I suspect quite a few people on this site don’t realize they are struggling with the effects of chronic trauma. In particular I think more people need to learn about the symptoms of C-PTSD.
Distinct from general PTSD, Complex PTSD is caused by prolonged, recurring stress and trauma, often occurring in childhood & adolescence over an extended period of time. There are many risk factors, including: abusive/negligent caregivers, dysfunctional family life, untreated mental/chronic illness, and being the target of bullying/social alienation.
I’m not a mental health professional and I’m not qualified to diagnose anyone, I just remember a million watt light bulb going off in my head when I first learned about C-PTSD. It was a huge OH MY FUCKING WORD eureka moment for me—it explained all these problems I was confused and angry at myself for having. The symptoms that really stood out to me were:
Negative self-perception: deep-seated feelings of shame, guilt, worthlessness, helplessness, and stigma. Feeling like you are different from everyone else, like something is fundamentally ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ with you.
Emotional avoidance of topics, people, relationships, activities, places, things etc that might cause uncomfortable emotions such as shame, fear, or sadness. Can lead to self-isolation.
Learned helplessness: a pervasive sense of powerlessness, often combined with feelings of desensitization, wherein you gradually stop trying to escape or prevent your own suffering, even when opportunities exist. May manifest as self-neglect or self-sabotage. (I remember watching myself make bad choices and neglect my responsibilities, and having no idea why I was doing it, or how to stop myself. Eventually I just stopped caring, which led to more self-neglect.)
Hyper-vigilance: always feeling “on edge,” alert, unable to relax even in spaces that should feel safe. May be combined with an elevated “flight” response, or feelings of always being prepared to flee. (I used to hide important documents and possessions in a sort of emergency go bag, even when I was living alone and there was no logical reason other than it made me feel “prepared.”)
Difficulty regulating emotions: may include mood swings, persistent numbness, sadness, suicidal idealization, explosive anger (or inability to feel anger and other strong emotions), inability to control your emotions, confusion about why you react the way you do.
Sense of foreshortened future: assuming or feeling that you will die young. Recurring thoughts that "I'll be dead before the age of 30/40/18/21 etc." As a teenager I used to joke darkly that I didn't plan to live past 30—not because I planned to end my life, but because I simply couldn't imagine myself alive and happy in the long-term. I couldn't imagine a meaningful future where I wasn't suffering.
Emotional flashbacks: finding yourself suddenly re-experiencing feelings of helplessness, panic, despair, or anger etc, often without understanding what has triggered these feelings. Often these flashbacks don’t clearly relate to the memory of a single event (since C-PTSD is caused by repetitive events, which can blur together), making them harder to identify as flashbacks—especially if you’ve never heard the phrase “emotional flashback” and don’t know what to look for. For years I just filed it under “sometimes I overreact/freak out randomly for no reason, probably bc I am just a terrible human being.” (It turns out there was very much a reason, it was just hidden in the past. I have since learned to be kinder and less judgemental towards myself.)
There are other symptoms too, here are more links with good info.
I’ve been meaning to write this post for awhile, because I’ve noticed that a lot of the people I interact with online have risk factors and experiences similar to mine. These include:
growing up in a dysfunctional household
having caregivers who do not fulfill basic emotional needs (do not provide consistent positive attention, encouragement, support, acceptance, communication, a sense of safety and security)
on a very related note, experiencing neglect or abuse at the hand of caregivers or other adults. I also want to emphasize the significance of emotional abuse, since it is hard to recognize, easy to ignore, and utterly rampant in so many communities. In general, family dysfunction, abuse & neglect are quite difficult to identify when you are a child/teen and that is the only “normal” you have known.
(For example, in my family it manifested as an emotionally absent father I was vaguely frightened of, constant nagging from a hypercritical mother, and a house full of people who yelled and screamed at each other. It took me years to realize I grew up in an abusive environment, because there was no physical violence, because I participated in the fighting, and because my behavioral problems made me the family scapegoat. And I internalized that guilt: I thought I was the problem. But no—I was a child, and I deserved not to grow up in a household full of anger and fear and negativity. You deserved that too. You deserved to grow up safe and loved and treated with kindness.)
anyway back to more risk factors:
being neurodivergent or chronically ill (especially without receiving proper treatment/support/accommodation)
being queer (especially in a conservative or undiverse community, or without the support and acceptance of family & friends)
being the target of bullying or harassment (from peers, teachers, authority figures, irl, online, etc)
being isolated or alienated from peers, from family, from your wider community.
growing up with chronic anxiety, discomfort, pain, fear, or distress caused by any of the above and more.
There are many other experiences that can cause chronic trauma, but these are some particularly common ones I see people in my own community struggling with. And I want more people to be aware of this, because we’ve been taught to ignore and second-guess the significance of our traumatic experiences. We’ve been taught to feel guilty for our own pain, because “other people aren’t struggling, so I shouldn’t either” or (contradictorily) “other people have it worse, so I shouldn’t complain.” But that’s not how it works—you are not other people, and you deserve to have it better. We all deserve better. We deserve to be happy. We deserve not to be in pain.
I used to think I couldn’t have a trauma disorder because (I argued in my head) the things that happened to me weren’t that bad. And then I spent five years in therapy learning to accept the full extent of my issues. I’ve since learned that trauma comes in many forms, and can happen quietly, invisibly, silently, chronically, and usually without the survivor being aware of the long-term repercussions of what they are surviving. That revelation comes later, after you have survived and must instead learn to live.
Finally, no single type of trauma is more real or harmful than any other. Severity is measured by the way the individual is affected, and the same situations affect different people in different ways. Because no one gets to choose how their brain reacts to trauma. No one gets to choose their hurt—otherwise there would be a hell of a lot less hurting in the world.
We can, however, choose to seek help. We can learn to recognize when something is wrong, we can learn when to reach out to professionals, and we can learn to educate ourselves on our injuries.
And gradually, we can learn to heal.
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