On the surface, complex or relational trauma is easy to dismiss. “Yeah, it sucks to grow up with dysfunctional parents or exposed to verbal, emotional abuse. But you’re not in danger of dying. You’re not getting hit.”

Unfortunately, the mainstream views relational or complex trauma as a fact of life, rather than as a concrete problem that leads to myriad mental health struggles. Many (groundlessly) believe that trauma can only come from physical violence, leaving complex or relational trauma victims marginalized and misunderstood.

Relational trauma is valid: emotional abuse is abuse

Reality check: emotional abuse is abuse. Additionally, complex emotional abuse often co-occurs with physical abuse, and feels just as threatening to a child as starvation.

We see this is Harlow’s cloth vs wire mother rhesus monkey experiments. When given the choice between a mother made of wire and wood and one made of cloth, the baby monkeys more often pick the cloth mother–even if only the less cozy fake mother has milk to offer.

Why is this? Why are infant primates programmed to prioritize emotional comfort over physical sustenance? The behavior hints at the importance of emotional safety for our wellbeing and survival.

Those with relational trauma, complex trauma, or bona fide CPTSD, however, don’t get the choice to pick the cloth mother. Instead they’re left to settle with an unjust emotional fate–one there’s little they can do to change as children. Finally, the lasting impacts of emotional and mental abuse (including neglect) may be more difficult to overcome than those of physical abuse alone.

We cannot afford to dismiss complex trauma as insignificant. 

Complex, relational trauma: an under-acknowledged, misunderstood struggle

Complex trauma is all around us, but few really seek to understand it. For some, it can be hard to acknowledge trauma–even to yourself. It would be like opening Pandora’s box. Too overwhelming. For others, all you want is for someone to understand what you went through, but nobody seems to appreciate your experience. 

Just because traumatizing childhoods and dysfunctional families are common, does not mean they are healthy or acceptable. Life in the aftermath of trauma can feel tainted with a black fog you never asked for. You might feel like damaged goods. But in reality, your past is just another characteristic among many that factor into who you are. As such, it’s more productive to accommodate that part of yourself, rather than cover it up or deny it exists.

Trauma leads to a diverse set of coping mechanisms that may leave survivors stuck in a cycle of internal abuse. In order to evade punishment by emotionally abusive or neglectful family members, kids internalize their parents’ words, and censor themselves based on those messages. This leaves those with complex trauma haunted by abuse, even if the abusers are long gone.

Having experienced complex, mental, or emotional trauma, you will have to find complex ways to combat unconventional problems. Trauma, in particular, can leave you with a set of maladaptive coping mechanisms that no longer serve you the way you need them to. 

This leaves you needing coping skills for coping skills. To live more easily, first learn about your potential struggle with emotional, mental, or complex trauma, and understand the neurological processes trauma sets in motion. Then, find coping skills tailored to your specific situation.

What is relational trauma? What is complex trauma (CPTSD)?

So what is complex trauma? Many people are familiar with CPTSD’s cousin PTSD but while the two are both trauma disorders their commonalities end there. Complex trauma can be thought of as an enhanced version of PTSD with way more troubling symptoms. Think about it like this: PTSD is already a frightening experience so you can only imagine what it’s like for someone with a complex version of it. 

 Its complexity doesn’t end with its symptoms, the actual roots of CPTSD deal with several forms of abuse and emotional neglect for a prolonged period. Not only this but normally escape isn’t possible: how can you escape when the abuse is in your own home? Everyday you’re not sure whether something bad is going to happen and the few people who should be able to comfort you are the ones causing you pain.

This can lead to a load of symptoms that make everyday life feel unlivable. From the constant shame, anxiety and depression to the difficulty with relationships, it’s all a lot to deal with. Not to mention that all this is dialed up to 11. 

So life is difficult, what’s new? Well much like other trauma disorders like BPD, our personalities and the way we handle ourselves fundamentally changes. We adapt to an environment that doesn’t care about us and learn to live in a world we believe shouldn’t. Trauma molds our entire worldview around fear. 

But it doesn’t have to be like this. As we continue on in this article, we’ll learn more about how CPTSD works and how we can learn to cope with some pretty intense symptoms.

The “inner critic”: complex trauma’s curse

Any therapist or like-minded person can tell you that our minds can be mean to us. Brains can be bullies. But we don’t often talk about why this happens, or how we can be so cruel to ourselves. 

Even after escaping abuse or developmental trauma, trauma survivors are left with a critic, or more realistically, a bully in their brains. This internal bully echoes messages repeated during a traumatic childhood or relationship, and makes survivors feel forever entwined with their trauma. 

The abuser’s messages infiltrate your inner voice, filling your head with lies. What’s worst, is your own voice becomes lost in a sea of unwarranted criticism. But how do you fight back? We go over standing up to your bullying later on. 

Cognitive distortions

When raised with emotional abuse, our thoughts often become tailored by the trauma. We learn to be suspicious, to expect the worst, or to beat others to the chase by insulting ourselves first. Sometimes when our trauma hurts enough, we learn to hate ourselves, so we sort of feel like we deserve poor treatment.

