Examining Complex PTSD: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

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Counseling for PTSD in Houston, Texas

The National Center for PTSD reports that around 5.2 million Americans suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in any given year. At nearly 2 percent of the country’s population, that’s a huge number. But did you also know there is something called Complex PTSD?


Typically, PTSD is related to a single experience, like an assault or car accident. But what about people who experienced troubled childhoods, repeated abuse by family members or a spouse, were trafficked or had other long-term traumatic experiences? This is the kind of trauma associated with Complex PTSD, treatment for which takes into account the complicated and serious psychological issues that come with extended exposure to trauma that is not generally treated effectively by standard PTSD therapy.


Because Complex PTSD does meet so many of the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, it is frequently misdiagnosed as PTSD. You may see the acronym DESNOS come up if you do further research on Complex PTSD on your own. To create awareness of the severeness of chronic exposure to trauma, some medical professionals have proposed other names for the disorder, such as Disorders of Extreme Stress Not Otherwise Specified (DESNOS) or Developmental Trauma Disorder (DTD), which specifically refers to chronic trauma experienced by children and adolescents.


We’ve already mentioned some causes of Complex PTSD or DESNOS above, but listing them can be helpful in assisting our thinking about what Complex PTSD is and how it is diagnosed and treated.


Causes of Complex PTSD 

  • Prisoner of War camps
  • Domestic Violence
  • Prolonged physical/sexual abuse as a child
  • Long-term emotional abuse (as an adult or as a child)
  • Organized sex trafficking rings
  • Brothels
  • Being “pimped out” by a partner
  • Abuse of domestic laborers
  • Long-term care for a mentally ill family member


As this list makes painfully evident, one of the most important aspects of Complex PTSD is being trapped in a situation. Sometimes, as in an abusive relationship, the captivity may be more emotional than physical, but that does not make it less real or less traumatic.

Take this PTSD test and find out if you have PTSD symptoms.

Symptoms of Complex PTSD

  • Difficulty regulating emotions. The sufferer does not experience consistent or logical emotions and has difficulty regulating them and their expression. This may result in persistent “low” feelings, suicidal tendencies, or explosive anger.
  • Engaging in unhealthy behaviors. Survivors may engage in forms of self-harm as a means of attempting to take back control of their bodies. They may abuse substances for the numbing effect it has on their pain or temporarily forget about the past and relieve anxiety.
  • Difficulty having relationships. This may manifest itself in different ways. For example, someone who experiences may Complex PTSD may be very distrustful and isolate herself. Another sufferer may be fixated on searching for a “rescuer” or worse, a relationship with someone who is controlling -a maladaptive coping mechanism that prevents the individual from being in control of his or her own life.
  • Feelings of guilt or shame. This distorted self-perception causes individuals to think of themselves as totally different from “normal” people. They may blame themselves for their abuse or their Complex PTSD symptoms. Chronic migraines are another physical symptom.

Treatments for Complex PTSD

Courses of treatment for Complex PTSD generally follow those effective for treating standard PTSD, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, group therapy, or a mix of various treatments, according to the individual. For survivors of chronic trauma, special attention is paid to issues of power and control. Therapy also works to help normalize their ability to have relationships, so that they feel safe and connected during everyday life and in their interactions with others.

If you’d like more information on getting treatment for complex PTSD, give us a call at 832-559-2622 or click here to schedule an appointment with Becky Reiter today.

Here are more articles on trauma and PTSD:

Living with Your Spouse’s PTSD: 4 Ways to Cope

4 Steps to Recovering from Trauma

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