Understanding Complex Trauma

Traumatic experiences by definition are frightening & overwhelming.

At A Positive Start CIC, we seek to explore and understand trauma, distress and human suffering without using medicalisation or pathologisation.

The ‘D’ in many mental health issues such as CPTSD or PTSD is for ‘disorder. The medical term disordered is a condition characterised by a lack of normal functioning. There is a tendency to interpret ‘disordered’ as meaning – ‘there is something ‘wrong’ with us, which can hinder our recovery.

Shame is an emotion regularly associated with trauma and abuse and characterized by the belief that you are ‘bad’, a distorted sense of self as being, unworthy, not good enough, damaged – ‘disordered’.

As children we are entirely dependent upon our primary caregivers for safety and connection in the world. When parents are frightening, abusive or emotionally unavailable to us, we tend to inaccurately apply meaning to their behaviours. Rather than interpreting their behaviours to mean ‘there must be something wrong with them, we tend to blame ourselves instead, applying the meaning; ‘there must be something wrong with me’.

“Trauma is not what happens to us, but the meaning we apply to what happens to us.” – Bessel Van Der Kolk

If we have experienced Adverse Childhood Experiences the meaning we may have applied from an early age is, ‘ I am not good enough, or ‘there must be something wrong with me’  – therefore it is very easy to accept we are disordered, and what we believe – is true!

As lived experience practitioners, we acknowledge and accept that the symptoms we experience as a result of trauma are ‘perfectly natural given the circumstances, we as an organisation choose to replace the term ‘disordered’ with ‘response’. Survival mode is a natural response to threat (real or perceived) in all mammals. It is not a disorder.

So Instead of using the label ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’, we instead say ‘ Post Traumatic Stress Response. This is to encourage and aid healing and recovery, it is not intended to minimise individual experience.

Post Traumatic Stress Response (PTSR) is often associated with single events such as a road traffic accident, a violent assault, being caught up in a war or disaster. After a traumatic event sufferers of PTSR often experience powerful negative emotions such as fear and sadness. They may experience flashbacks; intense memories of the event and they may avoid situations that remind them of the event long after the event has passed.

Complex PTSR (CPTSR) is another kind of post- traumatic stress response which occurs as a result of long term exposure to traumatic stress, often referred to as toxic stress, which typically arises as a result on repeated or ongoing traumatic events during childhood, rather than a single event. CPTSR is sometimes referred to as developmental trauma, or type 2 trauma. (type 1 trauma being trauma following a single event such as a road traffic accident).

If you were neglected or abused as a child, your primary orientation to the world is likely to be threat, fear and survival. It is only natural that a childhood experience with untrusty caregivers would cause mistrust and confusion. Living in fear and a lack of safety might compel you to continuously scan your environment for potential threats. As you struggle to make sense of the world, you may have relied on coping strategies to survive such as dissociation – a protective mechanism that disconnects you from the frightening, threatening experiences.

The primary emotional and cognitive symptoms of CPTSR are a combination of avoidance symptoms,  intrusive symptoms and depressive symptoms. Consider a combination of 3 types of emotions; environment – somatic (felt sense) and the mind. When you rely too heavily on trauma related feelings, it is common to ‘knee-jerk’ react as if you are being hurt in the present moment, when in reality you are safe and loved. As a result, you might make assumptions,  jump to conclusions without checking for evidence and without pausing for reflection, leading to inaccurate interpretations of events that may lead to a cycle of painful losses that could have been avoided. We refer to this in the training as the ‘hamster wheel’. We use the STAND approach (Stop, Think, Act, Never Doubt) to retrain our brain and combat the impulsive knee-jerk reactions, slowing the process down and taking time to reflect.

You may relate to behaviours such as avoidance, hypervigilance, self-criticism. emotional suffering, relationship difficulties,  low arousal and low self esteem. You may have developed unhelpful behaviours such as people-pleasing or issues with boundaries as a result of CPTSR.

High arousal symptoms are one side of the CPTSR coin. Low arousal symptoms, such as hopelessness, despair and depression reside on the other side. These symptoms typically result from living in a threatening environment with no means of escape. When you are unable to change your situation you may be left feeling ineffective, powerless, and helpless. Shame and worthlessness are signature depressive symptoms of CPTSR.

If you can relate, it is important to understand that it is not your fault and you have not failed. CPTSR is a result of learned beliefs and behaviours. Beliefs are just thoughts that we keep on thinking, we can relearn and replace negative beliefs and behaviours through our program;

Self discovery for Recovery with Emotional First Aid


Advocating for a Trauma Informed society, the Trauma Informed TRUST approach offers lived experience insight educating the Staff of Services, Organisations and Businesses to become Trauma Informed Members.

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Trauma Informed RAPPORT is a mind-body approach to regaining emotional control, healing the soul and becoming a whole person. Developed with lived experience insight and supporting adults to recognise, manage and heal from CPTSR.

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