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What is complex trauma?

Trauma is very common. People can be traumatised in different ways and situations e.g. natural disasters, accidents, being betrayed in relationships, and/or being abused or victimised.

 

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

 

Most people who have trauma-related problems have experienced multiple traumas. When their trauma is not resolved i.e. they have not ‘recovered’, it is known as complex trauma.

 

Complex trauma’ is usually interpersonal (occurs between people), and involves ‘being or feeling’ trapped. It is often planned, extreme, ongoing and/or repeated. Complex trauma generally leads to more severe, persistent and extreme impacts than single incident trauma. It impacts tend to be cumulative. They include difficulties with shame, trust, self-esteem, identity, relationships, regulating emotions, and physical and mental health. People affected by complex trauma also often use a range of coping strategies to cope with their trauma and these can include alcohol and drug use, self-harm, over or under-eating

 

When complex trauma occurs as a result of child abuse or other adverse childhood experiences it is particularly damaging. Any form of violence within the community – domestic and family violence, civil unrest, war trauma or genocide, cultural dislocation, sexual exploitation and trafficking and/or re-traumatisation of victims later in life can also cause complex trauma. 

 

While the concept of complex trauma is long-standing, it has not been well categorised in the DSM (US manual of mental health disorders) or ICD (global classification of mental health disorders). The diagnosis of Complex PTSD to describe enduring complex trauma is likely to be included in the ICD 11 (June 2018).

 

It’s important to differentiate single incident trauma (PTSD) from complex trauma and deliver services which address the different needs of people affected by complex trauma (Complex PTSD).


For resources on Complex Trauma click here