What is complex trauma?

Trauma is an experience that happens too soon, too much, or too fast, or when there was an absence of what should have been provided.

Trauma is an experience that happens too soon, too much, or too fast for us to handle, or when there was an absence of what should have been provided. As a result, our systems are overwhelmed and we can’t find resolution. Trauma is very common!

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can arise when we experience one or several distressing events. Examples are assaults, floods, bushfires, accidents or wars. This can lead us to re-experiencing the events in the present, for example through flashbacks, nightmares or intrusive memories, emotions and bodily sensations. Sometimes it makes us want to withdraw from life to avoid those types of situations, thoughts or memories being triggered. We might also experience hypervigilance, or a sense of always feeling on guard and under threat, never quite being able to relax.

Complex trauma can have all of the above qualities but usually happens repeatedly over a long period of time in relationships, often from early childhood. In essence, it occurs when the attachment relationship between child and caregiver is interrupted. This is sometimes described as attachment trauma or attachment injury. Complex trauma is usually associated with the terms abuse and neglect and may span across the sexual, physical, emotional and verbal domains. Neglect can be hard to identify because we think nothing was visibly wrong. It relates to the absence of, for example, emotional support, care or protection in childhood. It’s common when our caregivers have also had their own challenges, and couldn’t meet our emotional needs. It’s also cultural! Many Western cultures simply don’t support emotional wellbeing which leads to poor mental wellbeing.

Complex trauma also arises in adult times, for example when somebody is struggling in a domestic violence situation. When there is complex trauma, we may struggle in ways similar to PTSD. In addition, we may also find it difficult to regulate our emotions, we may feel worthless and chronically ashamed and like a failure, and we may have difficulties in sustaining relationships and feeling close to others. When complex trauma occurs from early childhood, it has developmental effects, meaning that our brains and nervous systems are shaped by it.

The impacts of trauma depends on the context and severity or longevity of it and can also be influenced by cultural or socio-economic contexts. When we’ve experienced trauma we may also experience dissociation. This means that we may feel removed from our own body or the world at large. Things may feel strange, unreal or detached. It can be difficult to engage in mindfulness because dissociation is the opposite of mindful attention.

The term intergenerational trauma refers to trauma that is passed down from one generation to the next. This is very common. For example, a traumatic event may affect an individual or a whole family, or even a whole cultural group or country. The effects of war are a common example. The term intergenerational trauma was first used in the context of Holocaust survivors because studies found that Holocaust survivors passed on their trauma to their children. This can happen through parenting behaviours when parents themselves were struggling with the effects of trauma or through epigenetics, meaning that the way or genes express themselves may be altered when our ancestors had trauma. Many First Nations peoples and other cultural minority groups across the world are affected by intergenerational trauma.

You may also hear people refer to ‘big T’ and ‘little t’ trauma. This means that trauma doesn't necessarily have to present as a big event, such as, for example, a big disaster or act of violence. It can also present as the ‘little t’ variation, which is lots of seemingly little things happening to a person because they grow up in an unsupportive environment. That’s often the case when we talk about complex trauma. In my case, it took me years to realise that my experiences were traumatic. For years I said ‘my childhood was fine, average, nothing happened’...until I realised the many little t’s and the many ‘nothings’ had a profound impact on my brain and functioning, and were inextricably linked to my addictive urges and behaviours.

Read more in my blog about my personal trauma recovery, which I'm sharing to give just one little example of what recovery can look like. 

Categories: : Healing, Recovery, Trauma

Acknowledgement of Country
I recognise the history, culture, diversity and value of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and acknowledge their Elders past and present.

I acknowledge that sovereignty has never been ceded, and support reconciliation, justice and the recognition of the ongoing living culture of all First Nations people by providing welcoming and culturally informed services. 

Embracing inclusivity and diversity,  I also support a culture of inclusion, respect, choice, voice and diversity and am committed to supporting all people to be mentally well and engaged in their communities.