How Complex Trauma and C-PTSD Effect Emotions
Therapy for complex trauma begins with understanding the symptoms. You likely experience intense emotions that catch you by surprise and you have trouble returning to a place that feels more calm and collected. These intense emotions can occur during conflicts with others, when you feel like you’re failing at work or in your relationship, or when someone criticizes you or gives you negative feedback, to name a few.
These intense emotional experiences result in anxiety and/or panic, feeling overwhelmed, powerless, or helpless. Sometimes these experiences lead to low energy, brain fogginess, not wanting to be around others, and thoughts of wanting to end it all or just not wake up. In addition to the strong emotional reactions, there’s often an accompanying negative inner critic putting you down for your feelings and reactions and telling you that you aren’t worthy or good enough.
Complex Trauma and Emotional Flashbacks
In the book, Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, Pete Walker defines emotional flashbacks as “sudden and often prolonged regressions to the overwhelming feeling-states of being an abused/abandoned child. These feeling states can include overwhelming fear, shame, alienation, rage, grief, and depression.”
Complex Trauma and the Fear of Abandonment
This means when you are feeling overwhelmed and panicked because you feel like you are failing at your work, you are likely having an emotional flashback that brings you back to a child state where you are fearful of the abandonment of your parent’s love because you are not being perfect.
Although the inner critic can be downright abusive, it usually shows up to protect those intense feelings of vulnerability of the inner child. It also tries to prevent the situations that could lead to abandonment, i.e. if the critic prevents you from making any mistakes you will be loved and not abandoned.
Complex Trauma and Depression
Additionally, the experiences of anxiety and panic are the activation of the nervous system preparing to fight or flee (from the previous experience of trauma), but when those actions are unavailable and there is nothing left to do, collapse happens. This is when depressive symptoms such as brain fogginess, low energy, and suicidal thoughts show up.
Complex Trauma and C-PTSD Therapy
Complex trauma and C-PTSD are the result of childhood trauma (growing up with parents who fought often, were abusing alcohol or drugs, were emotionally, physically, and or sexually abusive, or were dealing with their own mental health issues), parents who were overly critical, or parents who experienced childhood trauma themselves. This results in caregivers not being attuned to your emotional well-being or able to help you regulate your emotions.
My Approach to Complex Trauma
Recovery from complex trauma and C-PTSD needs to happen in relationships. I work to provide a safe, non-judgmental space, where you can be yourself and express your needs. Slowly we work to build trust so it’s possible for you to speak up if I say something that doesn’t feel right or if you need something different. If I mess up I will own the misstep so you feel heard and validated.
You will unlearn life-long patterns that have protected you, but no longer serve you. This will result will in increased self-esteem and self-worth. You will learn to understand the triggers behind your emotional flashbacks and process the experiences that cause these reactions. Sensorimotor Psychotherapy is the main approach I use because the model focuses on attachment in relationships and monitors the window of tolerance, which is a framework for tracking the activation of fight/flight/freeze/collapse in the nervous system.