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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

The Multifaceted Causes of C-PTSD, and Ways to Heal

Part 2: Recovery is possible, but like the wound, healing is multi-faceted.

Key points

  • C-PTSD can and does often develop in the context of relational trauma.
  • C-PTSD occurs as an individual’s body and mind organize around the trauma impacts.
  • Recovering from C-PTSD begins with seeking professional support, ideally with a well-versed clinician in trauma and C-PTSD.
Jamie Grill Atlas/Stocksy
Source: Jamie Grill Atlas/Stocksy

In the prior essay in this series, we defined what C-PTSD is and what it can feel like.

In this article, part two of the series, I explain how and why C-PTSD develops and what it may take to heal and recover.

C-PTSD can develop if an individual is repeatedly exposed to traumatic events and situations.

This can, of course, look like external, systemic events such as living through wars, living in poverty, and/or being a refugee and experiencing displacement, food insecurity, insufficient housing, and safety.

But C-PTSD can also develop in the context of relational trauma, where a child or adolescent experiences abuse and neglect from their caregivers, and/or an adult experienced repeated abuse from their romantic partners.

Whether an externalized event or a relational event or if the person experiencing it is a child or an adult, what makes the event traumatic is that it eclipses the individual’s subjective ability to cope with the stressor(s).

When this happens, the symptoms of C-PTSD may begin to show as the individual attempts to cope and organize their experience as best they can with their limited resources and support.

For instance, a young girl who, because of the relational trauma she suffered and with no safe, secure, attuned parent to turn to for comfort, may start to turn to food. Without a safe relational attachment, she begins to attach to food, and the seeds of her bulimia journey are sown.

Another example: a boy, having experienced abuse at the hands of his caregivers, may grow up believing that no one can be trusted, relationships are not safe, and may be disposed to react to every perceived and actual slight and conflict with rage and a fighting disposition. He grew up unsafe and powerless, so he now guards himself greatly from being unsafe and getting hurt again.

C-PTSD and its attendant symptoms are an individual’s body and mind organizing the trauma and its impacts in the way they know best to keep the individual safe.

And for a while, the ways that C-PTSD manifests can keep someone safe and functioning for some time.

Eventually, it may stop working so well. The safeguards, the symptoms of C-PTSD, that guard against danger and intolerable feelings in the first place stop being effective.

A young woman’s health is threatened by her compulsive bingeing and purging. A young man lives in depressive isolation, lonely for lack of any real, connected relationships in his life. At this point, when the symptoms of C-PTSD stop being effective, most people tend to seek out help.

Help is possible if you live with C-PTSD.

So what is the treatment for C-PTSD?

For individuals dealing with C-PTSD and the clinicians who work with them, it can be, quite frankly, sometimes hard to identify and understand that what you are dealing with is C-PTSD.

Not only is the diagnosis not included in the DSM as explained earlier, but so often, many of the clustered symptoms of C-PTSD overlap with mood and personality disorders and may even be missed if a comorbid disorder (like bulimia or panic disorder) exists or if a trauma background is dismissed or diminished by either party (again: it is possible to be high-functioning and come from a trauma background and still live with the symptoms).

It’s important if you think that you see yourself in this article or in this concept of C-PTSD to talk to your therapist about it (or, if you don’t have a therapist, seek a trauma-informed therapist out). When we shine a light on things as they really are, giving something its proper name gives us a better chance to work with them and heal.

Recovery from C-PTSD is and will be, for many, multi-dimensional work as the wounding is multi-dimensional.

There’s the relational wounding component and the need for relational healing, which can happen in the context of a safe, supportive, attuned, and reparative experience with a trained professional (like a therapist) or with a dear friend or securely attached romantic partner.

There is the somatic level of the work, the need to regulate and retrain the nervous system and body that the world is safe and to help it calm down and respond appropriately versus in default.

There is the cognitive level of the work, which includes recalling, narrating, and making meaning and sense of memories and history, as well as forming and internalizing newer, more constructive beliefs about oneself, others, and the world.

There is the emotional level of the work, learning or relearning emotional regulation, emotional expression, even being able to identify emotions in the body.

And there is life skills work that may have been missed or impeded by the complexity of the relational trauma.

Work like managing money wisely, seeking out and nurturing a fulfilling career, practicing self-supporting hygiene and personal care habits, learning the myriad complex logistical skills that can lead to a whole and fulfilled adult life.

The best way to recover from C-PTSD begins with seeking professional support, ideally with a well-versed clinician in trauma and C-PTSD.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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