What Are the Causes and Symptoms of Complex Trauma?

When searching for the causes and symptoms of complex trauma, you can’t focus on the present. Rather, the origins of complex trauma lie in the past.

The experiences that form complex trauma have so many layers and come to interfere with the many aspects of your life. In many cases, they reach all the way back to childhood, a very formative time. Also, they influence your perception of yourself and your self-worth.

This is why it’s called “complex trauma.”

Just as with early positive affirming experience, the negative effects of complex trauma continue to reverberate into the future.

The Toll of Repeated Exposure to Trauma

First, let’s consider what causes complex trauma. Complex trauma occurs when you are exposed to not just one, but repeated traumatic events. This happens over an extended period of time.

For instance, a child growing up in an abusive household will often be exposed to traumatic experiences in the form of both physical and verbal abuse. Or for someone who is already an adult, complex trauma might be connected to experiencing the trauma of war. Frequent deployments to conflict zones will have an effect on anybody, even well-trained soldiers.

For both the child and the adult, complex trauma typically results in post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

The symptoms related to PTSD are:

  • Nightmares
  • Disturbing and intrusive thoughts
  • Anxiety
  • Experiencing flashbacks
  • Lack of quality sleep
  • Agitation
  • A need to always be vigilant of potential threats

However, people who experience complex trauma can manifest PTSD differently than those who went through a singular traumatic event.

Internalizing the Trauma

One way that complex trauma complicates PTSD is by internalizing the trauma. This means that people who have been through this kind of trauma have taken those experiences and grafted them onto who they are as individuals.

For instance, those with complex trauma may feel deeply ashamed and guilty. Yet, the reality is that they didn’t do anything wrong. However, the experiences they had reinforced this negative self-image.

Consider, for example:

  • A child that has an abusive parent believes they are “worthless” because the parent repeatedly told them so throughout their childhood.
  • A soldier that has lived through war may feel guilty for what they have done in combat. These experiences can create an internal narrative that they are “evil.”
  • A teenager at school is bullied repeatedly over their appearance. This can instill in them a negative belief about their body image.

As you can see, experiences like these are building on top of one another in layers. They also create a ripple effect that influences not just a person’s self-image, but the choices they make in life too.

Identifying with Their Abuser

Another symptom of complex trauma is that, in some instances, the abused begin to identify with the abuser. This makes sense, to some degree, when it comes to understanding the symptoms of complex trauma and PTSD.

If someone experiences trauma as a child due to the actions of a parent, they could easily slip into this mindset. After all, even though what the parent did was wrong, they are still mom or dad to the child. The child might make excuses for their parent’s behavior or blame themselves for the abuse.

All of this really complicates the picture. If left untreated, the child can carry those beliefs with them into adulthood.

If you have experienced complex trauma, there is hope. Treatment can help with resolving the symptoms and decrease the effects on your life.

You can’t change the past. However, it is possible to alter the course of your future. Consider reaching out to a therapist who is trained and understands complex trauma therapy.



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