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Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) is similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in that the person experiences much of the same symptoms but for different reasons. PTSD tends to happen after a specific event or situation like war or a car accident. In contrast, C-PTSD is more complex because it’s often the result of traumatic events experienced during a relationship, many of which can be challenging to pinpoint. This is especially the case if a person grew up in a dysfunctional home, and the traumatizing behavior was considered normal.

Some degree of C-PTSD symptoms is common after an abusive or neglectful relationship, whether in childhood, as adults, or both. C-PTSD is currently not in the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health, Fifth Edition), which is why so many mental health clinicians are not familiar with the term. They may diagnose a person with PTSD, or they might not analyze what a person went through at all as any form of PTSD. Emotional and verbal abuse tends to fly under the radar of what is worthy of being a traumatic issue—especially by those who haven’t been on the receiving end of it.

The term C-PTSD is much more commonly used among those who specialize in emotional trauma. Having a PTSD or C-PTSD type response is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. It is part of the healing process as the brain attempts to piece together everything that happened into a cohesive narrative. If your symptoms are negatively impacting your life, and especially if they go on for longer than a year, it might be worth a trip to a mental health provider, ideally one who specializes in abuse, trauma, and ideally EMDR or EFT treatment.


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The Four Types of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Reliving or re-experiencing the event


Memories of the traumatic event can come back at any time. You may feel the same fear and horror you did when the event took place. For example:

  • You may have nightmares.

  • You may feel like you are going through the event again. This is called an emotional flashback.

  • You may see, hear, or smell something that causes you to relive the event. This is called a trigger and triggers an emotional flashback. For example, if a person has been in battle, hearing news reports, seeing an accident, hearing fireworks go off, being startled, or hearing a car backfire are common triggers for PTSD. Triggers for C-PTSD might include feeling flashes of intense emotion like fear, rage, anxiety, crying, or depression that are disproportionate to what is going on—but you may or may not be able to connect a trigger to your intense feelings.

An example of a more direct connection would be if a person had an abusive ex who drove a red Mustang. Whenever they see a red Mustang, even if it doesn’t belong to their ex, they feel intense anxiety, rage, or sadness, which might put them in a bad mood lasting hours, days, or weeks.
An example of a less direct connection would be if a person finds themselves feeling angry, defensive, and tense whenever they walk into their weekly therapy appointment, but they don’t know why. They may later realize that they feel this way because, as a child, their parents emotionally neglected and abused them. They reached out to a school counselor who not only didn’t believe them but who told their parents everything that was said, which ended up making the abuse at home much worse.

Avoiding situations that remind you of the event


  • You may find yourself avoiding talking or thinking about the event or avoiding situations or people who trigger memories or painful feelings.

  • You may avoid meeting new people (or even spending time with friends and family) because you fear being hurt again.​

  • You may keep very busy or avoid seeking help because it keeps you from having to think or talk about the event.​

  • You may find yourself with changes in eating or sleeping patterns, which can be ways of numbing out and avoiding.​

  • ​You may find yourself upset by certain music, certain restaurants, or by people who have certain features of the abusive person.

Negative changes in beliefs and feelings

  • You may find that the way you think about yourself and others changes because of the trauma.

  • You may not have positive or loving feelings toward other people and may stay away from relationships or find yourself wanting to isolate and stay away from people in general.

  • You may think the world is dangerous and that no one can be trusted.

Feeling anxious or on "high alert" - also called hyper-arousal or hyper-vigilance

  • You may be jittery or always alert and on the lookout for danger. You might suddenly become angry or irritable.

  • You may have a hard time sleeping and find yourself having vivid nightmares.

  • You may have trouble concentrating.

  • You may be startled by loud noises or sudden movements.

  • You might have a hard time trusting others—even people you previously trusted that have done you no wrong.



C-PTSD or PTSD can make a person feel like they are losing their mind because they act in ways that seem out of character for them, and they don’t know how to go back to the way they were. Please know that if you are experiencing this, you are not alone; these symptoms do tend to lessen in time, and joining a support group for narcissistic abuse can help to understand better what you are going through.

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