When subjected to repeated or prolonged trauma we can develop an even more severe form of PTSD called complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD), which is more complicated and lasts longer than PTSD. While PTSD is often caused by a single, brief event, CPTSD results from exposure to long-term, persistent, repeated, or multiple experiences, including:
- Sexual assault
- Criminal assault
- Domestic violence
- Horrific accidents
- Loss of loved ones
- Substance use disorders
- Dysfunctional childhood
While PTSD causes emotional anguish, CPTSD impacts more severely, and for longer periods, in terms of, for example:
- Lack of bonding
- Fear of rejection
- Volatile emotions
- Distrust, uncertainty
- Personality disorders
- Behaviour disorders
- Substance use disorders
People who are subjected to prolonged or repetitive toxic stress can become so conditioned to unhealthy ways of coping with their extravagant burdens that they accept it as a natural, unavoidable part of their psyche. As a result, their problematic responses can last for decades before they realise that they need help.
CPTSD and childhood trauma
Children who grow up in dysfunctional homes are especially prone to contracting CPTSD. Their caretakers are usually inept role models and, as a result, these inexperienced children must develop their own strategies to balance their chaotic family lives with the demands of society. Their random, self-devised adaptations are often inconsistent with the development of a healthy adult persona.
Ultimately, children from dysfunctional backgrounds may grow into adults who are unable to control their emotions, environments and relationships, and their maladaptations can be passed on to their own children, unless they receive counselling for it.
CPTSD and trauma in adulthood
When someone is exposed to persistent stressful conditions for an extended time, or if they survive more than one horrific incident, the compounded traumatic impact can cause multiple disorders and result in CPTSD.
Anybody can encounter traumatic incidents more than once and, while some recover from it, many are severely affected for extended periods. Apart from that, people who perform duties like emergency and policing services are frequently exposed to trauma. Prominent figures, who are closely scrutinised by the public, also endure ongoing toxic stress levels. In fact, CPTSD has become a major social problem in everyday modern life.
When CPTSD victims struggle to cope with the emotional flood, they often turn to alcohol and drugs for comfort, thus adding further disorders to their existing burden. Some adopt behaviours that exclude substance intoxication, such as the abnormal pursuit of sexual gratification, and similar habits, to provide distraction or to reinforce their self-perception.
Physical and mental effects of prolonged stress
We react both physically and emotionally to what we perceive as threats. Our muscles become tense and we assume a state of high mental alert. Usually we relax when the threat disappears, but our brains always store the information it receives.
Our neural pathways change in response to the signals it receives from our external senses. When a set of brain neurons are frequently activated by a specific threat, the brain can register that stimulant as a permanent source of danger and create a new “alarm” pathway to ensure our survival. This can force us into being constantly on guard or to over-react every time we experience something that reminds us of that stimulant.
A persistent state of mental stress causes anxiety, depression, and many other emotional excesses, while constant physical tension has been scientifically bound to numerous physical illnesses. Fortunately, we have the ability, known as neuroplasticity, to change our neural pathways and to reinstate normal responses. Sometimes we just have to learn how to use this ability to avoid unnecessary distress.
There is a form of treatment referred to as prolonged-exposure psychotherapy (PE). PE is a method that intentionally exposes patients to the memories, emotions, objects and situations they are trying to avoid. By frequently confronting them with it, and teaching them how to cope with it in healthy ways, therapists condition patients to feel less threatened by it.
PE is not the only form of psychotherapy available to patients. It does not suit everybody, so a number of other techniques, and combinations of them, have been developed. CPTSD is a complex disorder that requires extensive therapeutic knowledge and experience to treat. There are alternative remedies, but psychotherapy is widely regarded as the most effective solutiond for healing CPTSD.
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