• Rebecca Letterman

Thoughts From This Therapist: C-PTSD What is it?

The works in this series will always be the opinion of the writer (me, Rebecca). Therapy and healing is not a one-size-fits-all box, so keep that in mind when reading. Everything in this series will come from my experiences both as a therapist and patient. I hope it gives you insight into different perspectives, and gives me a place to share thoughts on topics I feel are important. Enjoy!




Trigger Warning: This post discusses PTSD and trauma. Although it is an overview of the diagnostic criteria there is still the possibility of being triggered. It is completely alright for you to not read this right now or to take a break while reading this.

NOTE: This writing is not intended to be used for self diagnoses. All diagnosing should be done by a trained professional. The information being provided is just for your personal knowledge and understanding.


In more recent years there has been talk of something called C-PTSD which stands for Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. This seemingly new term is an unofficial diagnosis for a disorder that has been around a long time but often overlooked. Today I will explain to you what C-PTSD is; how it is different from PTSD and other important pieces of information to help you understand what C-PTSD is.


Last time I shared with you a pretty in depth description of the diagnostic criteria for PTSD. Well, take all of that and add on to it some intense struggles with emotional regulation; difficulty forming and maintaining relationships, more instances of dissociation; a strong sense of guilt and self blame to the point where there is even an unhealthy view of the abuser; an inability to understand the systems in ones life and more often than not the emotions displayed do not match the words or thoughts of the person. Some of these can also happen in PTSD but usually on a much smaller scale then with C-PTSD.


Other than the symptoms associated, the cause behind C-PTSD is also very different. PTSD typically is a result of one traumatic experience that happens in a person’s life. C-PTSD is the result of multiple traumatic events that occur over a period of time. Most commonly C-PTSD develops when the trauma is the result of someone close to the individual who causes repeated traumatic experiences over the course of months or years while the individual is still young; usually childhood through adolescence. The most common types of traumatic experiences associated with C-PTSD include: physical abuse; neglect, sexual abuse; molestation; genocide; domestic violence, slavery, sex trafficking; and kidnapping and with all of these the individual often feels like they have no power or control and they are not able to escape or be rescued.


There are a lot of differences that are important to keep in mind. When a traumatic experience comes at the hands of a loved one or someone who is supposed to protect you over a stranger it has a stronger emotional impact. This is one of the main reasons C-PTSD is so much more complex and can be more difficult to treat as well. The harm done goes very deep and it takes a long time to work through all of those traumatic experiences.


C-PTSD is not officially recognized in the DSM-5 which is why it is not as commonly well known. And due to the number of symptoms that overlap with other disorders it is often very commonly misdiagnosed. One of the most common diagnoses that it is mistaken for is BPD (borderline personality disorder). A big concern about this is that the treatment for each is very different and BPD says “this is who you are” whereas C-PTSD says “this is what happened to you”.


Another common misdiagnosis is ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Because children who are currently living through their complex traumas display similar characteristics of ADHD and trauma is not talked about well enough they are often slapped on the label of ADHD and are treated that way. Although this can be beneficial in getting supports at school it does nothing to help stop or prevent the trauma or treat the actual problem.


Complex is a perfect way to describe this disorder. C-PTSD is caused by bad things happening to individuals over and over which leaves this feeling of “when will things ever be better” or even of individuals thinking that this is the norm. When one bad thing happens it can be easier to pick yourself back up and keep going but when multiple bad things happen there comes a point in life where one wonders “what’s the point?”. A good majority of people who fit the criteria for C-PTSD often feel a hopelessness in life that is even deeper than what we talk about when we explore being hopeless with depression. On top of that they also just completely blame themselves and have this solid belief that they are fundamentally flawed somehow.


All of this is a result of the multiple abuses/traumas that they have suffered at the hands of their abuser(s). Although I have not talked about treatment yet (that will come later in the series) I do want to note that what works for treating PTSD doesn’t always work for treating C-PTSD because with C-PTSD you have to fight layers of trauma rather than one specific event.


In my opinion if we talked more openly about trauma I think we would find that more people suffer from C-PTSD then they do PTSD. And that these people experience their symptoms at a much higher rate.


C-PTSD has similarities to PTSD and is still its own beast. It is important for people to understand the differences so that they can better understand what they are seeing in others. And just because C-PTSD and PTSD are beasts that doesn’t mean there is not hope. Understanding is the first step in being able to heal.


Do you have any questions or comments about C-PTSD? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Let me know by leaving a comment below or tagging us on social media (@therapeutichealingjourney on Instagram and @llctherapeutic on Twitter).


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