Trauma

A New Resource for Complex Traumatic Stress Disorders

Dr. Julian Ford on complex trauma.

Posted Feb 20, 2020

Julian Ford, used with permission
Source: Julian Ford, used with permission

Complex trauma significantly impacts a person's ability to live out day-to-day life. People suffering from complex traumatic stress disorders can often feel overwhelmed and stuck. But lots of research is being done to understand these disorders and help these individuals heal.

Clinical psychologist Julian D. Ford, Ph.D., ABPP, is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, Director of the Center for Trauma Recovery and Juvenile Justice, and director of the Center for Treatment of Developmental Trauma Disorders. His research focuses on Developmental Trauma Disorder and the Trauma Affect Regulation: Guide for Education and Therapy (TARGET) therapeutic intervention. We caught up with him about his most recent book, Treating Complex Traumatic Stress Disorders in Adults, Second Edition (Guilford Press, 2020). 

JA: Why did you set out to write your book?

JF: Christine Courtois and I convened leading clinicians and researchers 10 years ago in the first edition of Treating Complex Traumatic Stress Disorders. Complex PTSD was just beginning to get the recognition it deserves as an integrative and de-stigmatizing framework for understanding and treating survivors of complex trauma.

So many exciting advances have occurred scientifically and clinically in the complex trauma field over the past decade; we felt it was essential to provide a major update for clinicians, researchers, educators, and students.

JA: What is the primary takeaway you hope readers will learn from reading your book?

JF: Readers will learn two essential facts. Each offers a multiplicity of practical implications for treatment and research in the behavioral health fields.

  1. Complex traumatic stress disorders are experienced by literally millions of people who are diagnosed with every type of mental health disorder, many with medical illnesses as well. When healthcare providers are alert to the signs of complex traumatic stress disorders, they can provide patients with more effective and humane treatment by helping them to recover from often chronic traumatic stress reactions that complicate and exacerbate other mental and physical health problems.
  2. There is a growing array of evidence-based and evidence-informed therapies for complex traumatic stress disorders. These include: adaptations of well-validated exposure; cognitive, behavioral and emotional regulation; interpersonal, narrative, and psychodynamic therapies; and emerging experiential, somatic, systemic, mindfulness, and complementary therapies. More than 20 of these approaches to trauma-focused therapy demonstrate to clinicians, with case studies, how to provide effective treatment for people recovering from complex traumatic stress disorders.

JA: What are some lessons from your book that can help people live more resiliently?

JF: Every chapter communicates a key lesson on resilience. Complex post-traumatic stress symptoms begin as adaptive responses that enable people to survive trauma; however, adaptive survival coping turns problematic because it requires extreme physical and mental mobilization that is physically and mentally exhausting, and it interferes with ordinary learning and happiness when it becomes a way of life.

Trauma-focused therapies promote resilience by enabling complex trauma survivors to make a fundamental shift from trapped in post-traumatic survival mode to meaning-making troubling memories. This restores the innate ability to move forward with a sense of confidence, hope, and security in themselves and core relationships. 

JA: What are some insights from your book that help readers support a friend or loved one?

JF: If a friend or loved one has experienced complex trauma, this can lead to a lasting sense of never being safe (hypervigilance), and this cannot be simply erased with attempts to forget past experiences or "just get over it." 

However, therapy can help that person to regain the ability to feel safe by understanding how their stress reactions are normal and manageable, and by finding meaning in their past experiences. Knowing that recovery from complex trauma is possible can provide a sense of hope that is the key antidote to the anxiety and depression that complex trauma can cause.

JA: What are you currently working on these days?

JF: I'm finishing another book for the American Psychological Association (APA) that provides a new framework to guide therapists when they need to handle crises that occur during the psychotherapy session. I realized the complex traumatic stress therapy I've developed and researched for more than 20 years—Trauma Affect Regulation: Guide for Education and Therapy (TARGET)—can provide the foundation for handling a wide range of crises in psychotherapy, from rage to suicidality to dissociation

This dovetails with the webinar series, Identifying Critical Moments and Healing Complex Trauma, produced by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network and the Center for the Treatment of Developmental Trauma Disorders. The free webinars include films of very intense therapy session crises that are handled by a number of wonderful therapists. 

JA: Anything else you would like to share?

JF: I hope therapists, researchers, educators, therapists-in-training, and regular people who are interested in understanding complex trauma and learning a wide variety of ways to help people will find this book interesting—and personally, as well as professionally, meaningful. As I've read the chapters written by many of my best colleagues and completed the reading and reflections in my own chapters, I've learned an enormous amount. I hope readers will experience this also!

References

Ford, J. D., & Courtois, C. A. (2020). Treating complex traumatic stress disorders in adults: scientific foundations and therapeutic models (2nd ed.). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.