Sarah Tate



Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Many people have contacted me recently to ask me about recovery and what is the time scale for this.

There is no answer to that question. Recovery cannot be measured in time, it is a variable entity, which can one minute appear to have been achieved, and the next minute, appear to elude us completely.

Many people who have suffered in a long term toxic relationship experience what is known in psychology circles as ‘Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or C-PTSD.

Whereas Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is usually the result of a one off major event or occurrence, C-PTSD is known to be caused after a person has suffered a long-term situation where he/she has felt a ‘loss of control’ due to emotional, or physical abuse, kidnapping, imprisonment, or long term exposure to unpleasant or crisis situations.

C-PTSD is, therefore, caused when a person has experienced sustained periods of extreme stress. Anybody who has been in a toxic relationship knows how prolonged and extreme that stress can be.

Don’t underestimate C-PTSD and the effects it can have on your life for many years after escape from the oppressive situation or toxic relationship.
C-PTSD is a psychological injury, and in the same way as a physical injury, it needs to be treated and healed over time. In many cases, it will recur, and you must always be aware of it, and how it can affect you and your relationships.
If you suspect you might be suffering from this illness, here are some of the classic symptoms:

• Feelings of dread or horror
• Feelings of inadequacy, worthlessness, shame and guilt
• Prone to bouts of depression
• Using alcohol, or drugs, to ‘block out’ the pain
• Insomnia
• Fits of rage
• Low self-esteem, which may even lead to self-harming
• Development of eating disorders
• Feeling ‘out of control’
• Blaming yourself for everything/ feeling you’re letting everybody down
• Loss of memory
• Feeling small, insignificant, or invisible
• Chronic fatigue

Of course, these symptoms may vary from person to person in both intensity and degree, but if you have been in a toxic relationship, and are now experiencing any of the above symptoms, then the chances are, that you are suffering from C-PTSD.

What can you do?

Be kind to yourself! It’s important to understand that you have been psychologically wounded, and that these wounds will take time and patience to heal. Recognizing the problem is a good first step, but you are going to need to get professional help in order to really deal with it fully.
Get the help of a professional counsellor or psychiatrist. In many cases, both medication and long term therapy will be required. Don’t be afraid to go and seek this out. There’s no shame in admitting we need some support from time to time.

Therapy should include help with the following:

Learning about ‘triggers’ which are likely to send you emotionally off course.
C-PTSD is associated with feelings of powerlessness. In a toxic relationship, a person has often found themselves trapped in impossible situations for prolonged periods of time, and this leaves scars on the mind. Emotional ‘triggers’ can be anything which remind us of the feelings of helplessness we once had. Anything can trigger an adverse reaction, but over time you will learn to recognize which situations tend to trigger you, and then you can learn to avoid them, or at least be prepared for the reaction you are likely to have.

Relapse Prevention: Learning how to address the urges to self-harm, use alcohol, have anger outbursts etc. Relapses can continue to take place many years after removal from the situation has occurred. The mind is a very powerful machine, it is intricate and complex. We are wired like computers and keeping the mind balanced can be tough when we’re presented with stresses and strains. We may bury or suppress emotions for many years, only to have them rear their heads again without warning. This can happen to all of us. It doesn’t mean we are weak, and it can be managed, so don’t give up hope.

Learning to deal with our emotions: The emotions experienced by a C-PTSD sufferer are intense and sometimes terrifying. This is due to the hyper vigilance caused by the psychological injury we have sustained. Dealing with the emotions can be hard, but it must be learned. It’s so important not to bury them or try to hide from them. A good therapist will use Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or CBT to help you to come to terms with these feelings.

Most importantly, you need to learn and understand that what happened was beyond your control. You didn’t cause it to happen, and you most certainly didn’t deserve for it to happen.

You also need to accept that it happened, and that the toxic situation can never be recovered or ‘repaired’. All you can do is learn, and move on. Accept also that it will not happen overnight, and that there is no miracle cure. It will take you a lot of hard work and determination to recover, and there will be pitfalls along the way. It can seem like such a mammoth task when you’re being overwhelmed with all the negative emotions C-PTSD brings. But rest assured it IS recoverable.

Also, be aware that C-PTSD is NOT a personality disorder. It has sometimes been (wrongly) linked to BPD, but this is mis-information! As I said before, it is an INJURY and has nothing to do with a personality disorder.

For more information/advice on C-PTSD, go here