Understanding Complex Trauma

Every individual is unique and is on their own journey, with a countless number of experiences that are true only to them. Same is for trauma. Each person experiences trauma in a different manner. The term trauma is heard by many of us, but we hardly know what exactly it means or implies. When someone talks about trauma or shares an event that was traumatic for them, the first thing that might come to mind is that this person is going through PTSD. Many of us are already aware or at least have heard about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is a condition which is usually visible in or affects war veterans and survivors of car accidents or natural disasters or isolated acts of violence inflicted on them. However, this occurs when only one awful, sad or terrible incident happens. Then there is Complex trauma. This comes in as a response to chronic traumatisation over the course of a month or even a year, which in turn gives rise to adaptive responses, for instance any type of abuse or bullying or neglect, domestic violence or living in a war zone or more. 

There are times when young people grow up with more bad incidents in their life than good things, these bad things occur so often that they start to think that this is how life is in general. Like parents arguing all the time or not giving children any words of praise or encouragement. These might seem like small things but they hurt young people in a way, on the inside, where it is not visible to anyone. This can be really hard, especially when all these  unpleasant occurrences or experiences start to pile up. Children and adolescents may end up feeling like there is no one around to help them, like there is no one on their side. This can leave them feeling afraid, sad or even angry a lot of times. They might end up blaming themselves for the things that are going wrong, even when it’s not their fault. 

Individuals going through complex trauma feel like people don’t care about them or that they will be let down or might be attacked all of a sudden. They start to think that they deserve the bad things happening in their life, that they don’t deserve to be loved. One feels absolutely helpless and hopeless, and it doesn’t get any better on its own. That is why the term complex is used to describe this form of trauma, because of its intricate and complicated nature. 

Complex trauma affects every individual differently. When an adult experiences a traumatic incident, they are better equipped and are able understand what is happening to them. Whereas children don’t possess such abilities or experiences as adults. For them, as their brain is developing, going through severe trauma could interrupt the entire course of their psychological and neurological development. They start to develop negative thoughts, emotions and beliefs about themselves and the world. Living with this constant stress, young people might harbour uncomfortable feelings, may have a hard time forming healthy relationships or imagine a better future for themselves. Complex trauma can make anybody feel confusing, unhappy, stuck, impatient, hopeless, frustrated, lost or unsafe. It can damage healthy development and unseen problems and difficulties that a child faces years later. 

Complex trauma works or occurs in such a way that many people don’t even realize that they are struggling with it as most of what they experience is invalidated and  discredited. Living with so much pain and not knowing why could be very discombobulating.

So how do we help in making things better? What are the ways or steps one can take as coping mechanisms? 

There are only a few healthcare professionals who understand complex trauma. The DSM (Diagnostic Statistical Manual), used by all the psychologists, does not contain proper information about Complex Trauma. They look at the individual displaying the symptoms of complex trauma and try to treat the symptoms rather than focusing on the root cause. Individuals with complex trauma, especially young people, who grow up in an environment where they are in danger or are mistreated, they develop methods of dealing with things which help them survive.

The many different ways in which trauma are: 

  • Domestic violence
  • Natural disasters 
  • Serious illness or injury 
  • Loss of the loved ones 
  • Living in war zones
  • Physical abuse 
  • Sexual abuse

There are various methods one can use to cope with stressful experiences. Things people can do to relieve stress, decrease tension and anxiety, to make their bodies feel more calm and in control. People try to intentionally use strategies to cope with stress by practicing certain skills which might help in reducing their distress and shift their energy to a more comfortable and pleasant level. Then there are times when their instincts, their impulses automatically take steps to change the way they feel about a situation. The trauma reminders or triggers can make people going through complex trauma feel like their troubles are too big for them and that they are all alone and that no one cares. 

It is okay, or rather it’s only natural to be thrown off course when something bad happens in life. Not knowing what to do in hard situations does not mean that you are weak, messed up or bad. It only goes to show that you are a human being, and that you don’t have to go through all of this alone. Anyone going through Trauma, not just Complex, might require help from others at some point in their journey and here at Pause for Perspective we have trained, accomplished and skilled therapists who are always ready to listen and help you get through this. 

Aside from therapy, there are many other coping mechanisms that can help make things better: 

  • Creating a Safe Space: 

Being safe by recognizing unsafe situations. Anything that makes you feel attacked or unsafe, leave them. Try to exit such situations as safely as possible. Individuals who have been repeatedly exposed to vulnerable situations may feel like they have no safe space, but there is. Anyone or anything can become your safe space, be it a coach, teacher, therapist, a certain place in your house or outside the house like a library or a gym. Ask yourself What makes you feel safe? What helps you reduce or replace the negative thoughts? And work with people who you trust to help you understand your body and mind. 

  • Recognizing Triggers:

Another way is trying to recognize the “triggers”, what makes you feel unsafe and confused. Try to find out what you are feeling and when you are feeling it, and then try to communicate with a trusted friend or anyone you feel safe sharing your experiences with. This can be done by building healthy relationships with your siblings or peers or any other person you might trust. Decide which relations are worth working on and which ones are acting like triggers. 

At Pause for Perspective we do not believe that Complex Trauma is some kind of disorder that needs to be fixed. We believe that it is a coping mechanism, a “survival strategy”, that people develop due to the repeated exposure to unsafe and abusive environments. No one should feel hopeless or helpless when there are people and communities ready to support and help you in any way they can. Everyone deserves to feel safe in their own body and mind. They deserve to be reached out to and be helped in steering through even their darkest and toughest moments.  

Written by Insha Fatima, our writer at Pause.