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17 Mental Health Symptoms That Stem From Complex Trauma

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When we think of trauma, we usually think about a highly stressful event — something that happened one time. This could be a car accident, an isolated instance of sexual assault or a miscarriage.

But what is complex trauma?

Psychologist and trauma expert Dr. Christine Courtois explained it this way: “[it’s] a type of trauma that occurs repeatedly and cumulatively, usually over a period of time and within specific relationships and contexts.”

For some, complex trauma might be the result of growing up in an abusive household where abuse and neglect were present. For others, complex trauma might have stemmed from fighting for our country in a long-term military deployment. The reality is complex trauma can look different for each person who experiences it, and the impact it has on an individual’s mental health can be, well, complex.

Whether you have a diagnosed mental illness that stems from complex trauma, or live with undiagnosed side effects that impact your well-being, you’re not alone.

There are many ways complex trauma can manifest, so we asked our Mighty community to share with us one mental health struggle they have that stems from their complex trauma.

Here’s what our community shared with us:

  1. I completely shut down the second I hear or even sense conflict! Someone can be playfully arguing or raising their voice and my brain goes into protective mode. I feel anxious and the need to escape.” — Megan K.
  2. “Shame. This toxic, recurring sense that I am somehow ‘less than’ despite understanding, knowing, believing and having learned otherwise. They’re just subtle whispers that drive my perfectionism, a tendency to lean toward isolation rather than healthy connection, and other effects that shame ignites. All rooted in complex trauma as a child, due to having a mentally ill, addicted parent, and the stigma that comes gift-wrapped with that scenario.” — Brittany S.
  3. I tend to apologize a lot… I don’t notice it and people usually say, ‘You don’t have to apologize!’ They don’t understand why I’m doing it though.” — Angela F.
  4. “My memory, concentration and executive function has diminished so much since my adult trauma. It’s really embarrassing and frustrating, regularly having to apologize and explain in the middle of a conversation that ‘my brain just stopped’ because I can’t get the image in my head to connect with a word; especially when it’s a basic and common word, and which makes me look and feel so ‘dumb.’” — Sarah M.
  5. I cannot trust anyone with my children. I have severe panic attacks when they are at school. I no longer work to keep them out of daycares.” — Ashley S.
  6. “I’m always so tired because I have recurring nightmares of the events or emotions and hardly get any sleep. It’s very frustrating.” — Katie S.
  7. “The feeling of worthlessness in that I am only here for the gain of their own interest and according to what I’m given in return. It’s a misconception that I was only valued up to their expectations, what I’ve recently learned is I can value myself for who I am and not what they wanted me to be.” — Tatauq M.
  8. “My depression and anxiety stem from my PTSD which is from childhood abuse and neglect. People don’t understand why I have any of those three things… until I go into detail about my past.” — Kayla T.
  9. Guilt and perfectionism. Every time I make even the smallest mistake or even just perceive it that way, I automatically start guilt-tripping myself and beating myself up. I have a complete meltdown and cry for hours. Directly related to emotional abuse.” — Raven L.
  10. “When I hear arguments or violent yelling, I automatically assume it’s my presence or that it’s my fault and go into a panic. I shut down and turn almost into a robot completely on auto drive and get sent into a full-blown panic attack and feel the need to run away from the situation.” — Stacey S.
  11. “Psychosomatic insomnia comes from my complex trauma. I also have really intense nightmares where I am known to frantically hit my spouse in my sleep. I am also known for screaming so loudly I woke up a guest on the first floor from dead sleep when I was sleeping on the second… they came to check that I was OK. The connection is these are symptoms sufferers of even complex trauma can have.” — Moon N.
  12. “I have depersonalization/derealization disorder due to childhood and lifelong trauma. I dissociate to block it all out and have for years. It’s the easiest way to get through these experiences and it’s a coping skill. I’m working on getting past dissociation for the most part by practicing mindfulness and joining a DBT program.” — Kristen H.
  13. “My inability to allow myself happiness. I put myself last and consistently find myself in relationships that are one-sided. I tend to make certain those around me are OK, even people I barely know. This leaves me feeling used. I believe this stems from childhood trauma my need to do anything to get positive affection, to stave off abuse and in attempt to satisfy adults who were never happy with me. In adulthood, I am drained and have put myself in financial and social difficulties. Therapy is helping, but it’s a long road.” — Martha F.
  14. I don’t trust my judgment. I spent 10 years in an abusive relationship and because of childhood abuse, I couldn’t see the signs. I thought it was normal. I know better now but I don’t date because I don’t trust myself to not see it again.” — Kashmir C.
  15. “I cannot take compliments even from close family. When someone says something nice, I start getting very anxious and change the subject or say something to try and change their mind about me. I feel so uncomfortable and can’t take it.” — Sue S.
  16. “Abandonment and trust issues. I was sexually and emotionally abused as a child and had a pervasive fear of abandonment and sense that attachment and trust are dangerous. Now even with those I trust absolutely, like my therapists and best friend, I still go through bouts of intense fear of being abandoned.” — Monika S.
  17. “Derealisation/depersonalization. I learned to dissociate from scary experiences that felt out of my control. Now I suffer with chronic dissociation and struggle to feel present. The fear associated with old traumas has stuck in my mind and it’s almost impossible to differentiate between real and fantasy fears.” — Harriet L.

If you are a survivor of complex trauma, you’re not alone. Here are some stories written by Mighty contributors that might resonate with you.

Originally published: August 13, 2018
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