Symptoms of Complex PTSD (C-PTSD)
August 10, 2022
5 Symptoms of Complex PTSD (C-PTSD)
1. Complex PTSD, Anxiety, and Depression
You experience anxiety and depression and often cycle between the two, having periods of high anxiety that turn into depressive episodes. The anxiety leaves you feeling drained at the end of the day and you don’t want to do anything, which leads to isolation and sometimes annoyance at people you care about. As depression takes over you might experience brain fog, lack of motivation, low mood, and have difficulty taking care of yourself and your obligations. When things are stressful in your life (work is demanding, your partner(s) is/are going through their own struggles, the last couple years of living through a global pandemic), it gets even harder to manage your symptoms. When things get really bad you might even wish you were dead and fantasize about ways it could happen. Thinking about not being alive is a familiar thought that you might have learned to live with from time to time.
*If you are currently experiencing suicidal thoughts with active plans please go to your nearest emergency room or call or text 988 for emergency assistance (but please know this may involve police).
2. An Inner Critic and Feelings of Shame
You have a critical voice in your head that rears its ugly head when you make mistakes, when you feel emotional, or when you think about experiences you regret from your past. Sometimes it shows up when you’re sick or in pain and sometimes it seems to come out of nowhere. The critic yells at you, calls you names, and/or curses at you to the point you feel fatally flawed or worthless, like a piece of shit. The inner critic attack that results in this toxic shame is usually the result of an emotional flashback. Pete Walker defines emotional flashbacks as “sudden and often prolonged regressions to the overwhelming feeling-states of being an abused/abandoned child.” Complex PTSD survivors did not often experience safety with their parents or caregivers because they were neglected or outright abused (physically, emotionally, sexually) and the critic developed to attempt to gain the love, approval, and acceptance of your parents. The inner critic is an adaptive strategy that is often carried into adulthood, showing up in your work, romantic relationships, and ultimately how you view yourself, especially in instances that remind you of being abused or abandoned.
It’s easy for you to take care of everyone around you, difficult to say no and let others down, and almost a habit (or instinct) to put yourself last. You prioritize your romantic partner(s), what your boss or co-workers want from you, and the needs of your friends, which results in your own needs and desires being neglected. You may even become resentful of others who don’t seem to care about others like you do. You may also find it difficult to take care of basic needs and find yourself missing meals, struggling to make time for exercise, or overall find it hard to maintain self-care habits. When you were neglected or abused and/or grew up in chaos, you were likely not provided with structures that taught you how to care for yourself (going to bed at a certain time, regular meals and clean clothes available, being given expectations to follow). If you had siblings you may have been put in charge of their emotional and physical care. These experiences become internalized, resulting in negative self-worth and a false sense of worth based on helping others, making it much harder to set boundaries and take care of yourself.
4. Overeating, Drinking, Busy-ness
You find it very difficult to relax or rest, may have been diagnosed with ADHD, or think you could have ADHD. Eating may be a source of comfort that feels out of your control. Drinking or smoking pot are your main sources of decompression. You overwork to avoid your emotions or stressors at home. In Sensorimotor Psychotherapy we call these resources survival strategies because they have played a role in helping you survive your trauma and emotional abandonment/neglect. These strategies, which are sometimes termed negative coping, play a role in regulating experiences of fight, flight, or freeze in the nervous system. Staying busy and overworking can be a flight response to perceived threat (which could be having emotions that don’t feel safe to experience). Drinking, smoking pot, and eating can be ways to numb or soothe activation of the nervous system. By understanding these strategies as resources that help you regulate your nervous system, you can begin to develop alternative strategies.
5. Chronic Pain/Digestive Issues
You experience chronic pain, tension, or headaches that are not easily explained. The pain or tension may relate to your experiences with emotions, stress, or relationships. This could be experienced as a physical guarding in the body (bracing, a shield over the chest, or headaches) when emotions feel too intense. Complex PTSD survivors learned to minimize their emotions due to the intensity of those feelings, combined with the lack of parental support or abuse/punishment from parents/caregivers for showing emotions. There may be a pattern of chronic tension in the shoulders, neck, lower back, or pelvis/hips that has led to the need for chiropractic care, massage, or physical therapy. Additionally, digestive issues like irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, and nausea can be associated with having Complex PTSD. This is due to the chronic activation of the nervous system, and the impact on digestion because your body is spending all of its energy on survival.
5 Ways to Cope with C-PTSD
C-PTSD results from injuries (physical and/or emotional) that occur within relationships so recovery and healing need to happen in relationships. When I work with someone, the beginning of the work focuses on developing a solid relationship where you feel safe enough to be honest about what you’ve been going through and I provide a lot of validation for your feelings (because they probably make a lot of sense in the context of your life experiences!). I also help folks find stability and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression by gaining new awareness of the nervous system and learn new coping strategies to manage intense emotions, overwhelm, and critical self-talk. It’s also important to help folks recognize how strategies (drinking, spending money, overeating, being busy, etc) that might be frustrating, have helped with survival. Once things are feeling more stable (you’re no longer feeling depressed, anxiety and/or ADHD is much more manageable), you’ve developed resources and tools to cope, we can start to move towards trauma processing and inner child work.
Cher Hamilton-TekautzCher Hamilton-Tekautz is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Chicago. She graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities with Master's in Social Work and a Graduate Certificate in Complementary Therapies and Healing Practices.
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