Complex post-traumatic stress disorder

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) is a psychological injury that results from protracted exposure to prolonged social and/or interpersonal trauma with lack or loss of control, disempowerment, and in the context of either captivity or entrapment, i.e. the lack of a viable escape route for the victim. C-PTSD is distinct from, but similar to, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The C-PTSD diagnosis developed when some clinicians argued that PTSD did not account for all the symptoms in some patients who had been repeatedly traumatized, and that further diagnostic criteria and treatments were necessary to help such patients. Though mainstream journals have published papers on C-PTSD, the category is not formally recognized in diagnostic systems such as DSM or ICD.[1]

C-PTSD involves complex and reciprocal interactions between multiple biopsychosocial systems. It was first described in 1992 by Judith Herman in her book Trauma & Recovery and an accompanying article.[2][3] Forms of trauma associated with C-PTSD include sexual abuse (especially child sexual abuse), physical abuse, emotional abuse, domestic violence or torture -- all repeated traumas in which there is an actual or perceived inability for the victim to escape.[4][5]


Differentiating PTSD from C-PTSD

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was included in the third edition of the DSM (1980), mainly due to the relatively large numbers of American combat veterans of the Vietnam War who were seeking treatment for the lingering effects of combat stress. In the 1980s, various researchers and clinicians suggested that PTSD might also accurately describe the sequelae of such traumas as child abuse/incest and domestic abuse.[6] However, it was soon suggested that PTSD failed to account for the cluster of symptoms that were often observed in cases of prolonged abuse, particularly that which was perpetrated by caregivers during several childhood and adolescent developmental stages. Such patients were often extremely difficult to treat with established methods.[6]

PTSD descriptions fail to capture some of the core characteristics of C-PTSD. These elements include captivity, psychological fragmentation, the loss of a sense of safety, trust, and self-worth, as well as the tendency to be revictimized, and, most importantly, the loss of a coherent sense of self. It is this loss of a coherent sense of self, and the ensuing symptom profile, that most pointedly differentiates C-PTSD from PTSD.[7]

C-PTSD is also characterized by attachment disorder, particularly the pervasive insecure, or disorganized-type attachment.[8] DSM-IV dissociative disorders and PTSD do not include insecure attachment in their criteria. As a consequence of this aspect of C-PTSD, when some adults with C-PTSD become parents and confront their own children's attachment needs, they may have particular difficulty in responding sensitively especially to their infants' and young children's routine distress—such as during routine separations, despite these parents' best intentions and efforts.[9] And this difficulty in parenting may have adverse repercussions for their children's social and emotional development if parents with this condition and their children do not receive appropriate treatment.[10][11]

Thus, a differentiation between the diagnostic category of C-PTSD and that of PTSD has been suggested. C-PTSD better describes the pervasive negative impact of chronic repetitive trauma than does PTSD alone.[12][13]

C-PTSD also differs from Continuous Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CTSD) which was introduced into the trauma literature by Gill Straker (1987).[14] It was originally used by South African clinicians to describe the effects of exposure to frequent, high levels of violence usually associated with civil conflict and political repression. The term is also applicable to the effects of exposure to contexts in which gang violence and crime are endemic as well as to the effects of ongoing exposure to life threats in high-risk occupations such as police, fire and emergency services.

Differentiating traumatic grief from C-PTSD

Traumatic grief[15][16][17][18] or complicated mourning[19] are conditions[20] where both trauma and grief coincide. If a traumatic event was only life threatening then more likely the survivor will experience post-traumatic stress symptoms. If the survivor was close to the person who died, then more likely symptoms of grief will also develop. When the death is of a loved one and was sudden or violent then both symptoms coincide. This is likely in children exposed to community violence.[21]

For C-PTSD to manifest the violence would occur under conditions of captivity, loss of control and disempowerment, coinciding with the death of a friend or loved one in life threatening circumstances. This again is most likely for children and stepchildren who experience prolonged domestic or chronic community violence that ultimately results in the death of friends and loved ones. The phenomenon of the increased risk of violence and death of stepchildren is referred to as the Cinderella effect.

