Complex PTSD occurs when a person has been exposed to a long-term trauma, such as ongoing domestic violence, forced prostitution, being held hostage or long-term childhood abuse. Most people who suffer from complex PTSD experience problems with regulating their emotions, memory problems, dissociation, difficulty trusting others, having stable relationships, and problems with self-perceptions of guilt, shame, helplessness and belonging. Complex PTSD is a challenging disorder to cope with and usually requires a combination of treatments.
Therapy for complex PTSD usually happens in three phases: preparation; trauma-processing; and sustainment. In the first phase, the therapist prepares the patient for processing painful memories by discussing what the patient can expect to experience and what the possible outcomes will be. This phase is crucial because it helps the patient prepare for what may be an uncomfortable experience. The preparation phase removes as much surprise from the process as possible in order to make the patient feel ready to handle the upcoming challenge. The second phase is often the most emotionally taxing as it requires the patient to process the trauma that he or she experienced. For some patients, this may mean talking through the traumatic events, describing them in as much detail as possible, and using self-soothing techniques to gain control of any emotions or sensations that occur. However, some research has shown that describing traumatic memories is not necessary for a patient to recover, particularly for female survivors of sexual assault or long-term abuse. Rather, in these cases, the patient and therapist will process the trauma by talking about the emotions and thoughts that arise, rather than any physical sensations or concrete memories. The sustainment phase involves developing coping mechanisms for maintaining control over one’s thoughts and emotions, especially when triggered in day-to-day scenarios. This phase of treatment may involve medication and always involves developing coping skills and self-soothing techniques.
In some cases of complex PTSD, medication may be prescribed. The most common medications used to treat complex PTSD patients are anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications. In some severe cases, however, antipsychotics may be prescribed to complex PTSD patients with and without psychosis. Preliminary research has shown that antipsychotics may help with symptoms such as disorganized behavior, dissociative symptoms, explosiveness, aggression and violent behavior.
Complex PTSD can cause unpleasant symptoms like anxiety, flashbacks, dissociation, depression, anger and more without a moment’s notice. When these symptoms strike, it’s important that patients have self-soothing techniques or coping skills to regain control. Such techniques include meditation, guided relaxation, deep breathing, drawing or coloring, and repeating a powerful phrase or any other healthy behavior that helps the patient calm down and regain his or her composure in the moment. If you or someone you love is struggling with PTSD, contact a mental health professional to discuss what tools you can use to better cope with complex PTSD.