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Complex Trauma: The 3 Phases of Recovery

March 7, 2022

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The Meadows

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By Beau Black

Complex trauma is a term used for repeated, chronic emotional pain or abuse, often suffered in childhood or adolescence. It can cause long-term problems that are similar in some ways, but distinct in others, from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and also from “regular” trauma. But there are options for complex trauma treatment that can help those struggling, and even feeling hopeless about it, to find healing.

Complex trauma is a term used for repeated, chronic emotional pain or abuse, often suffered in childhood or adolescence.

Though not yet in the American Psychiatric Association’s official diagnostic manual, also called the DSM-5, complex trauma is now a widely accepted diagnosis. It encompasses exposure to “multiple, often interrelated forms of traumatic experience and the difficulties that arise as a result of adapting to or surviving these experiences,” according to ComplexTrauma.org.

Such trauma may come in the form of emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse, and may be perpetrated by a caretaker. And this may cause “fundamental changes to brain development, neurochemistry, psychological stress response, and associated alterations in [a person’s] identity, behavior, and relationships” as they try to endure the abuse. Some may even get hit with a double-dose of abuse (as discussed here), both in the home, and again at school via bullying, leaving a survivor doubly traumatized.

What Are the Symptoms of Complex Trauma?

According to VeryWellHealth.com, complex trauma symptoms include:

  • Difficulty managing emotional responses (anger, depression, and suicidal thoughts)
  • Detachment, including bouts with memory loss or dissociation
  • Negative self-image, shame, and guilt
  • Trouble with relationships, including self-isolating and difficulty trusting others
  • Unhealthy fixation on the abuser
  • Loss of religion and other beliefs
  • Sense of hopelessness

In contrast, VeryWellHealth.com reports that PTSD symptoms include reliving trauma, avoiding triggering situations, changes in beliefs and feelings, hyperarousal (feeling constantly on edge), and somatic symptoms of various kinds (like unexplained pain or ear ringing). Complex trauma (or C-PTSD) can lead to substance abuse, self-harm, avoidance, and the inability to accept criticism.

blocks spelling out trauma

Three Phases of Trauma Recovery

Harvard psychiatrist Judith Herman developed the C-PTSD diagnosis, as well as a model of the three phases of recovery from complex or severe trauma. Her steps for overcoming trauma are shared in Psychology in the Real World’s writing collection and summarized here:

  • Stage 1

This is where you get an overview of the recovery process, making sure you’re in a safe and stable place physically and relationally. You’re learning how to regulate emotions and preparing mentally for recovery, including preparing to reencounter damaging memories. It’s important here to begin identifying destructive patterns of behavior and learn to respond differently. It’s vital not to begin engaging traumatic memories until stage two.

  • Stage 2

This stage moves into dealing with difficult memories and the emotions and reactions they stir up. You’re working through grief from unwanted or abusive experiences and also grieving positive experiences you missed out on.

Memory processing can be accomplished through traditional talk therapy, as well as newer techniques like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).

Memory processing can be accomplished through traditional talk therapy, as well as newer techniques like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). This is a process that can be effective at ending the influence of memories in your daily life using alternating side-to-side stimulation of a sense using lights, gently-vibrating paddles held in each hand, or sounds, which we experience while accessing traumatic memories. The treatment can help dissolve the sharp bodily or emotional reactions to the trauma. Antidepressants may also be prescribed to complement therapy.

  • Stage 3

Finally, this is the step where your energies are focused on reestablishing healthy relationships and reengaging with a normal routine of life and activities from which trauma kept you disconnected.

Is Healing from Complex Trauma Possible?

Because of its severity and time frame of taking place most often in childhood or adolescence, complex trauma recovery can be challenging. However, there are proven techniques for helping patients heal and move on from it. Finding support, both in the form of a treatment program or therapist and supporting network of friends and family, can help struggling patients overcome complex trauma and reenter the world they’ve been isolated from.

Are you ready to take steps toward freedom from a traumatic past? We at The Meadows are here to help.