“Trauma is not a story that happened back then. It’s the current imprint of that pain, horror and fear living inside of people.”
Bessel van der Kolk
Simple trauma vs complex trauma
When people think of trauma, they usually think of soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, people who escaped death, or someone who saw a violent death of a loved one. All these examples are incidents that may lead to a simple trauma.
Simple trauma usually occurs as a result of a single distinct painful event. This traumatic event is so overwhelming for an individual’s nervous system that their whole being gets stuck in the never-ending loop of “fight, flight or freeze” response.
Being trapped in the “fight, flight, or freeze” mode means that you can never fully relax. Your nervous system is constantly overwhelmed. You are in an alert mode 24/7.
Complex trauma sufferers deal with the same nervous system response. Although the origin of their trauma is different and very often invisible to the outside world, the gut-wrenching pain that they constantly relive is the same.
What is complex trauma?
Complex trauma occurs as a result of prolonged abuse or/and neglect.
Traumatic events take place over a long period of time. People who suffer from complex trauma are (or were) exposed to a threat on an ongoing, even daily, basis. There is no time to allow your nervous system to relax. You need to be vigilant all the time as you never know when and where you will face danger again. You never feel safe.
Most common causes of complex trauma:
Childhood abuse – both physical and emotional abuse leaves huge scars on children (as well as adults) that might take many years to heal.
A lot of people who suffer from complex trauma say that when they were growing up, they often felt that they were walking on eggshells. They never knew when they were going to be criticised or attacked again. They were always looking over their shoulders. They were never fully relaxed.
Physical abuse is another form of abuse that very often leads to complex trauma and the arousal of the nervous system. People who suffer from physical abuse never feel safe. They constantly look out for danger. It makes it impossible for the nervous system to get unstuck from the “fight, flight or flee” response.
Even if the abuse happened in your childhood, this kind of dysregulation of the nervous system persists in your adulthood too. It won’t go away with time without your conscious effort to process and release trauma from your mind and body.
Neglect – another cause of complex trauma is neglect. When your parents’ needs (like alcohol or drugs) get in the way of their ability to perform their duties as parents, children suffer from severe neglect.
In the modern-day world, it is also quite common to see parents who are too busy with work and their careers and they tend to send their children to all sorts of after school classes which might also make such children feel like a burden.
Not being able to surround a child with sufficient love and care or not having the skills to do so will negatively impact the child’s developmental needs which can lead to complex trauma.
Abandonment – another common cause of complex trauma is abandonment. People who were abandoned in their childhood (whether because one or both of their parents left or because someone close to them died) suffer from attachment disorder and constant fear of being abandoned again.
Such adults usually have huge difficulties in relationships, constantly fearing that the scenario of abandonment will be repeated. Having this deeply seated fear of abandonment in them, they might be prone to get stuck in abusive relationships as they will try to do their best in order to stay in a relationship (even if the relationship is unhealthy for them) rather than going through the loss of a relationship again.
The above list presents the most common causes of complex trauma but when the abuse is ongoing it is very often hard to determine what is actually happening to you. A lot of victims of abuse don’t realise that what they are going through traumatises them. It is very heartbreaking but it is true.
The causes of complex trauma don’t have to start in childhood years either. The abuse can start later in life and can lead to horrible experiences of complex trauma too.
Here is a list of the most common symptoms of complex trauma:
- Reliving the traumatic experience – this usually includes having nightmares and flashbacks. Low trust in yourself and others – this often leads to problems in relationships, low self-belief, and self-sabotaging behaviours.
- Avoiding certain situations – you tend to avoid everything that might remind you of the traumatic event.
- Difficulties with emotional self-regulation – you lose control over your emotions. You might experience an overwhelming sadness one minute that can suddenly turn into anger a minute later.
- Hyperarousal – It means you can never fully relax. You always look out for danger, you always feel threatened. This might lead to problems with sleep, concentration, and problems with trusting others and the world in general.
- Somatic symptoms – these are physical symptoms that don’t have any underlying medical causes. I used to experience problems with breathing. It used to come suddenly in waves and it used to go away equally suddenly. Other somatic symptoms might include nausea, headache, moments of panic, dizziness, or pressure in the chest.
- Negative self-talk – people who experience complex trauma usually have a distorted image of themselves. They often experience feelings of guilt and shame which leads them to negative self-talk and a conviction that they are worse than other people.
If you have read this article and you realised that you might be experiencing complex trauma, it might be worth talking to a professional that understands this condition. If you feel like reaching out to me, please do so. I would be happy to talk to you and see if there is any way I can help you release trauma from your body (and mind) through trauma informed yoga or other therapeutic modalities. All you need to do is message me.
If you would like to learn more about complex trauma and different modalities that proved to be effective in healing it, I would highly recommend that you read “The body keeps the score” by Bessel van der Kolk. It is one of the best resources for anyone who would like to learn about complex trauma.