There are conceptual links between trauma and bereavement since loss of a loved one is inherently traumatic.[22]

Attachment theory, BPD and C-PTSD

This controversial area[23] underlines the fragility of C-PTSD as an empirical diagnostic category separate from PTSD.[24][25]

C-PTSD may share some symptoms with both PTSD and BPD.[26] Judith Herman has suggested that C-PTSD be used in place of borderline.[27]

It may help to understand the intersection of attachment theory with C-PTSD and BPD if one reads the following opinion of Bessel A. van der Kolk together with an understanding drawn from a description of BPD:

Uncontrollable disruptions or distortions of attachment bonds precede the development of post-traumatic stress syndromes. People seek increased attachment in the face of danger. Adults, as well as children, may develop strong emotional ties with people who intermittently harass, beat, and, threaten them. The persistence of these attachment bonds leads to confusion of pain and love. Trauma can be repeated on behavioural, emotional, physiologic, and neuroendocrinologic levels. Repetition on these different levels causes a large variety of individual and social suffering. Anger directed against the self or others is always a central problem in the lives of people who have been violated and this is itself a repetitive re-enactment of real events from the past. Compulsive repetition of the trauma usually is an unconscious process that, although it may provide a temporary sense of mastery or even pleasure, ultimately perpetuates chronic feelings of helplessness and a subjective sense of being bad and out of control. Gaining control over one's current life, rather than repeating trauma in action, mood, or somatic states, is the goal of healing.[28][29]

Seeking increased attachment to people, especially to care-givers who inflict pain, confuses love and pain and increases the likelihood of a captivity like that of betrayal bonding,[30] and of disempowerment and lack of control. If the situation is perceived as life threatening then traumatic stress responses will likely arise and C-PTSD more likely diagnosed in a situation of insecure attachment than PTSD.

However, 25% of those diagnosed with BPD have no history of childhood neglect or abuse and individuals are six times as likely to develop BPD if they have a relative who was so diagnosed[citation needed] compared to those who do not. One conclusion is that there is a genetic predisposition to BPD unrelated to trauma. Researchers conducting a longitudinal investigation of identical twins found that "genetic factors play a major role in individual differences of borderline personality disorder features in Western society."[31][32]

Child and adolescent symptom cluster

Cook and others[33][34] describe symptoms and behavioural characteristics in seven domains:

  1. Attachment - "problems with relationship boundaries, lack of trust, social isolation, difficulty perceiving and responding to other’s emotional states, and lack of empathy"
  2. Biology - "sensory-motor developmental dysfunction, sensory-integration difficulties, somatization, and increased medical problems"
  3. Affect or emotional regulation - "poor affect regulation, difficulty identifying and expressing emotions and internal states, and difficulties communicating needs, wants, and wishes"
  4. Dissociation - "amnesia, depersonalization, discrete states of consciousness with discrete memories, affect, and functioning, and impaired memory for state-based events"
  5. Behavioural control - "problems with impulse control, aggression, pathological self-soothing, and sleep problems"
  6. Cognition - "difficulty regulating attention, problems with a variety of "executive functions" such as planning, judgement, initiation, use of materials, and self- monitoring, difficulty processing new information, difficulty focusing and completing tasks, poor object constancy, problems with "cause-effect" thinking, and language developmental problems such as a gap between receptive and expressive communication abilities."
  7. Self-concept -"fragmented and disconnected autobiographical narrative, disturbed body image, low self-esteem, excessive shame, and negative internal working models of self".

Source of quotes[35]

Adult symptom cluster

Adults with C-PTSD have sometimes experienced prolonged interpersonal traumatization as children as well as prolonged trauma as adults. This early injury interrupts the development of a robust sense of self and of others. Because physical and emotional pain or neglect was often inflicted by attachment figures such as caregivers or older siblings, these individuals may develop a sense that they are fundamentally flawed and that others cannot be relied upon.[36][37]

This can become a pervasive way of relating to others in adult life described as insecure attachment. The diagnosis of dissociative disorder and PTSD in the current DSM-IV TR do not include insecure attachment as a symptom. Individuals with Complex PTSD also demonstrate lasting personality disturbances with a significant risk of revictimization.[38]

Six clusters of symptom have been suggested for diagnosis of C-PTSD.[39][40] These are (1) alterations in regulation of affect and impulses; (2) alterations in attention or consciousness; (3) alterations in self-perception; (4) alterations in relations with others; (5) somatization, and (6) alterations in systems of meaning.[39]

Experiences in these areas may include:[7][13]

  • Variations in consciousness, such as forgetting traumatic events (i.e., psychogenic amnesia), reliving traumatic events, or having episodes of dissociation (during which one feels detached from one's mental processes or body).
  • Changes in self-perception, such as a chronic and pervasive sense of helplessness, shame, guilt, stigma, and a sense of being completely different from other human beings.
  • Varied changes in the perception of the perpetrator, such as attributing total power to the perpetrator or becoming preoccupied with the relationship to the perpetrator, including a preoccupation with revenge.
  • Alterations in relations with others, including isolation, distrust, or a repeated search for a rescuer.
  • Loss of, or changes in, one's system of meanings, which may include a loss of sustaining faith or a sense of hopelessness and despair.

