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FoodUnderstanding Complex PTSD and Dissociation: Unveiling the Shadows

Understanding Complex PTSD and Dissociation: Unveiling the Shadows

In therapy, Adam and I often hear the term dissociation as part of our complex PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder or C-PTSD). It’s how we coped with excruciating childhood trauma. Somehow, we knew how to shut down our emotions and remain distant from the abuse we often endured. It was our only way of surviving, and sometimes still is to this day. So, what is dissociation? 

For those who have faced severe, repetitive trauma such as emotional abuse, war zone trauma, child abuse, and more, you may be familiar with C-PTSD and dissociation. Chronic exposure to trauma reshapes one’s sense of self and reality, making dissociation a common coping mechanism. 

Dissociation is a disconnection from yourself and the world, including thoughts, memories, feelings, and identity (Mind). Recognizing the symptoms and complexity of this response to trauma is vital to fostering resilience, adopting effective strategies to manage symptoms, and ultimately, paving the way for healing.

Complex PTSD is the aftermath of exposure to repeated trauma rather than a single event. Trauma typically involves emotional abuse, psychological trauma, child abuse, domestic violence, or life in a war zone.

These experiences profoundly impact neurological and psychological growth, altering the brain’s neuroplasticity and the way the victim perceives the world and their identity. 

Dissociation within the Landscape of C-PTSD

C-PTSD covers a wide range of psychological symptoms. Those who have complex PTSD may experience the following: 

  • Emotional Regulation Issues: Intense reactions, persistent sadness, or explosive anger.
  • Altered Sense of Self: Feelings of helplessness, shame, guilt, or a sense of being fundamentally different from others.
  • Distorted Perceptions of the Perpetrator: Idealizing the abuser or being preoccupied with the relationship with the perpetrator.
  • Relationship Challenges: Difficulty trusting others, ending up in abusive relationships, or becoming isolated.
  • Loss of Meaning: Feeling hopelessness, loss of faith, or a pervasive despair.
  • Physical Symptoms: Chronic pain, gastrointestinal issues, or other stress-related physical impairments.

With the above symptoms, it’s not hard to see how dissociation fits into the tapestry of symptoms as a survival mechanism that blunts the harshest impact of emotional and psychological trauma. 

Detachment from emotions or physical sensations is induced by overwhelming stress and fear. The result of this dissociative response distorts the survivor’s self-perceptions and molds their consciousness into a fragmented landscape. Dissociation can come in multiple forms. 

  • Depersonalization: Observing one’s life as if from the outside in a detached manner.
  • Derealization: The world feels unreal, dreamlike, or distant.
  • Amnesia: Inability to recall memories or pertinent information related to the trauma.
  • Identity Confusion: Unsure about one’s identity or sense of self.
  • Identity Alteration: Adopting multiple identities or personalities (in extreme cases, as seen in Dissociative Identity Disorder).

For victims, the war between the internal conflicts related to the trauma they have endured and their intrinsic value rage on. The scars of abuse add to this altered state, making the journey toward recovery a complex one.

Question mark on a pink post-it note inside a teal head shaped paper cutout against a colorful paper background to represent complex ptsd and dissociation
Source: Canva

Navigating Relationships and Self-Perception

Individuals with complex-PTSD face overwhelming challenges in their interpersonal connections and sense of self. 

Survivors often bear the burden of an intricate web of feelings towards those who caused their trauma. 

Victims may recognize their perpetrators’ impact intellectually, but emotionally, the turmoil remains erratic and consuming. Often, these contradictory feelings from what society expects the individual to feel (anger, disgust, hatred, fear) go unseen and invalidated.

This dissonance presents challenges in the maintenance of relationships and forming coherent self-perception. 

For many, rebuilding a stable self-image and forging healthy relationships will demand resilience, neuroplasticity, therapeutic interventions, and dedicated support.

The Road to Recovery: Strategies and Therapies

Healing symptoms demands a multifaceted approach with professional and self-guided practices.

  • Neuroscience: Therapies that use the latest neurological research can aid in rewiring the brain’s response to triggers to ease stress and symptoms. 
  • Psychotherapy: Sessions with a skilled clinician can unpack layers of emotional abuse and psychological trauma to foster resilience.
  • Trauma-informed therapy: This holistic approach is grounded in understanding the impact of trauma on mental health. 
  • Stress Management: Techniques such as mindfulness and meditation assist in regulating the stressed nervous system. 
  • Strategies Based on Attachment Theory: Survivors can stabilize their self-worth and increase their sense of security by developing and repairing relationships. 
  • Community Support: By sharing similar experiences, individuals can validate feelings and feel a sense of belonging and strength.

With the help of these approaches, survivors can transition from drowning in trauma to discovering a new equilibrium in time. 

With proper support systems and access to specialized care, survivors of complex PTSD can work towards healing. Projects such as Beauty After Bruises have emerged to dismantle barriers to mental health treatment, offering therapy for PTSD and a platform for resilience building.

Shining Light in the Darkness

Understanding and overcoming complex PTSD and dissociation may appear impossible. Individuals face profound emotional abuse and psychological trauma, which is why trauma recovery is essential. 

Thankfully, effective therapeutic interventions are becoming more available with advances in the neuroscience of PTSD, coupled with a growing appreciation of attachment theory and psychopathology. 

Trauma-informed care now better addresses the multifaceted nature of complex PTSD. Innovative treatments harnessing neuroplasticity and resilience building now form the cornerstone of supporting individuals through their recovery process.

The road to regaining control and rebuilding lives after traumatic stress can be difficult, but healing is achievable. Stress disorders are now avenues for showcasing human strength and adaptability. The narrative of complex PTSD and dissociation can be written as one of bravery, optimism, and unwavering support, guiding survivors to step out from the shadows of their past.

Have you experienced Complex PTSD and Dissociation?

You’re not alone. Please drop us a comment below. If you want to learn more about the signs of complex PTSD, check out our article here. If you want to learn about repressed trauma, check out this article.

Disclaimer: All content and information on this website including our recipes and blog articles is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute medical, psychological, or health advice (for that please always seek the help of a professional in these areas). We do not warrant that the information presented herein is free of any errors or omissions although we do our best to provide information backed by research.


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