Complex PTSD: An Experiential Explanation

Yesterday, I had a panic attack. The day before that I had two. Today, I’ve been leaving my body a bit – dissociating. I’ve had to take special care to remain focused and centered. And that’s been a real task. I also need to call out that the last few days, I’ve thrown out my regular sleep patterns by getting to bed later than usual.

The negative undercurrent that oozes through and around my mind’s eye is probably apparent to others: I avoid social conversations, I isolate, and I crave carbs. Jesus, how I crave carbs. And sugar. Gimme gimme gimme! Give me something that will make me feel something other than fear and anxiety about the impending doom! So the story goes.

And my thoughts get darker. My imaginative mind, my addiction to fantasy has been thrashing wildly in an effort to get me to bite. I’ll be honest; this week I have nibbled on occasion. How could I not believe the stories my mind tells me about “The Future”? If I feel horrible now, so the logic goes, then how can it possibly be better in the future? Recovery, a part of me thinks, must involve no negative emotions whatsoever. Ha! For years, this logic has been fed in a dank little room in the corner of my mind.

I find myself shutting down when I get like this. I suppose “healthy” people just deal with the anxiety. They acknowledge it, and they moderate their feelings by exercising and talking to friends. They drink smoothies with green shit in it and, I imagine, they pronounce the word “quinoa” without betraying a sense of self-consciousness for sounding like a snob. They take action and they get over it by dealing with it.

“It’s pronounced kin-wah. Idiot.”

It’s a slightly more complicated story when you have complex PTSD (C-PTSD), but the logic of a “healthy” person under duress is the same as that of a person with C-PTSD: You perceive a threat (e.g., stress) and then take steps to reduce your exposure to the threat.

You see, once the C-PTSD brain is triggered, the anxiety felt in the body reminds the brain of what it felt like when it was originally traumatised. And if, when you were originally traumatised, you were powerless to effect change or fight back or escape the threat, your brain does the most logical thing it can do: It tells you to leave your body because shit’s about to go down, son. You dissociate because you don’t want to be present to what’s about to happen to you.

Many times after experiencing trauma earlier in my life, I can recall quiet but panicked moments where I thought: “It’s OK that that happened to me; it’s not my body anyway.” A psychology degree and the consumption of countless books on trauma later, I now know that this process of disowning my body is called dissociation. Dissociation is a defense mechanism that the mind uses to deal with circumstances that are too painful or overwhelming for the mind to process at the time.

Fast-forward 20 years later, however, and the brain is still remembering and now responding to emotional stress in the same way it did then. It doesn’t know how to distinguish between threats any more, and given the severity or the frequency (or both) of previous traumas, it does not want to or know how. Better safe than sorry, right?

The lovely irony about having emotional flashbacks and about unconsciously using dissociation to cope with them is that the brain is employing an adaptive survival mechanism in a situation that does not warrant its use anymore. As an adult, a person with C-PTSD has resources they can access which they simply could not have had access to as a child, when the traumatic experiences occurred.

But when the brain cannot distinguish between threats (e.g., emotional abuse versus, say, not having a job in February), and only knows how to use one or two coping mechanisms that it’s used it’s whole life, how is it supposed to know about and access more adaptive resources? It’s stuck in the moment of trauma from yesteryear.

“Oh, you’re worried about losing your job? Here’s some physical memories of trauma from 20 years ago to help you cope. You’re welcome.”

Example. A healthy, well-adjusted person such as yourself might walk in to the office at work to find that your boss is having a bad day. Your manager, in a fit of rage, yells at you and tells you to fix the report you sent in the previous day. But you didn’t send a report in yesterday and you certainly don’t know what error he’s talking about, because you consider yourself hot-shit when it comes to report writing. So you let it slide and write it off as Mr. Manager having a bad day. You go to your desk, eat your morning burrito, and start your day.

But the person with C-PTSD experiences alarm from the moment they see the manager’s angry face. They’ve walked in to the office and now they’re being yelled at, just like they were when they were a kid. And that’s exactly what they tell themselves too:“It’s happening again.” It’s time to shut down, the brain quietly whispers to the body.

The person leaves their body and maybe even does what they did when they were a kid: they take responsibility and become overly apologetic in a misguided effort to dissipate the threat directed at them. On an unconscious level, they’ve probably surrendered to the familiar feelings of shame and fear and humiliation, too, which are of course the feelings they felt when they were traumatised as a pup (when you are a child, your brain has not developed enough to know that if something bad has happened to you, it does not mean that you are bad. Family Systems Therapist John Bradshaw explains this concept of Toxic Shame brilliantly in his talk Healing the Shame that Binds You.)

It’s not hard to conceive that the person in this example, who experiences re-traumatization in a relatively common work scenario, might begin to view the workplace as threatening, and may in turn seek to avoid it altogether. No job = no more reminders about the trauma. The cycle becomes self-perpetuating quickly, you might have guessed. I suspect that many homeless people suffer this fate as a result of unprocessed complex trauma.

Many people who experience trauma are set up to re-experience it in their houseless environments.
Many people who experience trauma are set up to re-experience it in their houseless environments

So it’s not hard to see why it’s called complex PTSD. Many treatments for C-PTSD focus on getting the person to remain present when they are triggered and to deal with the stress in a more up-to-date, productive way. If the dis-ease and distress that’s experienced in flashbacks is one that sees the sufferer focusing overwhelmingly on events from the past, then the present, and an accurate and reasonable appraisal of it becomes a sort of Holy Grail to recovery.

In my own recovery I do all the things I can to stay present, especially at work. I do body scans, which involves focusing on the different parts of my body in the now. I listen to the low hum of keyboards tapping and the murmur of people talking on the phones in the now. I take time to mindfully touch and study the green leaves of the glorious Zanzibar Gem that sits in front of me on my desk, and I pay attention to the feeling of satiation as the water I drink travels down my throat.

I know my contract ends in February 2016. The uncertainty of it makes my stomach tighten. And the additional thought of having to start all over again agitates me too. A new job means new people, new processes to learn, and new stressors to manage. New threats, the traumatised part of me grumbles. My body remembers the trauma associated with being humiliated in learning environments. Parts of my brain have not yet cottoned on that the trauma I’m bracing for happened literally years ago.

So, Big Daniel finds this all very frustrating and heartbreaking and unfair sometimes. Little Daniel, who experienced the trauma, can’t help but ask: If it happened to me and I didn’t ask for it, why should I have to deal with it?

Early trauma teaches you about the inherent unfairness of life, and from an exceptionally young age, too. It also teaches you about the painful choices you must make if you wish to thrive. It really does put a new spin on the maxim “Feel the fear and do it anyway.” Thanks, Tony Robbins.

“Feel the fear and do it anyway!”

At its heart, recovery from trauma is about learning to manage what is. It’s not about lamenting what should or could or might be. And as much as a part of me wants to believe the worst about my future, I have to hold on to the present moment, where change can be effected and where resources can be energized.

I must stay positive (but not delusional), focused (but not stubborn or rigid) and above all else, remain gentle, patient and hopeful toward the part of me that remembers darker times. They are, of course, just memories now.

Peace…and Presence!


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