While PTSD occurs from a single traumatic event, Complex PTSD is caused by a series of repeated, prolonged traumas usually originating in childhood and continuing into adulthood. This can create a sense of captivity and an inability to escape the brutality of your adverse life circumstances. Here are six behaviors people don’t realize you may be engaging in because you’re a complex trauma survivor.
(1 & 2) Socially isolating yourself – yet searching for a rescuer. Being hyper-attuned to signals of harm and danger in social interactions and your environment.
People who have experienced complex trauma or have Complex PTSD can have very sensitized nervous systems. They are primed from childhood to see danger and hyper-attuned – at times hypervigilant – to the micro-signals of harm. This is why social interactions can be so exhausting and depleting for them: they are always on the lookout to detect signs of deception, manipulation, and aggression due to the numerous betrayals they experienced since childhood. This hyper-attunement can actually work in their favor if they use it to discern more covert manipulators in their midst. Due to their experiences, some complex trauma survivors may have a highly developed radar in spotting discrepancies in someone’s façade versus their true character, or fleeing danger because they recognize subtle signals in their environment others may not identify as readily. Social isolation can be one common coping method for complex PTSD survivors to ensure their nervous system remains grounded and not in constant fight, flight, freeze, or fawn mode. However, simultaneously, people with CPTSD may search throughout their lives for a “rescuer.” This is usually because they did not feel protected in childhood and seek out someone that they hope makes them feel safe in adulthood.
Unfortunately, searching for a rescuer can often result in retraumatization and revictimization as predatory people seek out those with vulnerabilities to exploit. In addition, sometimes complex trauma survivors can be subconsciously drawn to dangerous situations because they are biochemically and psychologically accustomed to the severe highs and lows of the toxic situations they experienced since childhood. This creates a trauma repetition cycle that can be difficult to halt without intensive treatment and healing.
(3) Dissociating on a daily basis.
Complex trauma survivors can feel detached from their own bodies (known as depersonalization) and from their surroundings (known as derealization). This dissociation can be especially powerful if the complex trauma survivor has experienced betrayal trauma, especially in childhood – violations from the very people meant to protect them. Dissociation occurs because their brains have engaged in subconscious, intricate survival mechanisms to protect them from fully experiencing the horror of their traumas. This can mitigate the impact that trauma has on you through altered states of consciousness that provide temporary protection. However, dissociation can also rob complex trauma survivors of making sense and meaning out of their experience, processing it, or creating a coherent narrative around it. You may also experience fatigue, mental fog, spaciness, and losing track of time. As a result of dissociative survival mechanisms, you can also experience gaps in your memory and feel unable to describe your trauma history in detail.
(4) Feeling like you have multiple disparate identities or multiple “self-states.”
There is usually a discontinuity in your sense of self if you have experienced complex trauma. Complex trauma survivors often struggle with an uncertain, even fragmented sense of identity. This is no surprise: when you’ve been chronically traumatized, you spend most of your internal resources on surviving these traumas, rather than developing a solid sense of self. You have had to take on many different roles and identities throughout your life in order to cope with the constant stress of navigating an invisible war zone. As a result, you have likely developed different facets of your identity that feel disparate or even contradictory. This can be adaptive and/or maladaptive: you may use these different “self-states” to facilitate your success and remain high-functioning across diverse contexts – yet at the same time you may feel overwhelmed with the different roles you’ve had to take on. For example, you may have a people-pleasing aspect of your identity because you played the role of fawning caretaker in childhood to abusive parents – yet you may also have a defensive “self-state” that fights back aggressively in the event of harm. These different self-states or “versions” of self can present themselves in more extreme ways in various circumstances.
(5) Feeling emotionally dysregulated.
Intense anxiety, fear, anger, and despair can be chronic emotions for complex trauma survivors. We know from neuroscience research that complex trauma can affect and create dysregulation in the HPA axis which handles our stress response and can create hyperactivity in the amygdala, the part of our brain that processes and regulates fear. These emotions can occur without warning as triggers from multiple traumas can be pervasive in everyday life. Even complex trauma survivors who suppress the weight of their traumas to remain high-functioning eventually have to confront a trigger that creates emotional overwhelm, collapse, and exhaustion. As a result of these extreme emotions, you may try to avoid anything that triggers you altogether or turn to substance use or other addictions to numb the pain.
(6) Self-harming tendencies.
You may engage in self-harming, parasuicidal, or even suicidal behaviors as a complex trauma survivor. Research indicates that those who have more adverse childhood experiences are at an increased risk for suicidality. Complex trauma survivors usually cannot identify a prolonged time of peace and safety in their lives. They may feel like they never had a break from adversity, and as a result, they may expect that life will continue to be overwhelmingly distressful for them and turn to drastic measures to end the pain. Even the most high-functioning complex trauma survivor can feel burdened by the traumas he or she has gone through and feel unable to cope. They may experience heightened self-blame and a ruthless “inner critic” that affects their self-esteem and causes them to develop a sense of learned helplessness.
If you are a complex trauma survivor or are struggling with the effects of Complex PTSD, it is important to seek a mental health professional. If you are struggling with suicidal ideation, please reach out to a professional or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. You are not alone and help is out there.