C-PTSD: From Stigma to Healing

Traumatized people often suffer from anxiety and depression, among other symptoms. Others might accuse them of being rude or hypersensitive. After hearing such comments, traumatized people feel worse about themselves. This stigma makes it difficult to heal.

However, life doesn’t have to be that way, and first impressions are not necessarily accurate. In order to understand why traumatized people might come off as rude or hypersensitive when they didn’t intend to, it is necessary to examine what’s going on inside them.

What Is C-PTSD?

Most people think of trauma as something primarily war veterans experience. We’ve all heard of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), which is limited to single traumatic incidents. But did you know that repeated trauma over time during childhood results in C-PTSD?

Another factor to consider is that everyone processes trauma differently and is at a different stage of the healing process. One person being able to handle their trauma seemingly easier than someone else with a similar trauma does not mean that it was not harmful to them. Sometimes, the phrase “What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger” doesn’t apply. And it’s okay to admit a lack of strength in dealing with trauma. That’s where a professional diagnosis comes in.


C-PTSD can be misdiagnosed as Borderline Personality Disorder. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk has theorized that BPD and C-PTSD are one and the same. C-PTSD can also be misdiagnosed as ADD or ADHD. Regardless, many trauma victims have more than one issue at once. This is known as comorbidity.

Brain Development

After a traumatic incident, the brain can remember it or blackout the memories. A blackout occurs when the body reacts against the harm of trauma by forcing the victim to forget what happened. This is also known as psychogenic, dissociative or functional amnesia. It is a disorder that affects one’s identity, memory, consciousness, and perception. As a result, trauma victims are often disbelieved because they often remember sensations over specific personal or circumstantial details, such as time. The after-effects of trauma are not limited to the specific incident or incidents in question and can continue for years — even for the rest of one’s life.

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk once explained it this way:

“…their problems primarily have to do with attention; being able to focus in on something and engage with something in a very steady, consistent way. So they get thrown off, they have a hard time focusing on things, concentrating on things, filtering irrelevant stuff out, so they get hijacked. That’s one very big issue that deserves its own special series of treatments.”

Children experience developmental issues from C-PTSD, such as a lack of socialization, but it does not mean they are lacking in intelligence any less than other people. In fact, they can have a high IQ. It’s just not very important for the whole picture: Emotional intelligence also matters, and it is emotional intelligence which therapists address. It is difficult for trauma victims to regulate their emotions.

According to Dr. Bessel van der Kolk:

“The second thing is the core issue of affect regulation. That is, we have our emotions in order to tell us what to do or where to go, to orient our bodies and minds to the reality around us. Traumatized people’s emotions become too large, too extreme, or they become too quiet.”

Because they experienced repeated traumatic incidents and did not have the support necessary to process that trauma, people with C-PTSD do not activate the same areas of the brain non-traumatized people do; namely, the amygdala, which governs the emotions. They also have an increase of the hormones cortisol and norepinephrine.

Brain scans show a decrease in the function of the areas governing the autonomic nervous system, memory, emotion, impulse control, empathy, decision-making, planning, social moderation, self-expression, and cognition. That is why cognitive and awareness exercises such as mindfulness are so helpful.


An incident, word, or anything else that reminds the victim of their trauma is a trigger. A trigger activates their traumatic stress response in various ways:

  • Flashbacks: Memories of the trauma or traumas.
  • Dissociation: The sensation of being detached from what’s going on and not being present mentally, or observing from a distance.
  • Depersonalization: Feeling like one is outside of their body, is unreal or unrecognizable to themselves. Some people describe it as a “glass wall” sensation where they cannot connect with what’s happening around them.
  • Anxiety, depression, anger, and other overwhelming emotions
  • The 4 Fs: According to Pete Walker, our survival instincts are Fight, Flight (or Flee), Freeze and Fawn.
  • Negative thought cycle: Many mental health professionals acknowledge that abuse victims internalize their abusers’ words towards them or are so affected by trauma that they engage in harsh self-criticism, which lowers their self-esteem and causes the cycle to repeat itself.

Therapeutic Methods

Current therapies for C-PTSD include, but are not limited to:

  • Somatic Experiencing
  • Mindfulness practices
  • Meditation
  • Bodywork that integrates yoga, exercise, etc.
  • Accelerated Resolution Therapy

Nobody should have to dwell on their pain. Accelerated Resolution Therapy can put you on the fast track to healing. Contact us or look through our therapist directory to learn more about how we can help you.

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