Healing from complex PTSD is…complex.
We often arrive at this point after years – even decades – of trying to cure, treat and manage a number of different issues separately, before finally arriving at the realisation they’re all related.
Anxiety, hypervigilance, dissociation, eating disorders, IBS, depression, addictions, self-esteem issues, procrastination, relationship difficulties – and more – often have their roots in c-PTSD.
If you’ve had a few of these conditions, and you’ve tried most of the usual approaches for handling them, and you find they continue despite your efforts, it’s worth investigating if there’s a bigger picture of complex PTSD going on.
Complex PTSD is the build up of coping strategies, trauma responses, and defence mechanisms that we create to keep ourselves a) alive b) safe and c) as connected as possible in situations of ongoing stress and trauma.
It’s a survival response. When we experience abuse or neglect over a period of time, we find ways to protect ourselves, to compensate – or overcompensate, or to hide from the horrible reality of the situation.
Typically, complex PTSD is a response to mistreatment from, for example, key caregivers or parents. This mistreatment – abuse, neglect (especially emotional neglect), bullying, chronic abandonment may have been in your past, or may be ongoing.
Complex PTSD can also arise in response to continually traumatising experiences at schools, with intimate partners, or in the workplace.
The complexity of complex PTSD comes from the combination, interaction, and layering-up of a person’s responses to continually challenging situations. Avoidance strategies, retaliation, downplaying one’s strengths, and unhealthy habits can all play important roles in keeping us a little bit safer and better protected, but in time these create more difficulties for us than they solve.
Emotional flashbacks from complex PTSD can hold us in anxious, despairing, or angry moods. Instead of the classic PTSD flashback where we re-see the experience, we re-experience the emotional or trauma state that we got stuck in when we went through the experiences that led to us developing complex PTSD.
For example, when we grew up chronically anxious because of a parent’s unpredictable moods or behaviour, a thought or other trigger can launch us back into an all-permeating anxious state or mood, that seems to come out of nowhere, and is hard to shift out of. This is an emotional flashback. It’s important to distinguish this kind of flashback from temporary moods and states that are a response to a present-day issue.
Because complex PTSD builds up over time, healing from it requires us to take those layers kindly, gently, and gradually apart, at the same time as increasing our experience of safety, self-trust, and trust in other people.
Healing from complex PTSD requires a deliberate unpicking of those layers, unlearning unhealthy thoughts and habits, learning healthier thoughts and habits, integrating a new way of being. Reconnecting with the body through releasing its protective tensions and the traumas it has stored forms an important part of the process.
Understanding complex PTSD as an extremely strong set of self-protective measures helps us see that it’s a form – albeit a topsy turvy one – of self-care. It’s the way you, your body, your emotions, found to survive, because you’re that important you need to be protected and taken care of. The thing is, very often, complex PTSD behaviours and coping strategies don’t look typically self-care-like.
Taking a whole-human approach to healing from complex PTSD means taking smaller and larger steps in tending to our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual/energy aspects. Doing this brings us to a less traumatised, more relaxed, and more present way of being.
Taking care of our physical bodies, updating and improving our mental understanding of ourselves and the world around us, and taking care of our emotional experiences are all part of healing from complex PTSD.
How to heal from complex PTSD
Healing from complex PTSD is a progressive process. It’s incremental, stepwise, and iterative. Being realistic, it’s going to take time.
In essence, healing from complex PTSD is unlearning the unhelpful strategies you adopted to survive, learning good self-care and how to access supportive humans, and allowing yourself to grow into the human you have always been, underneath the layers of trauma that’ve been hiding you for so long.
As you heal, you get more tools in your healing kit, you have more awareness of what support you need when, and who and how you can access that support.
Your healing may progress steadily, and can also take leaps and bounds in certain circumstances. Sometimes you’ll be more tortoise, sometimes you’ll be more hare, and sometimes you’ll just need a rest.
The starting point for healing is safety. Let’s take a look at safety, then dive into the different aspects of healing.
So what is safety?
Creating safety to heal from complex PTSD
When we think of safety, we often think first of physical safety. Obviously, this is important. But it’s not the whole picture. We also need psychological safety.
Psychological safety is when we have the sense that we aren’t imminently going to be under attack – whether from a physical source, or verbal assault, or the silent threat posed by the resident abuser who’s already made it clear you’ll be in trouble if you step outside their definition of what’s ok for you to say or do.
The strength of psychological safety we feel varies enormously. When complex PTSD is actively driving our hypervigilance, we don’t have a strong level of inner safety. Part of healing from complex PTSD is finding and using the tools and tricks that bring our inner safety level up.
