Counselors talk about trauma as if all traumas lead to traumatic reactions. They do not. Some people have significant distress from what might be considered slight traumatic experiences (surely an oxymoron!) while others appear not have any negative or ongoing reactions to very large distressing events.
There’s another problem. We sometimes talk as if all traumatic reactions are the same. This is also not the case. While the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are well-known to many (i.e., intrusive re-experiencing of trauma experiences, emotional numbing and other attempts of avoiding memories or triggers, and hypervigilance), you can find counseling students and practitioners who are less aware of a cousin of PTSD: Complex Trauma.
Defining Complex Trauma
I’m reading Treating complex Traumatic Stress Disorders: An Evidence-Based Guide, edited by Christine Courtois and Julian Ford (Guilford Press, 2009). This is an excellent text if you are interested in exploring the symptoms, neurobiology, and treatment protocols for complex trauma. In the foreword, Judith Herman helps the reader clarify the main difference between regular and complex trauma
These days, when I teach about complex PTSD, I always begin with the social ecology of prolonged and repeated interpersonal trauma. There are two main points to grasp here. The first is that such trauma is always embedded in a social structure that permits the abuse and exploitation of a subordinate group… The second point is that such trauma is always relational. It takes place when the victim is in a state of captivity, under the control and domination of the perpetrator. (xiv, emphases mine).
For trauma to become complex one needs to experience the trauma at the hands of those who are most perceived to control a social unit (family, community, etc.). It needs to be repeated and woven into the fabric of distorted relationships. You can see that prolonged abuses experienced as a child prior to development of an understanding of the world and of the self would have more devastating impact than an unfortunate and distressing event that happens as an adult. If I experience a horrific accident and an unexpected attack by a stranger, I would not, usually, begin to feel unsafe amongst friends and family. I would likely continue to trust them even as I might not trust the larger community. However, if I experience repeated abuse by a teacher, a parent, a relative, a church leader as a young child, I do not have the prior experiences of safety to rely on and thus, I am likely to experience all of the symptoms of PTSD and then some more.
What More Symptoms?
Courtois and Ford give a cursory description of complex trauma on the first page of the book,
…involving traumatic stressors that (1) are repetitive or prolonged; (2) involve direct harm and/or neglect and abandonment by caregivers or ostensibly responsible adults; (3) occur at developmentally vulnerable times in the victim’s life, such as early childhood; and (4) have great potential to compromise severely a child’s development.
Adding to the typical symptoms of PTSD, complex trauma victims also struggle to regulate emotions, impulses, somatic experiences, consciousness, and evidence significant distortions in views of the self and others leading to difficulty forming trust relationships and finding meaning in life and faith.
Those interested in learning more about the current thinking on complex trauma conceptualization and treatment may find this book useful. Others may wish to check out the latest articles at www.traumacenter.org, one of the leading centers in the country focused on the problem of trauma.