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What Is Complex Trauma?

For some individuals, a single trauma can occur and disrupt an otherwise healthy life. However, for many, the experience of "trauma" is much more complicated. Trauma can be many things, including a pattern of neglectful, unstable, abusive, disconnected, or overly anxious parenting. This can also include a pattern of frequent boundary violations, rejection, and manipulation. As infants and children, our developing brains need consistent and connected parenting. We need a parent that is able to protect us, meet our biological needs, provide nurturing and soothing, and connect with us enough to understand what our cues mean. This is how we learn safety, how we learn to regulate our own emotions, how we develop our first ideas of ourselves and the world, and is even an important factor in the timing of our brain’s growth. When parents are emotionally unhealthy, inconsistent, or struggling with mental health issues of their own, they are often not able to meet these needs. Our brains and bodies must then take on protective strategies, shut parts of ourselves down, and learn to survive however possible. In some cases, this can even lead to compromised development of the more rational left hemisphere of the brain. It can also lead to compromises in the mirror neuron system, which contribute to our experience of empathy and connection with others. When exposed to frequent threats and not provided adequate safety, soothing, and connection, our nervous systems (think fight, flight, freeze, Vs. rest and digest) become very dysregulated (out of tune with the environment and our actual needs). Not to mention, we learn how to participate in relationships and what partners to choose from our first relationships.

This kind of early environment alone is enough to greatly impact a person’s life and functioning. However, it is often also accompanied with specific traumatic events such as domestic violence experiences, sexual abuse, physical abuse, separation from caregivers, accidents, etc. Each of these may also double as a further attachment trauma, as the parent was not able to keep the child safe, or was even the source of the danger. For some people, telling a caregiver about what happened only leads to being dismissed, invalidated, or ignored, again rupturing the relationship between that parent and child and also sometimes creating strong negative feelings about one’s own worth. All of this can create a deep feeling of being alone and an inability to trust others. It can also create feelings of guilt, shame, worthlessness, etc.

As life goes on, a dysregulated nervous system, routine hijacking from trauma memories or feelings, and intense negative beliefs about oneself and the world often combine to make the present feel miserable. This perfect storm of distress also tends to attract and intensify future traumas. Eventually a person comes to have many layers of horrible things that have happened to them, a list of brutal self-beliefs, many fears and anxieties, and difficulty connecting to others in safe ways.

This is complex trauma.

© 2021 Boudewyn Counseling


Here are some resources and conversations to help you thrive. While these resources are no substitution for good therapy,I hope they will help you on your healing journey. 

Kaila Boudewyn

Licensed Mental Health Counselor

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