Complex trauma often occurs when individuals have endured multiple or chronic traumatic stressors, such as in the case of prolonged physical or sexual abuse, neglect, or combat experience. It can also result from the cumulative stress of multiple traumatic experiences throughout one’s life. It differs from acute trauma, which only results from a single incident or shocking event.
Complex trauma generates complex reactions. It can alter one’s brain chemistry and hijack the nervous system. The threat perception part of the brain can become more activated and essentially ‘fear driven.’ The nervous system can also be stuck in overstimulation, where it becomes challenging for the individual to self-regulate out of that fight or flight state. This is when people start experiencing anxiety, panic, and other uncomfortable emotional states.
Repeated overwhelming experiences can alter one’s self-perception and lead to feelings of worthlessness, self-destructive behaviour and difficulties in relationships, among other challenging outcomes. It is common for shame or guilt to arise with the onset of such symptoms, but it is essential to note that people are not consciously choosing these symptoms. Their brain’s altered chemistry is expressing itself as a result of the trauma.
How can counselling help?
Counselling can facilitate those who struggle with complex trauma to process their experiences in a space where they will be heard and validated. Self-regulation is a tool often taught to help clients be aware of and modulate their levels of arousal and anxiety to restore balance in the nervous system. Counselling can also heal attachment wounds related to repeated trauma and introduce healthier coping methods. There is no one way to address trauma. Multiple evidence- based modalities exist within counselling that work with healing and integrating traumatic experiences.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Courtois, C. A. (2004). Complex trauma, complex reactions: Assessment and treatment. Psychotherapy: Theory, research, practice, training, 41(4), 412.
Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Viking.
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