Treatment for adults

Herman[41] believes recovery from C-PTSD occurs in three stages. These are: establishing safety, remembrance and mourning for what was lost, and reconnecting with community and more broadly, society. Herman believes recovery can only occur within a healing relationship and only if the survivor is empowered by that relationship.

Complex trauma means complex reactions and this leads to complex treatments. Hence treatment for C-PTSD requires a multi-modal approach.[42] It has been suggested that treatment for C-PTSD should differ from treatment for PTSD by focusing on problems that cause more functional impairment than the PTSD symptoms. These problems include emotional dysregulation, dissociation, and interpersonal problems.[43] Six suggested core components of complex trauma treatment include:[42]

  1. Safety
  2. Self-regulation
  3. Self-reflective information processing
  4. Traumatic experiences integration
  5. Relational engagement
  6. Positive affect enhancement

Multiple treatments have been suggested for C-PTSD. Among these treatments are experiential and emotionally focused therapy, internal family systems therapy, sensorimotor psychotherapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), cognitive behavioral therapy, family systems therapy and group therapy.[44]

Treatment for children

The utility of PTSD derived psychotherapies for assisting children with C-PTSD is uncertain. This area of diagnosis and treatment calls for caution in use of the category C-PTSD. Ford and van der Kolk[45] have suggested that C-PTSD may not be as useful a category for diagnosis and treatment of children as a proposed category of DTD (developmental trauma disorder). For DTD to be diagnosed it requires a

'history of exposure to early life developmentally adverse interpersonal trauma such as sexual abuse, physical abuse, violence, traumatic losses of other significant disruption or betrayal of the child's relationships with primary caregivers, which has been postulated as an etiological basis for complex traumatic stress disorders. Diagnosis, treatment planning and outcome are always relational.'[46]

Since C-PTSD or DTD in children is often caused by chronic maltreatment, neglect or abuse in a care-giving relationship the first element of the biopsychosocial system to address is that relationship. This invariably involves some sort of child protection agency. This both widens the range of support that can be given to the child but also the complexity of the situation, since the agency's statutory legal obligations may then need to be enforced.

A number of practical, therapeutic and ethical principles for assessment and intervention have been developed and explored in the field:

  • Identifying and addressing threats to the child's or family's safety and stability are the first priority.
  • A relational bridge must be developed to engage, retain and maximize the benefit for the child and caregiver.
  • Diagnosis, treatment planning and outcome monitoring are always relational (and) strengths based.
  • All phases of treatment should aim to enhance self-regulation competencies.
  • Determining with whom, when and how to address traumatic memories.
  • Preventing and managing relational discontinuities and psychosocial crises.[47]

Media depictions

No Longer Human (1948), a best-selling semi-autobiographical novel by Osamu Dazai, depicts a Japanese man who suffers from symptoms consistent with C-PTSD.[48]

