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What is Complex Trauma?

Complex trauma, also called developmental trauma, refers to the experience of multiple traumatic or adverse events throughout a person’s life, usually beginning in early childhood and often involving a parent or caregiver. Complex trauma can have wide-ranging effects, impacting your ability to feel safe, to be present in your life, to feel connected to others, and to feel comfortable in your body. People who have experienced complex trauma may wonder what is wrong with them, blame themselves for their experiences, and be frustrated that they can’t just “get over” what happened in the past. But it’s not that simple.

Early and repeated traumatic experiences affect brain development and can trap your brain in a survival mode that impairs its ability to focus, manage complex tasks, and experience feelings of safety and connection. They can also distort your beliefs about yourself and the world. This chronic stress can cause or exacerbate physical health problems. Lack of healthy attachment to a caregiver and the resulting lack of comfort and reassurance also have an impact. Developmental trauma is often as much about the things that were missing as it is about the things that happened.

People who have experienced complex trauma often struggle with depression, anxiety, relationship problems, unhealthy behaviors, and distorted sense of self, eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, as well as PTSD symptoms like flashbacks, nightmares, and avoidance. And, often, the struggles that follow childhood trauma make it more likely that you will find yourself in unsafe relationships or situations later in life, increasing the risk of further trauma in adolescence and adulthood.

The adverse childhood experiences that can lead to complex trauma are not always as obvious as physical abuse or neglect or sexual abuse. Emotional neglect, lack of healthy attachment to a caregiver, parental mental illness or substance abuse, parental incarceration, or death of a parent or caregiver can also have lasting effects. Sometimes well-intentioned, but emotionally immature parents can cause emotional damage. In addition, childhood experiences that lead to chronic stress such as living in an unsafe environment, experiencing racism or other discrimination, or experiencing religious trauma can cause chronic early-life stress and contribute to complex trauma reactions.

The good news is that neuroscience and psychology have learned a lot about the effects of complex trauma and how to support healing. For many people, the first step is to improve the present and start to identify and value your needs and feelings. Understanding that your symptoms are the result of trauma can begin to counter feelings of shame. And learning emotional regulation and self-care skills can help you gain a sense of stability, control, and increased safety that will set you up for success in your healing journey.

Bodhi Counseling will be starting a therapy group to help you do just those things, called Trauma Toolkit: Foundational Skills for Complex Trauma. If complex trauma is affecting your life, and you want to work with others to take steps toward healing, reach out today for a consultation!


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