Let’s check something. Have you ever thought:

  • “I am a good person– bad things shouldn’t happen to me”
  • “I feel like a bad friend, therefore I am a bad friend”
  • “My friends don’t text me back right away, they must hate me”
  • “I was sooo awkward during that presentation, I’m such an awkward person”
  • Using “always”, “never” or “every”
    • “I never do a good enough job”

If you answered yes to ANY of the above, you’ve experienced a cognitive distortion. 

Let’s get one thing straight, having to deal with this sucks. Your brain takes any little situation and manifests some exaggerated opinion about you or those around you. But we learn common cognitive distortions from those who help shape our inner voice; especially our parents and caregivers. It’s not your fault if you tend to catastrophize or go all-or-nothing.

Unfortunately, this sort of thing happens to me a lot. My brain would have me believe none of my friends actually care for me and regret ever meeting me all because I haven’t received a text back. To keep myself sane I have to fight my brain by saying: “Sorry brain but people have lives, maybe that’s why they haven’t had a chance to check our text.” Everyday is a battle like this.

Thinking in this pattern is common among people with trauma disorders like borderline personality disorder (BPD), also known as emotionally unstable personality disorder(EUPD) and PTSD, specifically complex PTSD. However, these thought patterns don’t appear out of nowhere. In most cases, exposure to long periods of trauma causes significant biological changes in the way fear and decisions are processed. (citation)

Overwhelming feelings

Another symptom many people with trauma deal with is overwhelming emotions. This sounds vague, but it reflects the reality of diverse emotions in trauma survivors; complex trauma exists across a large spectrum. From anger, sadness, loneliness, anxiety, and depression, there’s a whole list of feelings that take over in different situations (often due to emotional flashback). 

Emotional flashbacks don’t cause the same sadness or anger that most people feel. No, it’s more intense than that. It feels like you can only feel that feeling and nothing else. It feels like you’re inside a traumatic memory, and you become the emotion itself.

These unwanted thoughts cause extreme overwhelm–nothing is more terrifying than loss of control. I know for me, there’ve been times when I feel so upset I could punch a wall. Admittedly, sometimes I’ll even try it. My logical mind evaporates, and all I can think about is how exasperated I feel. It feels like your choking on your own emotions. It’s awful.

What’s even worse is that it’s always hard to determine the cause of these overwhelming feelings. I never know what the cause is. My friend could say something offhandedly and for some weird reason my body becomes enraged. Something small in the moment triggers me to something big in the past, and let me tell you: it’s not fun having to lock yourself in a room because you can’t control yourself anymore. But, it’s a reality I didn’t ask for.

The good news is there are ways to bring your logical mind back. You don’t have to let your emotions consume you on a dime. By practicing a few exercises, you can become a master of your emotions. (we’ll get to that a little further below)

Neuroplasticity and relational trauma 

Neuroplasticity is when the brain changes in reaction to the world around it. Children’s brains are especially “plastic,” as they’re still undergoing development. This is why a child’s experiences are so important to their maturation; these experiences will ultimately mold how the child experiences the world as an adult. 

Sometimes your mental health and the problems that come with it are genetic. But when you’ve experienced fear at home or abuse, your brain becomes accustomed to that treatment, making it easier to accept the mean things you’ve been told over and over again. Neural circuits in our brains, which guide our thoughts and reactions, get stronger every time we use them. That means every time a thought is repeated, it becomes easier to think it–even unintentionally.

When you’re in a traumatizing environment, you can’t help but be trained by the trauma. Repetition builds strong neural circuits, which can lead to unwanted persistent thoughts interrupting our everyday lives. But on the other hand, it’s good that we can train our brains — this neuroplasticity should give us hope for healing in the future. 

Gatekeeping and complex trauma: trust your gut

You might not be diagnosed with complex trauma, but recognize relational trauma in your past. You might notice that unhelpful patterns in your current relationships connect to old relationship wounds.

Even if others don’t see your trauma, and even if they don’t recognize or validate what you’ve been through, trust your internal sense. Gaslighting is extremely common, especially in traumatizing families; those who have been complicit in your trauma have great motivation to dismiss it.

Additionally, clinical labels may invalidate the circumstances that led to our mental health struggles. Humans’ coping mechanisms are shaped by those around them, and a child can’t help but be shaped by trauma. Whatever the cause of your trauma, your suffering is valid with or without a concrete label.

Now I know what’s going on; how do I deal with it?

There’s a lot of ways you can help yourself overcome the bully in your brain, not to mention all the available treatment methods. But where do we start? Let’s go over some tips and tricks in dealing with trauma symptoms so you get your foot in the door. 

1. Acknowledgement

You know the saying  “knowing is half the battle…” ? Well, that’s true in this case. Now that you know what’s going on, you can remind yourself that those thoughts aren’t true. Acknowledge these thoughts for what they are: automatic exaggerations that were once helpful but are no longer.

2. Mindfulness

Here’s the other half of the battle. Even if we acknowledge the thought, it’s still there making us feel like crap. This is where practicing mindfulness comes in. I know what you’re probably thinking: “Another article talking about mindfulness, load of bull.” I promise you that isn’t the case.

