Several of our Therapists that are seeing clients in person have now been vaccinated. In addition to offering in person appointments we are also seeing clients for online sessions via video call.
Thursday, 20 Aug 2020

What Does it Actually Mean to Suffer from “Complex Trauma?”

By Dr Becky Spelman
What Does “Complex Trauma” Mean? | Private Therapy Clinic

Traditionally, trauma is the response to any event that causes us distress. These range from verbal abuse, physical attacks, witnessing horrific accidents – anything that would cause you psychological distress would be classed as a trauma. We can all experience these during the course of our life, which we’re often able to come to terms with of our own accord. Complex trauma, on the other hand, occurs when there is a continued and cumulative period of abuse, usually withing relationships and various other settings.

How Do You Define Complex Trauma?

Complex trauma is the result of traumatic events and experiences that meet a specific set of criteria, which marks them out as being:

  • Repeated, prolonged and/or cumulative in nature.
  • Most often involve interpersonal relationships, which usually involves physical violence, exploitation, neglect, abandonment and antipathy by either the parents or guardians of a child.
  • Often occurring during the early stages of life during a child’s developmental years – either in childhood or adolescence.

However, although complex trauma is closely associated with childhood abuse, it can and still does occur in adults. Anyone who’s in a position of vulnerability or feels sufficiently disempowered that they allow themselves to be taken advantage of is susceptible to the effects of complex trauma.

For those that have been the subject of abuse over a prolonged period of time, they will find themselves at risk of developing emotional difficulties that can often impair an individual’s ability to function properly. For example, those children that have experienced childhood trauma are more prone to the effects of dissociation as they try to suppress their feelings. When a child is abused by someone that they’re meant to instinctually trust, it causes a huge disconnect from the body. Children that have experienced such trauma often remember it in 3rd person perspective as if it’s not them that’s actually the in that scene – such is the pain that it’s caused them.

Common Causes of Complex Trauma

  • Experiencing childhood neglect
  • Experiencing any type of childhood abuse
  • Experiencing domestic abuse as an adult
  • Being a victim of human trafficking
  • Being a prisoner of war
  • Living in war-torn countries

Common Symptoms of Complex Trauma

  • Reliving the trauma through flashbacks and nightmares
  • Avoiding situations that remind them of traumas
  • Dizziness and /or nausea when remembering trauma
  • Hyperarousal (being in constant state of danger)
  • Believing the world is a dangerous place
  • Complete distrust in oneself and in others
  • Difficulty sleeping and other cognitive issues
  • Being easily startled

Recognising Complex Trauma

There is a range of signs and symptoms that can help you recognise when complex trauma is at play. They include regulating impulse such as anger, self-destructiveness, guilt, feeling responsible for their trauma, the inability to be intimate with someone as well as other somatic issues. Here is a further look at what exactly can occur in a diagnosis of complex trauma:

Emotional Regulation: This relates to the victim’s inability to maintain a steady emotional baseline. They may be prone to episodes of anger, sadness, hopelessness, despair and many other emotions that have been heightened due to their previous experiences.

Cognitive Impairment: Those who’ve suffered from prolonged bouts of trauma may have difficulty remembering the exact details of these events. Trauma often interferes with the part of the brain that’s responsible for learning and remembering. Survivors of complex trauma can not only experience visual flashbacks but can also have emotional flashbacks.

Self-Perception: If someone has endured enough abuse over an extended period, it can cause them to develop a feeling of ‘toxic shame.’ and that what has happened to them somehow makes them less than. This leads to piling guilt on themselves for “allowing” this to happen and that cycles of negative self-talk which can keep a survivor of complex trauma stuck a mode of re-experiencing their abuse.

Identifying with Your Abuser: There is an effect in people who are experiencers of long-term abuse that cause them to create a ‘trauma bond.’ This is where the victim has forged a deep emotional relationship with their abuser as a survival mechanism. As a result, they then may feel the need to defend their abuser to the extent that they rationalise their actions and even enable it further.

