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Trauma and Complex Trauma

When unpleasant experiences occur in developmental years, they contribute to the way the brain works when it matures, both in the way it functions and the way it organizes a person’s thinking. Traditionally people tend to think of ‘trauma’ as a bad experience like a bad car accident, or a soldier who has been in war, but we now know that trauma is more common and many adults have suffered multiple traumatic experiences in their childhoods or developing years. Childhood and adolescent traumas have a huge impact on the way children and then the adult person functions. Witnessing domestic violence or experiencing abuse as a child is very traumatic. An absent parent or emotionally distant parent can also cause a child to feel traumatized.


The brain is complex and trauma causes the brain to adapt to help the person survive. There are many mental and physical responses to trauma. Complex trauma differs from PTSD as follows:

  1. The trauma occurs repeatedly and cumulatively (as in a child that has spent years seeing parents fight and abuse each other).

  2. The abuser often also has a dual role for the child (as in they were the child’ parent or caregiver or significant other adult in their life)

  3. The abuse took place during developmentally vulnerable times such as childhood or adolescence.


The trauma can be invasive physical, verbal or sexual abuse or it can be more subtle, such as living in a home that was emotionally unpredictable and frequently critical (e.g. living with an alcoholic or an emotionally erratic parent, who imposed their own anxieties onto the child). In these situations, the child spends all day trying to read the emotional tone of the caregiver in order to predict how to avoid trouble. The child is often abused by a parent that they also depend on for food, shelter and clothing. This adds complexity to the trauma.


When a child I abused, they cannot receive the love or nurture that promotes an ability to understand self. That child lacks a sense of safety and security, conditioned instead to interact with their world from a heightened state of threat assessment, causing them to socialize without connection, trust or attachment. It is difficult for that child to modulate emotions because significant others dictate the emotional state. For clients who have experienced complex trauma, fight, flight or freeze is their normal state, leading to an overactive sympathetic nervous system and significantly reduced emotional choices. Problems with sleep, anxiety, digestion, relationships and many other problems occur. For adults who have experienced this kind of trauma in childhood, the wrong beliefs that override everything for this client are ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘everything is my fault’. Relationships become difficult and the emotional responses of this person may often sabotage them, causing them to feel out of control with fear, panic, anger, sorrow and sometimes even the physical body. The person may feel disconnected from themselves and their experience and their emotional reactions may leave them feeling like a child. They react in ways that are hugely disproportionate to what would be expected because the body and brain operate from past trauma times where they simply were trying to survive. So many physical problems can be connected to complex trauma including chronic illness and headaches, gastrointestinal problems, panic and anxiety, sleep problems, self-harm, eating disorders, addictions, depression, sexual dysfunction.


Because of the complexities, treatment requires specialized training. Clients need help grounding and stabilizing so they can stay present so that the deeper work can be approached. Helping clients who have had traumatic childhoods and the resultant life-controlling issues in adulthood takes time and much commitment from both therapist and client.


Children rather than being ‘resilient’ as many adults presume, are at the most vulnerable stage of development. One of the most damaging situations occurs when the effect of a traumatic event or events on a child are minimised. Rather than being most resilient (as adults often presume) children are in fact at the most vulnerable stage of development. Therapy can help someone who has experienced traumas to work through their pain and teach them to respond rather than react when things ‘trigger’ their past painful experiences.

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