It’s easy to tell someone “Practice Mindfulness! It’ll help” without ever actually telling them what to do or how difficult it can be. I’ll be honest, doing this everyday is hard but it’s worth it. Learning to shut down your inner bully changes your life. 

So here’s what you want to do: 

  1. Get into a comfortable position, don’t have tension on any part of your body. For those with complex trauma, awareness of the body can feel very uncomfortable, so just try your best. Clenching and unclenching your muscles can help you get to a looser state.
  2. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. I recommend 5 sec in, 7 sec out. In the end, do the lengths that work for you — no point in stressing about exact counts. Just remember that when your out breath is longer than in breath, your parasympathetic nervous system goes into calming action.
  3. Focus your attention on one part of your body. Could be your hands, feet, one of your legs. 
  4. Now add another body part. Try your best to focus your attention on both. It’s ok if your focus comes and goes. Just softly come back.
  5. Finally, add one last body part to the equation. Focus your attention on all three and your breathing. You should start to feel your mind has settled at this point.

The idea here is to focus your mind, so that the unimportant thoughts and feelings fall away for a bit. Even if the persistent thoughts come right back, remember the calm you felt, and reference that as your home frequency. A big problem with complex trauma is that most of us never experienced real feelings of safety. In order to build a life with less tension, we have to know what “less tension” feels like! 

Get familiar with the feeling of calm–even in short spurts–so you know what you’re shooting for in everyday life. It takes a lot of practice to get to the point where you can do the final step adequately, so don’t feel discouraged if you can’t do it right away. I recommend trying this everyday or at least every time you are feeling overwhelmed.

3. Grounding for dissociation

On the other end, what if our emotions get so out of control that our body takes over and pretends it feels nothing at all? Sounds silly but it’s a common symptom of trauma. To make it easier to get through troubling times, our brain adapts, entering an altered state called a “freeze” state. This is a step beyond fight or flight, and happens when the body senses that it can’t fight the circumstances it’s facing. Makes sense that the more overwhelmed we get, the easier it is to dissociate out of helplessness.

This is why it is fairly common for people with trauma to be completely unaware of their experience. They only have the maladaptive after-effects of their trauma. Like complex trauma itself, dissociation exists on a spectrum, from mild zoning out, to total loss of awareness. 

Dissociation is a real thing that everyone experiences. But the difference between neurotypical and neuroatypical people’s dissociation is the degree of it. Dissociation for those with trauma feels immersive; you lack complete control of your body and end up on autopilot. This is super scary if you’ve never experienced it. Imagine not knowing what your body is doing.

There are lots of different forms of dissociation from “Oh, how did I get home already, I must not have been paying attention,” to amnesia, depersonalization, and derealization. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked in a mirror and not recognized myself; naturally, panic ensues. 

Exercise for depersonalization and derealization

Something one of my therapists recommended is having a set of cards at the ready for any time this happens. Write down your name, your home address, a person to call, and something to remember like a grounding exercise.

These are really small things but have helped me alot in my process of recovery and I highly recommend them for anyone who regularly deals with maladaptive dissociation. I also suggest practicing grounding techniques that use the senses. A quick google search will bring up a whole list of them.

4. Disarm the inner critic

After all is said and done, the best way to beat that bully in your brain is to fight back. For every negative thought that comes up, think a positive one in response. Sounds hard, I know. But with some practice it gets easier. 

The most important thing to remember is you are stronger than you make yourself out to be. In fact, you’re so strong that you survived your trauma. You will survive the journey of defeating your inner bully.

There’s more you can do to set yourself up for success. Pete Walker suggests grieving those lost memories that you never got to have. By doing this, you make your inner critic weaker giving you the edge you need to take your brain back.

Here some examples to help you get going:

When your brain says 

  1. “You messed up, you’ve never been good at anything” reply with “Actually I’m pretty good at [insert something you enjoy or succeeded in].”
  2. “You’re all alone, nobody wants to be around you” reply with “That can’t be true, my friends wouldn’t choose to hangout and keep in touch with me if they didn’t like me.”

The list goes on, but what matters is that you don’t give up. Tailor the responses to your own battles and find what works best for you.

In the end…

We are not our experiences, but our experiences do impact our behavior and how we feel on a day to day basis. Diagnosis or not, our complex trauma and symptoms are not who we are; only a part of us.

Maybe you don’t know if you fall under the category of trauma-based disorders, or maybe you don’t want to be labeled as such. That’s completely valid and ultimately not integral to the coping skills you should implement if you’ve experienced scarring relationships–romantic, family, or otherwise. There’s nothing wrong with feeling the way you do, but you deserve to feel better when you’re ready for it. 

Try reaching out to an online community of safe, understanding people, or looking for a specialized therapist if you’re into that sort of thing (I know I am). I hope any of the tips here can help someone with similar issues to my own. We can all benefit from educating ourselves on all aspects of mental wellness, even the not so pretty ones.

This article is part of Supportiv’s Amplify article collection.