In this series, we have concentrated on the symptoms of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) and highlighted how each one changes lives.

This article will focus on the final six symptoms:

  • Feeling different from other people
  • Feeling ashamed
  • Feeling guilty
  • Difficulty maintaining relationships
  • Seeking out or becoming a rescuer
  • Feeling constantly afraid

Let’s examine together each symptom and what it means to those who experience them.

The Final Six Symptoms of CPTSD

A man with his head lowered shattering showing mental health issues. Anxiety, depression and mindfulness awareness concept.

Let’s take a closer look at the symptoms listed above.

Feeling Different from Other People

Due to the causes of CPTSD, many who are living under its influence feel uncomfortable around other people. It may feel strange or distressing to be with others and one of the reasons is because the survivor feels they are different than other people somehow.

This description isn’t to say that survivors feel they are special than other people, but rather that they feel they don’t fit into any crowd. The loneliness that these feelings of detachment from other people bring is palpable.

One reason survivors feel out of place is they often feel they are damaged somehow and are unlikeable and weird.

Only after working hard with a therapist do people living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder begin to understand, at least on the surface, that they are not damaged goods.

Feeling Ashamed

Often those who live with the diagnosis of CPTSD feel intense shame about their bodies and their appearance. Some even feel they are stupid or crazy. However, none of these beliefs are true.

Survivors are victims of severe and repeated trauma, not monsters who came from nowhere. Their bodies were used or damaged by people who didn’t care about their well-being and the helpless they felt then often translates into shame now.

Then there is the toxic shame that so many people experienced during the trauma. They may have been told they were worthless or worse and harbor those beliefs in their hearts and mind.

Feeling Guilty

It may seem odd to some that victims of trauma would feel guilty. After all, they were not the instigators of traumatic events that caused their CPTSD. Yet, guilt is a quite common emotion among survivors.

Feeling guilty is deeply entrenched in many survivors. There is guilt that they could not stop the trauma themselves when it was happening. There is guilt for the way they sometimes enjoyed the abuse. There is even sometimes guilt because they could not help a sibling or other family member, or friend escape the trauma they were caught up in together.

The reality is that victims of trauma were not responsible for what happened to them, nor were they responsible for the safety of other victims. The people to whom those responsibilities fall are the people who harmed them.

Difficulty Maintaining Relationships

If a survivor manages to find a relationship, often they self-sabotage the burgeoning romance before it has a chance to get started. This is because many of those who live with the effects of CPTSD swing one of two ways; they cling onto their potential mate for dear life, or they push people who care for them away.

Because of the horrific broken trust during prior traumatic events, many survivors feel they must have a mate and will practically paste themselves to anyone who pays them attention.

On the other hand, some survivors find it impossible to trust another person and run away as quickly as possible leaving confused people in their wake.

Seeking Out or Becoming a Rescuer

As adults, most people feel self-reliant and strive to be as autonomous as possible while still maintaining healthy relationships with others. Survivors sometimes have a horrific time of being both autonomous and in healthy relationships as many will seek to be rescued or become one themselves.

For these people, life is a series of either being rescued or rescuing others leading to a life full of confusion and self-loathing as neither position is conducive to a great relationship with someone else.

Unfortunately, this need to rescue or be rescued often leads to situations where the survivor lives in unhealthy relationships where they are not safe.

Feeling Constantly Afraid

Most people can relate to feeling afraid about things that haven’t occurred yet like a wedding or an upcoming speech. However, survivors harbor the fear that borders on terror all day and all night without a break.

It would seem the amygdalae of survivors, because of being exposed to repeated trauma in the past, works overtime to seek out any situation it sees as something to run from.

This makes sense since the amygdala is the portion of the brain that is first to detect a dangerous situation and react with the fight/flight/fawn/freeze response. During the repeated traumatic events that caused the person to experience complex post-traumatic stress disorder, their amygdalae worked overtime trying to deal with the fear caused by the trauma and stayed that way.

How the Symptoms of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are Treated

While there are many approaches to treating CPTSD, there are a few types of psychotherapy utilized the most.

Talk Therapy. When people visualize talk therapy, they usually conjure thoughts of a therapist sitting in a chair beside their client who is reclining on a couch beside them.

While lying down and speaking to a therapist is not disallowed, it usually isn’t what happens. Instead, the therapist and client typically sit facing one another at a comfortable distance.

During talk therapy, you will talk with your therapist about a variety of topics including those which trouble you the most.

Your therapist will not give you advice, nor will they give you the answers to your problems.

After all, they are not living in your mind nor are they living your life. Only you understand what you want out of life, and only you can find your answers.

