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What is Complex Trauma?

Complex trauma or complex post-traumatic stress disorder is a term used when you experience some difficulties associated with post traumatic stress disorder such as intrusions, poor sleep, irritability, avoidance, low mood, hypervigilance and numbness, along with additional issues, such as:

  • difficulty controlling your emotions

  • feeling very angry or distrustful towards the world

  • constant feelings of emptiness or hopelessness

  • feeling as if you are permanently damaged or worthless

  • feeling as if you are completely different to other people

  • feeling like nobody can understand what happened to you

  • avoiding friendships and relationships, or finding them very difficult

  • often experiencing dissociation (disconnected from self, emotions or world around you) 

  • physical symptoms, such as headaches, dizziness, chest pains and stomach aches

  • regular suicidal feelings.


What causes complex trauma?

The types of traumatic events that can cause complex trauma  may include:

  • childhood abuse, neglect or abandonment

  • ongoing domestic violence or abuse

  • repeatedly witnessing violence or abuse

  • being forced or manipulated into trading sex

  • torture, kidnapping or slavery

  • being a prisoner of war

You are more likely to develop complex trauma if:

  • you experienced trauma at an early age

  • the trauma lasted for a long time

  • escape or rescue were unlikely or impossible

  • you have experienced multiple traumas

  • you were harmed by someone close to you

What is Developmental Trauma?

Developmental trauma can be another term for complex trauma or complex PTSD and it relates to trauma experienced in a child’s early development. Such trauma can arise from maltreatment, family violence, or a disruption in a child's attachment to their primary caregiver(s). The quality of this primary relationship shapes the child’s basic ability to trust and how positively or negatively they view the world, themself and others. The quality of this first attachment impacts all other relationships. When an infant experiences consistent care where his/her/their needs are met, he/she/they internalise three things:

·         I am safe

·         I am heard

·         I am valuable

Watch this short video to learn more about how childhood trauma impacts on brain development, emotions, behaviour and relationships.





The importance of attachment affects more than just future healthy relationships. It also impacts a child’s ability to self-regulate. When an infant’s needs are met by a nurturing primary caregiver, the infant’s emotional dysregulation is calmed. Over many repetitions of an infant feeling stress, expressing distress and receiving a nurturing response, the child is able to integrate this pattern as self-soothing during stressful times. This is important as the child matures into an adult, who is able to handle disappointments, opposition and stressful situations by remaining regulated.


If a secure attachment is not formed then a child may have difficulties with emotion regulation, relationships and sense of safety as an adult. 

“PTSD is a good definition for acute trauma in adults. However, when the trauma occurs in childhood, because children’s brains are still developing, trauma has a much more pervasive and long-range influence on their self-concept, on their sense of the world and on their ability to regulate themselves.”

 Dr van der Kolk, Professor of Psychiatry at Boston University Medical School

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