cases of trauma, many people experience the freeze response. In the moment of trauma, they experience an out-of-body experience of paralysis. Many regret not being able to fight back or save a friend due to their freeze response. It’s important not to blame yourself for what happened or how you responded

3. Nightmares

Those who have Complex PTSD experience trouble sleeping through the night, constantly waking up from nightmares. Many times, the traumatic event is re-lived in the form of a nightmare. Most nightmares won’t be about the trauma but the emotions around it. Often, your dreams will be about a loss of control as that’s how your waking life feels. A trauma social worker once said to me, “Nightmares are the brain’s way of processing information.” Every time I woke up from a nightmare, I would repeat that sentence and go back to sleep. This sentence eventually caused nightmares to lose their power over me.

ptsd symptoms

4. Intense Emotions

The trauma survivor may have intense emotions that are directly related to the traumatic event that took place. They may feel depressed or severe bouts of rage. Additionally, they may feel out of control when it comes to their emotions on any given day. Those with Complex PTSD are often in a state of hypervigilance or survival mode. It’s challenging to think straight and behave well when your brain is screaming danger. It’s normal to find it hard to cope with emotions. Running is a great way to release your intense emotions physically.

5. Unhealthy Relationships

The survivors’ relationships with others will often be strained during this period. They may be unresponsive or on edge with close friends and family members. They may feel as though they need to withdraw from social relationships to keep themselves safe. Fortunately, even someone who survives a sexual assault will eventually have a normal and healthy relationship. So, remember that the fears you project in your current relationship are temporary. However, you might also find that you eventually cut out the people who help you in your life during this time, as it may end up being a painful reminder of what you went through. This emotional disconnect is common. If your trauma was caused by another person, aim to break the pattern to avoid toxic people in the future, particularly for domestic violence, sexual abuse, or child abuse.

Many people who struggle with Complex PTSD have intense work-related problems. They may become very disconnected and unproductive in their work lives. Often, this stems from the fact that they struggle with having a sense of control, which is common for trauma survivors to face. Your personality drastically changes when coping with trauma; some end up fired for behavioral reasons. At least this happened to me. So, don’t beat yourself up if this happens to you. Take the time to cope with your mental health and heal. Trauma is more complicated than many mental health issues, don’t be afraid to admit you need help.

7. Substance Abuse

Many people who live with Complex PTSD struggle with substance abuse as they try to self-medicate their way through it. They may find that alcohol or drug use helps them to escape from their pain. In the immediacy of it, drinking away your problems works well. But eventually, you realize not even alcohol is enough to make the pain go away. Many people will quit cold turkey. For example, a sweeping declaration of giving up sex and alcohol for a year is common for sexual assault survivors. A bit of a warning, once you stop numbing, trauma symptoms start to magnify. The pain will be horrible. Yet, this is good news. It means you’re finally facing the trauma and going through it. It’s a tough battle, but this is how you’ll heal. So, when you quit alcohol and drugs to face your trauma, know that we’re proud of you.

complex ptsd symptoms

8. Panic Attacks

Many people who live with Complex PTSD struggle to know how to stop a panic attack. They may have unexpected and intense panic attacks that seem out of the blue. They may feel as though they have no idea what has triggered these attacks, but that doesn’t make them less real.

9. Lack Of Emotional Regulation

Many people who live with Complex PTSD struggle with a lack of emotional regulation. They may get angry over small things, and they may have intense emotions and urges that are difficult for them to control. You may notice that anger transforms into rage or that you scream louder than you did before. Sudden mood swings are particularly common. You will find it difficult to control your emotions because of the severity of your inability to process the intensity of the trauma. Eventually, things do stabilize, so remember that all of this is temporary.

10. Negative Thought Patterns

Additionally, some people who live with Complex PTSD struggle with negative thought patterns. They may find that they are constantly thinking about the traumatic event that took place, and it dominates their thoughts day in and day out. This process is called ruminating. Ruminating can be particularly destructive to your mental health. Your brain will spin the same draining thoughts repeatedly, which will cause you to react in extreme ways. A tactic to help with this is to do right-brain activities, such as painting, meditating along with YouTube videos, gardening, making music, and more.

Understanding Complex PTSD

Often, the person living with Complex PTSD starts off lacking support and treatment as if they have no problems that need solving. This happens because they can’t make sense of their situation, and therefore don’t understand what is causing their actions. You might go to the hospital thinking you have a brain tumor because you don’t know why you’re suddenly living in hypervigilance. You might not connect that trauma has caused your suffering.

When a person realizes they have Complex PTSD, it is almost impossible to make sense of the situation. They may live with the symptoms for years, and the fear of not understanding what has caused their behavior shift can be overwhelming.

Treating Complex PTSD is usually tough to do on your own. It requires a lot more effort than trying to treat an anxiety disorder or depression.

Risk Factors For Complex PTSD

The following risk factors can help you to understand why someone may live with Complex PTSD.

1. Traumatic events in your life

If you have endured any traumatic events in your life, you may develop Complex PTSD due to these experiences. Trauma survivors often struggle with difficult emotions, whether the incident triggers them or not.

2. Childhood Abuse

Another particular risk factor for Complex PTSD is childhood abuse. If you were abused as a child, grew up with an alcoholic parent, or had an unloving home life as a child, then you will notice that you have a greater risk of developing the disorder.

3. Mental Illness

If you have been diagnosed with any form of mental illness, and your symptoms don’t go away after a trauma, then you could be living with Complex PTSD. Having a diagnosis of mental illness before a PTSD diagnosis can magnify the trauma symptoms.

risk factors of complex ptsd

How Is Complex PTSD Diagnosed?

Complex PTSD is diagnosed by a mental health professional who will assess any symptoms you may have. It’s also crucial for the doctor or therapist to understand your symptoms in detail.

Your treatment plan will depend on several factors, not just the diagnostic criteria.

Reflecting on the Diagnosis: You may be diagnosed with Complex PTSD if your doctor or therapist notes the following:

  1. The symptoms cause a lot of stress in your life, mainly when they are triggered.
  2. Your symptoms cause you to avoid situations that might trigger them or cause flashbacks. You’ll also find it difficult to sleep and feel tired most of the time. You may have nightmares or intrusive thoughts that stay with you all day long. You may feel numb or confused.
  3. You’re not able to manage your symptoms without the help of another person.
  4. You might have difficulty accepting that your symptoms affect your life and functioning.

Final Thoughts

Complex PTSD is a controversial diagnosis in the mental health community. However, by acknowledging the diagnosis, asking for support, and making modifications in your life, you’ll be able to treat your symptoms and heal from your pain. The intensity of PTSD weakens over time though you’ll still have triggers and challenging periods now and then. You are not the problem; what happened to you is. Avoid blaming yourself for what happened to you; it was never your fault. Consider trying this guided meditation for PTSD or listening to songs about PTSD to help you cope.

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