See also


  1. ^ Roth S, Newman E, Pelcovitz D, van der Kolk B, Mandel FS (1997). "Complex PTSD in victims exposed to sexual and physical abuse: results from the DSM-IV Field Trial for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder". J Trauma Stress 10 (4): 539–55. doi:10.1002/jts.2490100403. PMID 9391940. 
  2. ^ Herman, J.L. (1992(a)). Trauma and recovery. New York: Basic Books.
  3. ^ Herman, J. L. (1992(b)). Complex PTSD: A syndrome in survivors of prolonged and repeated trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 5, 377-391.
  4. ^ Freyd, J.J. (1997) Violations of power, adaptive blindness, and betrayal trauma theory. Feminism & Psychology, 7, 22-32
  5. ^ Veldhuis, C. B., & Freyd, J. J. (1999). Groomed for silence, groomed for betrayal. In M. Rivera (Ed.), Fragment by Fragment: Feminist Perspectives on Memory and Child Sexual Abuse (pp. 253-282). Charlottetown, PEI Canada: Gynergy Books
  6. ^ a b Courtois, Christine A. (2004). "Complex Trauma, Complex Reactions: Assessment and Treatment." Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, Vol. 41, No. 4, pp. 412–425, DOI 10.1037/0033-3204.41.4.412
  7. ^ a b Herman, Judith Lewis (1997). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence from domestic abuse to political terror. Basic Books. pp. 119–122. ISBN 0465087302. 
  8. ^ van der Kolk, B.A., Roth, S., Pelcovitz, D., Sunday, S., & Spinazzola, J. (2005). Disorders of extreme stress: The empirical foundation of a complex adaptation to trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 18, 389-39
  9. ^ Schechter DS, Coates, SW, Kaminer T, Coots T, Zeanah CH, Davies M, Schonfield IS, Marshall RD, Liebowitz MR Trabka KA, McCaw J, Myers MM (2008). Distorted maternal mental representations and atypical behavior in a clinical sample of violence-exposed mothers and their toddlers. Journal of Trauma and Dissociation , 9(2), 123-149.
  10. ^ Schechter DS, Willheim E (2009). Disturbances of attachment and parental psychopathology in early childhood. Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Issue. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Clinics of North America, 18(3), 665-687.
  11. ^ Schechter DS, Zygmunt A, Coates SW, Davies M, Trabka KA, McCaw J, Kolodji A., Robinson JL (2007). Caregiver traumatization adversely impacts young children’s mental representations of self and others. Attachment & Human Development, 9(3), 187-205.
  12. ^ van der Kolk BA, Courtois CA (2005). "Editorial comments: Complex developmental trauma". J Trauma Stress 18 (5): 385–8. doi:10.1002/jts.20046. PMID 16281236. 
  13. ^ a b Julia M. Whealin, Ph.D. and Laurie Slone, Ph.D.. "Complex PTSD". National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. United States Department of Veteran Affairs. 
  14. ^ Straker, Gillian (1987). "The continuous traumatic stress syndrome: The single therapeutic interview". Psychology and Society. 
  15. ^ Bonanno, G.A. (2006). Is Complicated Grief a Valid Construct? Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice 13 (2) , 129–134
  16. ^ Jacobs, Shelby, Carolyn Mazure, and Holly Prigerson. "Diagnostic Criteria for Traumatic Grief." Death Studies 24 (2000):185–199
  17. ^ Traumatic grief
  18. ^ Figley, C., Bride, B. & Mazza, N. (1997). Death and trauma: The traumatology of grieving. Philadelphia: Brunner/Mazel
  19. ^ Rando, T. (1993) Treatment of complicated mourning. Champaign, IL: Research Press
  20. ^ Rando, T. (1998). Complications in mourning traumatic death. In K. Doka (Ed.) Living with grief after sudden loss. Bristol, PA: Taylor & Francis
  21. ^ Pynoos, R. & Nader, K. (1988), Psychological first aid and treatment approach to children exposed to community violence: Research implications. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 1, 445-473.
  22. ^ Green, B. L. (2000) Traumatic loss: Conceptual and empirical links between trauma and bereavement. Journal of Personal and Interpersonal Loss, 5, 1-17
  23. ^ Clinical Psychology article on BPD/Dyslimbic brain function
  24. ^ Luxenberg, T., Spinazzola, J., & van der Kolk, B. A. (2001). Complex trauma and disorders of extreme stress (DESNOS) diagnosis, part one: Assessment [Electronic version]. Directions in Psychiatry, 21(25), 373-392.
  25. ^ Luxenberg, T., Spinazzola, J., Hidalgo, J., Hunt, C., & van der Kolk, B. A. (2001). Complex trauma and disorders of extreme stress (DESNOS) part two: Treatment [Electronic version]. Directions in Psychiatry, 21(26), 395-414
  26. ^ Taylor S, Asmundson GJ, Carleton RN (2006). "Simple versus complex PTSD: a cluster analytic investigation". J Anxiety Disord 20 (4): 459–72. doi:10.1016/j.janxdis.2005.04.003. PMID 15979838. 
  27. ^ Johnson, S. Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy for Trauma Survivors' Guilford Press 2002 Chapter 4 page 75
  28. ^ [1]
  29. ^ Bessel A. van der Kolk, MD* The Compulsion to Repeat the Trauma Re-enactment, Revictimization, and Masochism Psychiatric Clinics of North America, Volume 12, Number 2, Pages 389-411, June 1989
  30. ^ Patrick J. Carnes 'The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships' ISBN 1558745262 ISBN 978-1558745261
  31. ^ Distel et al. Chromosome 9: linkage for borderline personality disorder features. Psychiatric Genetics, 2008; 18 (6): 302 DOI: 10.1097/YPG.0b013e3283118468
  32. ^ Distel et al. Heritability of borderline personality disorder features is similar across three countries. Psychological Medicine, 2008; 38 (9): DOI: 10.1017/S0033291707002024
  33. ^ Cook, A., Blaustein, M., Spinazolla, J., van der Kolk, B. (2003) Complex trauma in children and adolescents. White paper from the national child traumatic stress network complex trauma task force. Los Angeles, CA: National Center for Child Traumatic Stress
  34. ^ Cook, A., Spinazzola, J., Ford, J., Lanktree, C., et al. (2005) Complex trauma in children and adolescents. Psychiatric Annals, 35:5, 390-398.
  35. ^ Trends in Research into C-PTSD
  36. ^ Herman, J.L. (1992). Complex PTSD: A syndrome in survivors of prolonged and repeated trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress 5, 377-392.
  37. ^ Zlotnick, C., Zakriski, A.L., Shea, M.T., Costello, E., Begin, A., Pearlstein, T., & Simpson, E. (1996). The long-term sequelae of sexual abuse: Support for a complex posttraumatic stress disorder. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 9, 195-20
  38. ^ Ide, N., & Paez, A. (2000). Complex PTSD: A review of current issues. International Journal of Emergency Mental Health, 2, 43-49
  39. ^ a b Pelcovitz, D., van der Kolk, B.A., Roth, S., Mandel, F., Kaplan, S., & Resick, P. (1997). Development of a criteria set and a structured interview for the disorders of extreme stress (SIDES). Journal of Traumatic Stress, 10, 3-16.
  40. ^ Roth, S., Newman, E., Pelcovitz, D., van der Kolk, B., & Mandel, F.S. (1997). Complex PTSD in victims exposed to sexual and physical abuse: Results from the DSM-IV Field Trial for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Journal of Traumatic Stress 10, 539-556
  41. ^ Herman, J.L. (1992(a)). Trauma and recovery. New York: Basic Books
  42. ^ a b Cook, A.; Blaustein, M.; Spinazzola, J.; Van Der Kolk, B. (2005). "Complex trauma in children and adolescents". Psychiatric Annals 35 (5): 390–398. Retrieved 2008-03-29. 
  43. ^ van der Kolk BA, Roth S, Pelcovitz D, Sunday S, Spinazzola J (2005). "Disorders of extreme stress: The empirical foundation of a complex adaptation to trauma". J Trauma Stress 18 (5): 389–99. doi:10.1002/jts.20047. PMID 16281237. 
  44. ^ Courtois, C>A.and Ford, J>D 'Treating Complex Traumatic Stress Disorders - an evidence based guide. 2009 the Guilford Press
  45. ^ page 60 Chapter 3 in Courtois, CA.and Ford, J.D eds 'Treating Complex Traumatic Stress Disorders - an evidence based guide. 2009 the Guilford Press
  46. ^ Chapter 3 in Courtois, CA.and Ford, J.D eds 'Treating Complex Traumatic Stress Disorders - an evidence based guide. 2009 the Guilford Press
  47. ^ page 67 Chapter 3 in Courtois, CA.and Ford, J.D eds 'Treating Complex Traumatic Stress Disorders - an evidence based guide. 2009 the Guilford Press
  48. ^ Gartner, Richard B. with Naoko Miyaj (2005). Betrayed as Boys: Psychodynamic Treatment of Sexually Abused Men, (Japanese edition) pp. 448-451, ISBN 4-86182-013-8.

