top of page
  • Writer's pictureKennedy McLean

The Facts: PTSD and Complex PTSD

What is trauma?

Many of us will experience trauma in our lives. Trauma is any experience that is overwhelming, threatening, frightening, or out of our control.

Commonly experienced traumas include:

  • Accidents such as workplace or traffic accidents

  • Violence such as physical or sexual assaults, or imprisonment

  • Life-threatening situations such as war or natural disasters

  • Life-threatening health conditions or emergencies

  • Witnessing violence towards another person, or witnessing a death

Some traumas are isolated, they are unexpected, one-off events that happen ‘out of the blue’.

Other traumatic experiences are frightening in different ways. They are expected and dreaded. Some jobs, for example, expose workers to trauma regularly, military or emergency service personnel often experience or witness distressing events.

Children can also experience trauma, and the effects can be more profound and long-lasting. This is true if the harm is carried out by those who are supposed to protect the child.

What is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

After experiencing trauma, it is normal to have feelings of shock, guilt, fear, shame, anger, and vulnerability are common. With time, most people recover from their experiences or can live with them. Many people, however, find that they need professional help, as the effects of trauma last for much longer and may develop into PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Prolonged emotional abuse, especially throughout childhood, can also lead to the development of PTSD.

The symptoms of PTSD are grouped together:

Re-experiencing symptoms. Re-experiencing memories of the trauma mean that memories of the event(s) play over and over in your mind. These can come back as ‘flashbacks’ during the day or as nightmares at night. You may see images of what happened and/or experience sounds, smells, tastes, or body sensations associated with the trauma.

Arousal symptoms. Feeling 'on guard' or 'on edge' is common following a trauma. It may be difficult to relax and sleep can be affected. Arousal symptoms include: Always looking out for danger (hypervigilance), feeling ‘on edge’ or easily startled, difficulty falling or staying asleep and problems concentrating.

Avoidance symptoms. A common human response to physical or emotional pain is to avoid it or to distract ourselves. Avoidance symptoms include: avoiding reminders of the trauma (people, places, or any other reminders), trying not to talk or think about what happened, or feeling ‘numb’.

Negative thoughts and mood. Many people with PTSD experience depression. Negative thoughts and mood about the trauma might include negative thoughts about yourself, a sense of guilt about what happened, feeling depressed or withdrawn, feeling that no-one can be trusted. Trauma impacts how we think in a big way. You may blame yourself for what happened, even if it was not your fault. You may replay parts of the trauma and think “what if…?”

The effects of PTSD can often be explained as thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.

Thoughts or images that may go through your mind:

  • Intrusive memories (flashbacks) of the trauma, Thoughts that the trauma is happening again, Thoughts that what happened was your fault or that you could have prevented it, Images in your mind of what has happened, or what might happen

How you may feel:

  • Scared, Angry, Humiliated, Ashamed, Disgusted, Dissociation (separate or detached from what is happening), Feelings in your body that are the same as those you experienced during the trauma

How you may act:

  • Avoid people or places that remind you of what happened, Avoid thinking or talking about what happened, try to forget what happened, Avoid going to sleep for fear of nightmares, Use alcohol or drugs to numb yourself, Need to keep yourself busy

What is Complex PTSD?

Research has shown that PTSD can look different depending on how much trauma a person has experienced, the type of trauma, and when it happened in their life. People who have experienced significant amounts of trauma, early childhood trauma or trauma at the hands of caregivers often have extra symptoms besides traditional PTSD symptoms, a presentation known at Complex PTSD. These often include:

  • Difficulty with affect regulation (managing emotions)

  • Strong feelings of worthlessness, deep feelings of shame, guilt or failure related to trauma

  • Difficulties in sustaining relationships and in feeling close to others

What causes PTSD and Complex PTSD?

The main cause is exposure to traumatic, life-threatening, or frightening events. The difficult piece is that not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD. Some factors make people more likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic experience. These may include social support and genetic and biological factors, and prior exposure to trauma. The symptoms of complex PTSD can be more persisting and extreme than those of PTSD.

It is a process, it takes time, but both PTSD and Complex PTSD can be treated. The recommended treatment model for treating trauma involves three phases or stages of treatment. The first phase focuses on safety, stabilization and symptom reduction. The second phase involves processing unresolved parts of traumatic memories. During this phase safety and stability remain critical and it is essential to avoid emotional flooding. This phase provides an opportunity to mourn losses associated with the trauma. The third phase is the consolidation of treatment gains and applying skills learned into daily life. It is important to seek a practitioner who specializes in treating trauma and who is able to work with you on a long-term basis to meet your needs.

If you are struggling with the effects of trauma, let's talk, schedule your free 15-minute consultation at

#complextrauma #PTSD

About Kennedy

Kennedy has been working in the field of addiction and mental health for 10 years. She currently runs a virtual private practice treating clients throughout Ontario.   

Kennedy's practice currently focuses on trauma, attachment, couples therapy. Associate therapists work with people of all ages experiencing a wide range of concerns such as stress, depression, anxiety, relationship distress, and grief for example.

Anything written in blog posts are the thoughts of Kennedy. They are intended to offer information that may be interesting or useful for contemplation.


Nothing written is intended to be a substitute for seeking professional help.

bottom of page