Learn about the signs, symptoms and causes of complex trauma.
What is Complex Trauma?
People who experience a traumatic event will often have some degree of dissociation during the event itself or in the following hours, days or weeks. For example, the event seems ‘unreal’ or the person feels detached from what’s going on around them as if watching the events on television.
Causes of Complex Trauma
Chronic trauma in childhood can include repeated physical or sexual abuse, emotional abuse or neglect. Unpredictable or frightening family environments may also cause the child to ‘disconnect’ from reality during times of stress.
Traumatic events that occur during adulthood may also include war, torture or going through a natural disaster.
Signs and Symptoms
Symptoms and signs of complex trauma depend on the type and severity, but may include:
Feeling disconnected from yourself
Problems with handling intense emotions
Sudden and unexpected shifts in mood – for example, feeling very sad for no reason
Depression or anxiety problems, or both
Feeling as though the world is distorted or not real (called ‘derealisation’)
Memory problems that aren’t linked to physical injury or medical conditions
Other cognitive (thought-related) problems such as concentration problems
Significant memory lapses such as forgetting important personal information
Feeling compelled to behave in a certain way
Identity confusion – for example, behaving in a way that the person would normally find offensive or abhorrent
Options may include:
A safe environment – Doctors will try to get the person to feel safe and relaxed, which is enough to trigger memory recall in some people with dissociative disorders
Psychiatric drugs – such as barbiturates
Hypnosis – may help to recover repressed memories, although this form of treatment for dissociative disorders is considered controversial
Psychotherapy – also known as ‘talk therapy’ or counselling, which is usually needed for the long term. Examples include cognitive therapy and psychoanalysis
Stress management – since stress can trigger symptoms
Treatment for other disorders – typically, a person with a complex trauma may have other mental health problems such as depression or anxiety. Treatment may include antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications to try to improve the symptoms of chronic trauma.