Social Stuntedness: One of the biggest legacies that complex trauma can have on an individual is trust issues. Since most instances of abuse are perpetrated by those that are closest to them, it often causes the victim to become withdrawn in social situations and even self-isolate as a preventative measure to avoid putting themselves in any future danger.

Associated Behaviours in Complex Trauma

For those who are survivors of complex trauma, they may begin to exhibit behaviours that are intended as coping mechanisms to help them deal with their issues. These are rarely conscious decisions but are usually acted out subconsciously. Some of the most common include:

  • Abusing alcohol or drugs
  • Avoiding confrontation by becoming “people-pleaser.”
  • Over-reacting over minor criticisms
  • Self-harm

It’s hoped that as someone heals from their traumas, these behaviours will lessen over time. One of the most effective ways to do this is by taking a pro-active approach by replacing these behaviours with new positive ones.

Treating Complex Trauma

If you’re suffering from any form of complex trauma, there are a range of highly effective therapies that can assist you in getting past your issues of distrust and hurt in a safe and secure environment.


The most common route you might take in psychotherapy which can either take place on a one-to-one capacity or in a group setting.

This type of therapy is intended to stabilise you doing the following:

  • Addressing your feelings of distrust and negative outlook on life
  • Improving your ability to create and maintain connections with others
  • Enable to you deal with flashbacks and anxiety

Some of the most popular approaches in this area are:

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT): This focuses on replacing negative thought patterns and behaviour with more positive ones.

Dialectal Behavioural Therapy (DBT): This focuses on helping you deal with stress, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts and/or behaviours.

Eye Movement Desensitisation & Reprocessing (EMDR)

This is a technique that is commonly used to treat those with PTSD and/or Complex PTSD. It is still considered a somewhat unconventional approach to therapy as the mechanics behind it still aren’t yet clear. However, the American Psychological Association does recommend EMDR as a treatment for complex trauma.

About the author:

Dr Becky Spelman is a leading UK Psychologist who’s had great success helping her clients manage and overcome a multitude of mental illnesses.

***If you’re suffering from complex trauma and think you might benefit from speaking to someone, we offer a FREE 15-MINUTE CONSULTATION with one of our specialists to help you find the best way to move forward. You can book yours here


Psych Central (8th Oct 2018)Complex Trauma: Dissociation, Fragmentation, and Self Understanding. Retrieved on 24th July, 2020 from,

Psychology Today (31st Jul 2012) Recognizing Complex Trauma. Retrieved on 24th July, 2020 from,

Medical New Today (28th Aug 2018)What to know about complex PTSD. Retrieved on 24th July, 2020 from,

Check out other related articles

  • 08 Mar 2020

    8 Characteristics That Indicate a Traumatic Childhood (And What They Mean)

    The effects of childhood trauma are difficult but certainly not impossible to overcome. In fact, it's entirely possible to unlearn many of the traits that have imprinted themselves on your psyche at an early age. But there is nothing that can be done without first realising the effects that your upb.....

  • 28 Nov 2019

    Could You Be Suffering from Transgenerational Trauma?

    The idea of trauma being cyclical is not new. In fact, it's an idea that's been around for almost as long the study of psychology, itself. Rarely, does a trauma present itself without reason. There is always a root cause responsible for the mental and emotional turmoil that is felt in the present. T.....

  • 30 Dec 2019

    Overcoming Childhood Trauma: Understanding Blame

    Trauma is never a welcome experience. It can leave deep scars that take years to heal – if they ever do at all. But when it occurs in childhood, it has a long-lasting effect on our psychological development......

  • 10 Sep 2020

    Overcoming Traumatic Stress: The Four Places of Safety

    Traumatic stress occurs in response to extraordinary events such as natural disasters, involvement in vehicle crashes, violent crime and terrorist attacks. The toll that this type of stress takes on the body can be overwhelming......