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Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder CPTSD Symptoms

In my previous blog, I talked about CPTSD and what it is. Today I would like explain further the signs and symptoms of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder


Complex post-traumatic stress disorder develops as a result of some kind of trauma experienced as a child whether it is emotional abuse, physical, spiritual or sexual abuse. It is ongoing abuse where you as a child believes that there is no way out for you, so you adopt behaviours, beliefs and values to help you survive them.

These behaviours, beliefs and values helped us to survive as children but when we still have them as an adult, they can often cause problems for us. The symptoms as the title suggests, is complex and varies quite widely between individuals.

I have read from different sources that adults can develop CPTSD symptoms, especially after experiencing domestic violence or anything else traumatising. I’m inclined to disagree with that as I believe that there would have experienced some trauma as a child then the experience of domestic violence re-traumatised them. Very often the domestic violence triggers things that the victim experienced in childhood and hasn’t dealt with.

There are lot of people that also say that they had a good childhood where their parents looked after them as best as they can, I’m not here to blame but to find a way to help you understand why you feel the way you do.

This example explains trauma that is not dealt with. Trauma not dealt with is just like have a leaky roof that isn’t fixed. You may go on happily with the damaged roof until it starts to rain. One shower of rain probably won’t cause any damage, but it will cause damage if it continues to rain over time. If the leaky roof was fixed, then the heavy rain fall may have caused some damage, but it would no way be as bad if they had not have fixed the roof.

In life, you can’t always prevent trauma from happening but if you are loved well, and given the three A’s (Affirmation, Attention, Affection) as child, that would help in your healing.

Ive included a link here to a quiz that you could take to give you some idea if you have been affected by CPTSD.


What are the symptoms of CPTSD

  • Finding it difficult controlling your emotions. Having emotional outbursts that are not in keeping with the situation.
  • You may be fixed with one or two ways of dealing with stress, relationships. You may fight (aggressive, passive aggressive, controlling etc) Flight (perfectionist, worry a lot, workaholic) Freeze (disconnected, detached) Fawn (people pleaser, doormat)
  • Low mood, panic attacks, feelings of anxiety, depression sometimes suicidal thoughts.
  • Find it difficult to trust people, so you find it difficult forming deep and meaningful friendships and partnerships
  • Constantly feeling empty or hopeless sometimes even despair
  • You avoid friendships and relationships as you find them difficult 
  • You lack confidence and have low self esteem.
  • You feel different from other people but you don’t know why
  • Feeling like nobody can understand what happened to you as a lot of the time emotional abuse is difficult to explain to others. Especially if to the outside world your family seems great

I will explain the symptoms using the example of a guy called Martin who experiences CPTSD, who I have totally made up as I don’t know anyone called Martin.


Emotional Flashbacks

With PTSD, the flashbacks are quite visual, you actually see it like a movie playing back in your head.

The flashbacks with CPTSD are emotional where Martin is brought back emotionally to childhood experiences. A lot of this is done on a sub-conscious level and he is generally not fully aware. Something could trigger that is happening in the present but how he is reacting now is 90% in relation to his childhood experiences. For example, Martin got really angry at his drug worker because he did not get his methadone script on time. He started shouting and swearing at his drug worker on how incompetent she is etc. She started to cry. The drug worker quite naturally couldn’t understand why he reacted so badly as it is something that could be sorted out and shouting and swearing won’t speed things up.

However, Martin experienced trauma where his parents were often verbally abusive. There was no love or kindness in his home. As a child he didn’t feel loved so to cope with all of that he took all his anger and frustrations out on his siblings and school friends. 

His parents were controlling and aggressive towards Michael all his life from when he was born they would leave him crying for hours. 

He emotionally flashed back to this time as he felt his drug worker was controlling, like his parents.

Martin could stay in this emotional flash back for ages where, understandably, he would be difficult to communicate with. Emotional flash backs can range in intensity they can be quite mild to quite severe as you can imagine someone with anger problems.

When people experience trauma they respond in either a fight mode as in Martin fought back in an aggressive way and probably has done for most of his life. Other types of responses are Flight where someone finds a way to escape, freeze – they can disassociate or zone out. Or Fawn – where the people would do all they can to appease the situation, make them happy, be a bit of a people pleaser. The drug worker here might be a bit of a Fawn as she may go over the top to try and help him and blame herself for what’s gone wrong.


Toxic Shame

Toxic shame is a big topic in itself

If I could just describe it very briefly – Shame is a good thing to have, we all need to have shame as it can act as a moral compass in how we treat ourselves and other people. The problem with Toxic shame is that instead of saying sorry I’ve made a mistake, the Shame with toxic shame is enduring, it’s part of their personality – they see themselves as the mistake.

With Martin, underlying his anger with the worker is his own lack of self-worth and self-hatred. Even though he comes across as confident, underneath  his swagger, he has self-loathing. He really hates himself and believes he is treated the way he is because he is not loveable. Because of his anger, it’s really hard to get to the fact that Martin really is in a lot of emotional pain.

This feeling of toxic shame could also leave Martin feeling helpless and hopeless – instead of asking for help he would be flashing back to his childhood when he was abandoned and would be feeling that way. Those feelings of abandonment would make him feel even worse for such a situation that can easily be resolved.

Hope you could see now that when you see people react over the top to situations that to us seems quite OK, they could be having an emotion flashback, coupled with the toxic shame of feeling not good enough, self-hatred etc. On top of that still feeling abandoned and neglected like Martin was when he was a child

He could also have a vicious inner critic that wouldn’t help as he really puts himself down and is extremely critical of himself and other people.

The problem with clients like Martin is that they generally tend to stay in services for a very long time. Unless his underlying trauma is dealt with, he would continue to find life difficult. That’s why when you treat someone with CPTSD just for some of the symptoms they present, it doesn’t work and you find that people keep one going back to different counsellors, therapists etc. but unless you get to the root of the trauma, it won’t work and it’s not sustainable.

Also, as you could imagine, some people who have CPTSD get misdiagnosed with other things which doesn’t help. CPTSD is a learned behaviour which can be unlearned over time. You are not crazy, Martin isn’t crazy, he is just responding to behaviours that he learned in childhood that at the time he needed it to survive. But those behaviours are not serving him at the moment as he is stuck but he can, with the right support and over a period of time, can be unstuck or at least things can improve for him a lot.


1 thought on “Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder CPTSD Symptoms”

  1. My wife showed me this article on her phone. I borrowed her phone and read this article so I left a response on her phone. I had an 18 year old grandson who put a .40 Cal. handgun to his head and ended his life sitting on the floor next to his bed. This absolutely devistated my wife and me. I don’t know whether this article relates to him or not but I found it very interesting. We were not close to him because they lived too far away while he was growing up. His parents don’t know why he did this! My daughter doesn’t know how she missed it. My wife and I remain perplexed over this tragic loss of life. I feel that the root of his problem remains a mystery to us but not to everyone. Maybe someday the truth will find its way to the surface. I love my family no matter what happens to them in life. I believe that love conquers all situations that we face in this life. Coupled with prayer, I believe that the healing power of God is available to everyone and we should always exercise this love to everyone all the time. This love is what we hold on to, to overcome the desires of the flesh and soul that we carry throughout our lives.
    Paul G.


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