Instead, what a therapist does is guide you, envision if you will a seeing-eye dog. They will warn you the traffic is coming, but ultimately it is you who decides to cross the street or not.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This form of treatment involves the therapist attempting to help their client identify and change inaccurate thinking patterns which can lead to behaviors that are harmful or ineffective.

Your therapist will help you focus on the current problems in your life which were caused by adverse childhood experiences and how to resolve them today. CBT involves practicing new skills so you can function well in the world.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). DBT helps you learn how to regulate emotions. This form of therapy helps teach new skills to aid you in taking personal responsibility for your behaviors and your overall health. By taking such responsibility, you become more likely to implement the changes necessary to make your life more manageable.

Sand Tray or SandBox Therapy. Although not as well-known as the therapies listed above, sand tray or sandbox therapy isn’t just for kids; it is also an essential form of treatment for adults, as well.

Sand tray therapy helps you construct a microcosm in the sand tray of your life and those connected to it using miniature toys and different colored sand.

By doing this, the choices of objects you use to represent yourself and those around you help you recognize how you see yourself and resolve conflicts within you. It also helps you to gain acceptance of who you are as a human being.

For adults, sandbox therapy provides emotional release and realization of traumatic events in an atmosphere free from threats.

Your therapist asks you to pick objects and figurines to represent the people you are conflicted with and place them in the sand tray.

Then together with your therapist, you can work to understand the reasons you chose each figurine and the positions you have placed to understand better the truth behind how you feel about the people represented and any emotions you have attached to them.

Sandbox therapy can be potent, especially when you and your therapist begin to rearrange the symbols. Doing this together suddenly gives you a deeper understanding of how you see the people in your life and allows you to feel a sense of power over them.

Drama Therapy. Another immensely powerful tool therapists can use is drama therapy. This type of treatment involves a specially trained therapist who understands not only how to utilize trauma therapy but also can recognize when someone is getting into emotional trouble while using it.

Drama therapy is done in a group of people with whom you have been in group therapy before and have acquired trust. The therapist will ask you to relate a scenario you have been working on in private therapy and to choose people from the group to represent the other people involved.

Managing Your Recovery from CPTSD

There are no magic tricks or rabbits to pull out of a hat when it comes to healing from the effects of CPTSD. However, that doesn’t mean healing cannot happen. Recovery does and will occur, but it requires steadfastness in the heart and a lot of guts to accomplish.

But hey, you’ve already survived the original traumatic event, this should be easier than that for someone as strong as you.

Below are three ways to survive psychotherapy to heal from CPTSD.

Setting Recovery as a Goal for Treatment.

Although co-occurring problems may exist, it is vital for your trauma-informed therapist to help you understand they will get better as you work through what happened in your past.

The other symptoms or disorders, such as depression and anxiety, are not the overarching concerns, but rather effects from working on your recovery from complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

As many understand, the expectation is recovery.

Focus on Your Strengths Rather Than Your Illness.

Many skills can be learned to cope with childhood trauma, and a trauma-informed therapist will work with you to use them.

Your therapist may ask you questions to help you think and keep focused on the future such as, “What are some of your accomplishments which make you feel proud?”  By using positive language, your therapist will help you recognize you are capable of coping well even with tough experiences.

Try and do any assignments your therapist may offer you. Doing homework greatly speeds up the process and offers you new insights into yourself.

Learn Resiliency

Resiliency’s best described as the ability to overcome challenges of all types—including tragedy and personal crises—and bounce back stronger than before. Most of us who have survived childhood trauma is already very resilient.

However, we often overreact or do not respond appropriately when faced with problems in our adult lives. Your trauma-informed therapist can help you understand some fundamental concepts such as how life is not fair, or how life is not easy.

Once you have these lessons under your belt, events such as life changes, struggles, and death take on a new perspective, as they are just parts of life that all humans share.

My Parting Words on the Symptoms of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

As someone who herself struggles with the symptoms of CPTSD and another more severe mental health condition, I can attest that the challenging work in healing will pay off in the end.

I still have days when I do not feel well, and sometimes I wonder “why me” and feel the effects of the disorder.

However, I know in my heart because of my experiences, that the clouds will part, and the sun will shine again in my life.

I have learned that since I am still here, after all, I have been through that there must be a special purpose in my life. The same can be said for you.

Don’t ever, ever give up the fight. Reach, stretch, jump, and grab your dreams because they are a force for good in your life. Never believe you aren’t worthy of life because the fact you are still breathing proves that wrong.

If you take nothing more from this piece, please remember, there are others out there in Internet land who understand and have been where you are.

You are not alone.