Effects of Complex Trauma: What is it and what do the scars left behind look like
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For decades, mental health professionals have directed their attention towards the aftermath of shocking events like accidents, wars, and natural disasters, analyzing the effects of "shock trauma." While these incidents undoubtedly leave their marks on individuals, a quieter yet equally profound form of trauma often goes unnoticed: Complex Trauma. Unlike the traditional diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Complex PTSD, or Complex Trauma delves into the lasting scars left by chronic childhood trauma, like emotional neglect and parentification, which often remain hidden from the surface.
The effects of complex trauma are often invisible - not quite as tangible as the trauma that we often think of. Not quite like physical assault or sexual abuse, the pain can be a result of what didn't happen, just as much as what did happen. Emotional abandonment or alienation may not bear visible wounds, but they inflict deep psychological injuries that often go unnoticed and unacknowledged.
Children raised amidst emotional neglect or abandonment might find themselves in a puzzling situation. Their experiences lack the starkness of explicit abuse, leading them to question the validity of emotions, responses, adverse way of moving through the world. This uncertainty can result in self-blame and shame, as they struggle to comprehend the weight of their emotional burdens. These individuals may even downplay their experiences (and lack of experiences) by comparing it dismissively to more visible forms of abuse.
Recent research has begun to illuminate the far-reaching consequences of childhood relational and attachment injuries. The repercussions of such trauma extend far beyond adolescence, impacting emotional regulation, behavior, and attention throughout adulthood. These unresolved issues can manifest in various clinical presentations that more and more people are becoming familiar with such as Bipolar Disorder, ADHD, Borderline Personality Disorder, and even chronic physical pain.
One of the challenges with this "invisible trauma" is the, due to it's invisible nature, it can be difficult for those struggling with it to know how to name it. It's not like Chickenpox, it's not one-size-fits-all. There are signs, however, that point to childhood relational wounds being at the crux of adult issues:
You Become Disassociated or "Feel Numb Inside"
Toxic family dynamics has the power to put childhood on a perpetual hold. Our truest selves are free, fully alive, have a level of spontaneity and excitement, and emotional neglect from caretakers can lead to burying those parts of us. This kind of disconnection doesn't happen overnight. It presents itself after years of excitement being met with coldness, passions going downplayed, being silenced. The pain became so great that the brain and body had no choice but to disassociate, in order to protect you. That disconnection has gone on for so long that now you can move through the world and function, but emotion is muted, relationships are dulled, and there's an emptiness there.
You Feel, "Something's Wrong With Me"
Children naturally attach blame to themselves when things happen to them. When a child is bullied, it's natural for them to internalize that they have done something wrong somehow. In households where toxic family dynamics are at play, there is often a "scapegoat," or a particular individual who is made out to be "the problem." It may have been termed, "too sensitive," or "too much," or was unspoken yet implied in many subtle ways across time. For children who experience this on repeat across the development, they will grow into people who have internalized that they are defective somehow. Disgusting, ugly, stupid, flawed. Your mantra becomes, "nothing I do is good enough."
You May Become Highly Anxious
When parents are emotionally unstable or there's a need to caretake them and their emotions, we become the "little adult." Those that have experienced this have had to remain hyper-vigilant, always watching for the slightest fluctuation in their caretaker's mood. This hypervigilance around emotion doesn't just go away - it follows into adulthood. The nervous system's baseline is at a state of hyper-arousal. You can't relax, you feel like you must always be "on" in some way, you might be irritable or "on edge" often. Perhaps you struggle with insomnia, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and other anxious habits. The body stores more memories than our mind does. As a result of complex childhood trauma, you may feel like a frightened child living in an adult's body.
Coping Might Look Like Compulsions and Addiction
Our brain is designed to protect us; when we come across a particularly difficult or traumatic situation, it will be stored in a way that is ‘frozen in time’ as complex trauma. We may not even remember it. We are not sure what triggers us, but our suppressed memories come out in the form of uncontrollable mood swings, persistent sadness, depression, and explosive anger.
Through addictive behaviors of any form, from drinking, spending, eating to compulsive sex, we try to either A) numb away the pain that we try so hard not to feel, or B) fill the inner void. However, this can escalate into a compulsive cycle, for the numbing/filling effect never lasts long, and the moment their effect ceases, we reach for more. It is a dead-end escape route that never leads anywhere.
Intimacy and Love Scare the Hell Out of You
For those who were caught inside the web of toxic family dynamics for so long, the concepts of trust, interdependence, and acceptance can be foggy and distant. The vulnerability required to embrace these ideals might seem unbearable for a heart covered in scars. Life unfolds for you as a balancing act between the yearning for connection and the terror of vulnerable intimacy. After having been betrayed by those who were supposed to love and support you, you may unconsciously decide that you can no longer take any pain and disappointment. On the other hand, if you grew up in a chaotic household, or if your parents were overprotective or overbearing, you may now fear being smothered, losing control, or losing a sense of individuality. We fear being asked for too much, and thus distance ourselves.
You Seem to Damage the Love You Do Have
Neuroscientists have found that parents’ responses to our attachment-seeking behaviors, especially during the first two years of our lives, encode our view of the world. If as infants, we have consistent attachment interactions with an attuned, available, and nurturing caregiver, we will be able to develop a sense of safety and trust. In contrast, when our parents are emotionally unavailable to us, we internalize the message that the world is a frightening place; when we are in need, no one will be there. This results in deep fear of abandonment. As adults, any kind of distance, even a brief one, may trigger you to re-experience the original pain of being left alone, dismissed, or neglected. Your fear could trigger survival modes such as denial, clinging, avoidance, dismissing others, lashing out in relationships, or the pattern of sabotaging relationships to avoid potential rejection.
Fear of rejection or abandonment may also cause you to put up with a damaging relationship or stay in an abusive one. The message that you received from your toxic family dynamics unhealed wounds tells you that being mistreated or degraded is still better than being on your own.
You Get in Your Own Way of Success
Your family turmoil might have led you to believe your success and happiness would threaten your siblings, attract attention or jealousy, and somehow brand you as ‘arrogant’ if you were high-achieving. Perhaps you carry a ‘survivor guilt’ that says if you achieve more than others, you are betraying them. Subconsciously and unknowingly, you may become frightened of your power. You expect little from yourself and others out of necessity, because too high of expectations put you at too high of risk for pain in the face of unpredictability and explosiveness.
You do not have to continue living trapped in the dark shadows of an upbringing that you did not create. Healing from these wounds is possible. Through corrective experiences and safe relationship, you can uncover a path forward and step into a life where you are able to embrace joy.
Harv Rev Psychiatry. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2015 May 1.
Ford, J.D., Courtois, C.A. Complex PTSD and borderline personality disorder. 8, 16 (2021).
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