PTSD stands for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,
a condition officially recognised in 1980
to describe exposure to a relatively brief
but devastating event: typically, a war, a
rape, an accident or terrorist incident. Complex
PTSD, recognised in 1994, describes exposure
to something equally devastating but over
a very long time, normally the first 15 years
of life: emotional neglect, humiliation, bullying,
disrupted attachment, violence and anger.
A lot of us, as many as twenty percent, are
wandering the world as undiagnosed sufferers
of ‘Complex PTSD’. We know that all isn’t
well, but we don’t have a term to capture
the problem, don’t connect up our ailments
- and have no clue who to seek out or what
treatment might help.
Here are twelve leading symptoms of Complex
PTSD. We might think about which ones, if
any, apply to us (more than 7 might be a warning
sign worth listening to):
- A feeling that nothing is safe: wherever
we are, we have an apprehension that something
awful is about to happen. We are in a state
of hypervigilance. The catastrophe we expect
often involves a sudden fall from grace. We
will be hauled away from current circumstances
and humiliated, perhaps put in prison and
denied all access to anything kind or positive.
We won’t necessarily be killed, but to all
intents, our life will be over. People may
try to reassure us through logic that reality
won’t ever be that bad; but logic doesn’t
help. We’re in the grip of an illness, we
aren’t just a bit confused.
- We can never relax; this shows up in our
body. We are permanently tense or rigid. We
have trouble with being touched, perhaps in
particular areas of the body. The idea of
doing yoga or meditation isn’t just not
appealing, it may be positively revolting
(we may call it ‘hippie’ with a sneer)
and – deeper down – terrifying. Probably are
bowels are troubled too; our anxiety has a
direct link to our digestive system.
- We can’t really ever sleep and wake up
very early – generally in a state of high
alarm, as though, during rest, we have let
down our guard and are now in even greater
danger than usual.
- We have, deep in ourselves, an appalling
self-image. We hate who we are. We think we’re
ugly, monstrous, repulsive. We think we’re
awful, possibly the most awful person in the
world. Our sexuality is especially perturbed:
we feel predatory, sickening, shameful.
- We’re often drawn to highly unavailable
people. We tell ourselves we hate ‘needy’
people. What we really hate are people who
might be too present for us. We make a beeline
for who people who are disengaged, won’t
want warmth from us and who are struggling
with their own undiagnosed issues around avoidance.
- We are sickened by people who want to be
cosy with us: we call these people ‘puppyish’
‘revolting’ or ‘desperate’.
- We are prone to losing our temper very
badly; sometimes with other people, more often
just with ourselves. We aren’t so much ‘angry’
as very very worried: worried that everything
is about to become very awful again. We are
shouting because we’re terrified. We look
mean, we’re in fact defenceless.
- We are highly paranoid. It’s not that
we expect other people will poison us or follow
us down the street. We suspect that other
people will be hostile to us, and will be
looking out for opportunities to crush and
humiliate us (we can be mesmerically drawn
to examples of this happening on social media,
the unkindest and most arbitrary environment,
which anyone with C-PTSD easily confuses with
the whole world, chiefly because it operates
like their world: randomly and very meanly).
- We find other people so dangerous and worrying
that being alone has huge attractions. We
might like to go and live under a rock forever.
In some moods, we associate bliss with not
to having to see anyone again, ever.
- We don’t register to ourselves as suicidal
but the truth is that we find living so exhausting
and often so unpleasant, we do sometimes long
not to have to exist any more.
- We can’t afford to show much spontaneity.
We’re rigid about routines. Everything may
need to be exactly so, as an attempt to ward
off looming chaos. We may clean a lot. Sudden
changes of plans can feel indistinguishable
from the ultimate downfall we dread.
- In a bid to try to find safety, we may
throw ourselves into work: amassing money,
fame, honour, prestige. But of course, this
never works. The sense of danger and self-disgust
is coming from so deep within, we can never
reach a sense of safety externally: a million
people can be cheering, but one jeer will
be enough once again to evoke the self-disgust
we have left unaddressed inside. Breaks from
work can feel especially worrying: retirement
and holidays create unique difficulties.
What is the cure for the arduous symptoms
of Complex PTSD? Partly we need to courageously
realise that we have come through something
terrible that we haven’t until now properly
digested – because we haven’t had a kind,
stable environment in which to do so (it’s
always hard to get one but we’ve also been
assiduous in avoiding doing so). We are a
little wonky because, long ago, the situation
was genuinely awful: when we were small, someone
made us feel extremely unsafe even though
they might have been our parent; we were made
to think that nothing about who we were was
acceptable; in the name of being ‘brave’,
we had to endure very difficult separations,
perhaps repeated over years; no one reassured
us of our worth. We were judged with intolerable
harshness. The damage may have been very obvious,
but – more typically, it might have unfolded
in objectively innocent circumstances. A casual
visitor might never have noticed. There might
have been a narrative, which lingers still,
that we were part of a happy family. One of
the great discoveries of researchers in Complex
PTSD is that emotional neglect within outwardly
high achieving families can be as damaging
as active violence in obviously deprived ones.
If any of this rings bells, we should stop
being brave. We should allow ourselves to
feel compassion for who we were; that might
not be easy, given how hard we tend to be
with ourselves. The next step is to try to
identify a therapist or counsellor trained
in how to handle Complex PTSD. That may well
be someone trained specifically in dealing
with trauma, which involves directing enormous
amounts of compassion towards one’s younger
self – in order to have the courage to face
the trauma and recognise its impact on one’s
Rather touchingly, and simply, the root cause
of Complex PTSD is an absence of love – and
the cure for it follows the same path: we
need to relearn to love someone we very unfairly
hate beyond measure: ourselves.
The School of Life offers online psychotherapy
to people all around the world. Our therapists
are highly trained and accredited – and are
a vital source of kindness, solace and wisdom
for life’s most difficult moments. Click the
link to find out more.