Complex Trauma

What is complex trauma?

Most people with trauma-related problems have experienced multiple traumas. The term, complex trauma describes exposure to multiple traumas. It also refers to the impacts of that exposure.

  • Is usually interpersonal i.e. occurs between people
  • Involves ‘being or feeling’ trapped
  • Is often planned, extreme, ongoing and/or repeated
  • Often has more severe, persistent and cumulative impacts
  • Involves challenges with shame, trust, self-esteem, identity and regulating emotions.
  • Has different coping strategies. These include alcohol and drug use, self-harm, over- or under-eating, over-work etc.
  • Affects emotional and physical health, wellbeing, relationships and daily functioning

How does complex trauma differ from single incident trauma?

Single incident trauma occurs with `one off’ events. It is commonly associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Single incident trauma can occur from a bushfire, flood, sexual or physical assault in adulthood, or from fighting in a war.

Can people recover from complex trauma?

Research and survivors’ stories both show that people can recover from complex trauma. They need to receive the right help and support to heal. When parents have worked through their trauma their children do better too. Part of this process includes acknowledging survivors’ strength and resilience in surviving, and possibilities for recovery. It is also important to hold a sense of hope and optimism that life can and often does get better.

In what situations does complex trauma occur?

Complex trauma commonly occurs with repeated trauma against a child. Sometimes a parent or caregiver has experienced their own trauma, which is still affecting them e.g. from mental illness, drugs and alcohol misuse, or being physically or emotionally unavailable. Many situations can cause complex trauma in childhood.

Complex childhood trauma can be especially damaging. This is not always the case. This includes all forms of child abuse, neglect, adverse childhood experiences, community violence – domestic and family violence, civil unrest, war trauma or genocide, cultural dislocation, sexual exploitation and trafficking.

Complex trauma is not always the result of childhood trauma. It can also occur as a result of adults’ experience of violence in the community e.g. domestic and family violence, civil unrest, war trauma or genocide, refugee and asylum seeker trauma, sexual exploitation and trafficking, extreme medical trauma and/or re-traumatisation.

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder:

While the concept of complex trauma is long-standing, neither the DSM (US manual of mental health disorders) nor ICD (global classification of mental health disorders) has included it. This is about to change. The diagnosis of Complex PTSD to describe enduring complex trauma will be included in the upcoming ICD 11. This is important as the treatment of complex PTSD is different to that of PTSD alone.