When I was little, I burnt my hand on the stove. I felt the distinct realization that something was not right. Then, I felt the fire tearing into my skin. I burst in tears. Even as I ran my arm under the cooling tap water, I could feel my skin burning from beneath. I thought I’d never forget that hot, blistering pain. I never wanted to touch the stove again. But with a bandaid and some time, the fire under my skin disappeared. My skin healed and the pain I felt become a distant memory.
Like my burn, the fear and pain I had once felt went away. But what if it never did? What if everyday, for the rest of my life, I felt same pain? What if I woke up and went to bed everyday with fire under my skin? What if I take my hand and plunge it in ice, and it burns me still the same? What if I hoped that it’d go away and when it didn’t, I despaired. I despair because it was all I could do and then suddenly, it was gone?
The burning sensation has stopped. But does that mean that it was over?
For anyone suffering from complex PTSD, the answer is no. Even long after their trauma, those with complex PTSD still feel the burn on their skin. Complex PTSD, also known as disorders of extreme stress not otherwise specified, is a mental disorder that develops under months and years of constant, recurring abuse. Often, prolonged trauma meant that survivors of complex PTSD had little to no chance of escape. Under these dire conditions, their body has learned hopelessness and changed with it.
Unlike PTSD, which stems from a single event, symptoms of complex PTSD are more enduring and diverse. On top of symptoms associated with PTSD, such as flashbacks and hyperarousal, those with complex PTSD show symptoms of depression and borderline personality disorder. Some of the most noticeable include difficulties with emotional expression, poor self-perception, dissociation, difficulty with relationships, and loss of faith in major beliefs.
“How do you keep your head up when you’re drowning and the memories take over? How can you and actually can you, really connect with other who have gone through complex trauma. I shut myself off and the people I know are similar to me – we summarise our life in a sentence or two and that’s it.”
Complex PTSD is a terrible, and lonely condition. It is not easy to come to terms what happened, nevertheless share it with others. However, seeking discreet, professional help can be the first step to moving on. Complex PTSD is a relatively new diagnosis in the psychiatric world, but there are solutions. Just as symptoms of complex PTSD had been learned to cope a under set of highly distressing circumstances, therapy and support can help patients relearn how to function in newer, safer reality. One of the most commonly used therapy techniques, cognitive behavioral therapy, can help complex PTSD patients recognize their negative thought patterns and replace them with positive ones. Dialectical behavioral therapy, a type of cognitive behavioral therapy, targets building better stress management, emotional regulation, and relationships. Developing the ability to sooth the pain of reliving the trauma over and over again is one of the most important skills for trauma survivors. Although all the symptoms may never fully disappear, complex PTSD survivors can learn to lead a better life despite it. The strength, wisdom, and happiness they learn can never be taken away from them again.
Ford, J. D., & Courtois, C. A. (2014). Complex PTSD, affect dysregulation, and borderline personality disorder. Borderline personality disorder and emotion dysregulation, 1, 9. doi:10.1186/2051-6673-1-9
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Star, G. (2017, September 21). What is complex PTSD. Retrieved from https://www.sane.org/the-sane-blog/mental-illness/what-is-complex-ptsd?_ga=2.30303231.1184880170.1541986257-1314069519.1541986257