Complex trauma occurs when you experience repetitive, prolonged and cumulative stressors. These stressors can be in the form of traumatic experiences in your family or close network, between you and an abusive or oppressive society, and trauma that happens because of some “act of God” or natural occurrence such as aging, getting sick, or experiencing a natural disaster. When stressors intersect with each other that is complex trauma. For trauma survivors on the road to healing, complex trauma creates special challenges. Below is an example of complex trauma:
A low-income single mom who has recently left her abusive boyfriend and is living in a violent neighborhood may face several types of trauma at the same time. 1) interpersonal trauma with the abusive boyfriend, 2) financial trauma—maybe she can’t afford rent, food, or the ability to keep on the lights, and 3) she may face the trauma of being robbed or assaulted in a community plagued by violence. When these stressors intersect that is complex trauma. If this trauma survivor faces a system that doesn’t care about her suffering—police who don’t respond to calls for help, friends and family who downplay her experience with an abusive boyfriend—then the impact of this complex trauma can worsen and make it more difficult to heal.
Trauma survivors with multiple stressors in their life can be impacted on multiple levels, below are a few examples:
Lack of impulse and mood control.
Experiencing multiple traumatic events can cause you to become moody and impulsive. Difficulty controlling anger is common and desperate but counterproductive attempts at self-mediating can lead to addiction and other self-destructive behaviors.
Complex trauma can have deep and lasting effects on your mind and spirit. You may begin to believe that you’re unworthy of love or incapable of overcoming difficulties. You may even become completely hopeless and fall into a depression.
Negative impacts on physical health.
Stress kills as many medical professionals warn and complex trauma is stress on steroids. If you’re experiencing multiple traumatic stressors in your life your health can be altered. Ulcers, high blood pressure, and hypertension are commonplace amongst trauma survivors who’ve been unable to handle stressors in their life. And oftentimes, it is not the stress that directly damages your health, but your response to the stress. For example, some trauma survivors may overeat or do drugs to deal with stress and the health impact can be terrible.
Inability to trust.
Any trauma, but especially complex trauma, can negatively impact your ability to trust others. For example, if you were abused as a child you may find it difficult to trust intimate partners or friends and family. Or, if you were abused by the police you may lose trust in law enforcement or other authority figures.
When healing, trauma survivors must address complex trauma in a holistic way. Working with a trauma counselor and others in your community, you should take steps to address all of the issues impacting your life.