Further reading

  • Appleyard, K.; Osofsky, J.D. (2003). "Parenting after trauma: Supporting parents and caregivers in the treatment of children impacted by violence". Infant Mental Health Journal 24 (2): 111–125. doi:10.1002/imhj.10050. 
  • Cook, A.; Blaustein, M.;Spinazzola, J.; and van der Kolk, B., (2003) Complex trauma in children and adolescents. White paper from the National Child Traumatic Stress Newtork Complex Trauma Task Force.
  • Cook, A., Spinazzola, J., Ford, J., Lanktree, C., et al., (2005) Complex trauma in children and adolescents. Psychiatric Annals, 35, 390-398.
  • Courtois, Christine A. (Editor), Ford, Julian D. PhD (Editor) 'Treating Complex Traumatic Stress Disorders' The Guilford Press; 1 edition (February 5, 2009) ISBN 1606230395 ISBN 978-1606230398
  • Herman, JL (1997). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence from domestic abuse to political terror. New York: Basic Books.
  • Scott, Catherine V.; Briere, John (2006). Principles of Trauma Therapy : A Guide to Symptoms, Evaluation, and Treatment. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications. ISBN 0-7619-2921-5. 
  • Ford JD (1999). "Disorders of extreme stress following war-zone military trauma: associated features of posttraumatic stress disorder or comorbid but distinct syndromes?". J Consult Clin Psychol 67 (1): 3–12. doi:10.1037/0022-006X.67.1.3. PMID 10028203. 
  • van der Kolk, B.A., Roth, S., Pelcovitz, D., Sunday, S., & Spinazzola, J. (2005). "Disorders of extreme stress: the empirical foundation of a complex adaptation to trauma". Journal of Traumatic Stress 18, 389-399.

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