Increasing your safety level works like this: you create – or experience – more safety in yourself and your situation. You trust yourself and others a little more. You heal a little. You experience love a little more. You feel a little safer. You trust a little more… And so it goes.
To help identify the kinds of things that help you to feel safe, Jake Ernst has put together a fabulous set of resources called Routes to Safety, covering different ways that humans access and maintain feelings of safety, whether that’s solo, with other humans (or animals), or through taking action.
When you’ve identified your own particular routes to safety, start bringing them into your daily life, little by little, step by step.
Now you know about safety and how to create a little more of it in your world, let’s look at the healing from complex PTSD through the lens of the four aspects of being human: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual/energy.
Physical healing from complex PTSD
Fundamentally, health and wellness is intimately connected to being healthy and well in your body. Whatever our bodies’ shapes, forms, functionalities, and sizes, tending to our physical needs for food, water, activity, rest, sleep, touch and sexuality are all important.
What’s right for you – is right for you, which is why I’m setting out general principles and broad categories here, rather than a specific routine or plan.
Finding out what’s right for you, for the body you have, for the age and condition you have at the moment, can be quite a discovery journey. There’s no one template that fits everybody.
Since trauma is held in the body, it can be hard to look after our bodies. There can be a resistance to paying attention, to taking care of our bodies, to exercise, or to eating an appropriate amount of foods that nourish us.
Taking things slowly, step-by-step, and drawing on support from other people when we need it, is a good way to approach caring for our bodies and helping them release and heal from the traumas we carry.
Emotional healing from complex PTSD
Complex PTSD shows up vividly in our emotional lives. Healing from complex PTSD needs quite some unlearning and relearning about emotions, including:
- how to recognise the wide range and intensities of emotions in ourselves and others,
- how to recognise, handle and lessen the effects of emotional flashbacks,
- how to release old emotions from where they got stuck so they no longer interrupt our ‘normal’ adult lives.
How we go about this depends on our individual circumstances, experiences, and habits of how we’ve handled emotions up to now.
While we can learn and benefit a lot from reading, watching videos, and soaking up micro-wisdoms from Instagram therapists, working one-to-one with a skilled professional – or a few different professionals at different stages of the journey – helps enormously.
Complex PTSD is like having a holey jumper. While we can certainly do a good patch job by ourselves – and not forgetting that we’ve kept ourselves going for years already – a skilled knitter or crocheter can help make repairs. In time, working with skilled professionals helps us build our individual toolkits for self-care too, so we’re less likely to fall into the traps complex PTSD sets us up for.
Just like the body can resist being cared for, complex PTSD may mean we have defence mechanisms that keep us from looking for, requesting or accessing care from a human. Our previous experiences may have taught us on a deep, visceral level that we can’t trust humans in that way. It takes time to be ready to work with a human on these issues – or our complex PTSD can send us the other way into being extremely open, trusting and vulnerable with people regardless of whether that’s sensible or not.
Mental healing from complex PTSD
Updating our mental databanks and processing routines can play a massively helpful role in helping us heal from complex PTSD.
Taking the previous point about not trusting or over-trusting other humans as an example: learning the signs for trustworthy or non-trustworthy humans, and knowing the processes of building trust gradually – help us to heal from complex PTSD habits and strategies.
Recalibrating our experience, getting to know what is reasonable and unreasonable behaviour – especially for those of us who’ve gone through abusive relationships or parenting – helps us make sense of our experience and why our responses were not only valid, but also appropriate given the unhealthy situations we went through. This recalibration takes away the guilt and shame: how could we have done it differently, given the situation? If we were children at the time, we probably need to reparent ourselves.
Learning good boundaries, in conjunction with getting to know our physical bodies better, and emotional experiences, helps us to detect more readily when things are ‘off’ and we develop healthier strategies for engaging or disengaging as appropriate.
Those of us with unusual brains – including autistic, ADHD, dyspraxic, gifted,or highly sensitive neurodivergences, for example – benefit from identifying and getting to know more about our brain types. This helps with self-understanding and with finding and identifying other people with brains like our own – invaluable for social validation and easier empathy, communication, and connection.
Mentally, intellectually, we also need to have an idea of where we’re heading. As well as looking at which traumas and coping strategies we need to free ourselves from, we need to keep in mind experiences we’ve already had of feeling relaxed, free, safe, at ease, enjoying ourselves, in easy companionship with people.
Healing from complex PTSD is a long old slog, but worth every step.
1. Do nothing
Doing nothing is definitely an option. However, that might be tricky if you keep on reading articles like this that get your mind mulling over all your different options…
If you’re doing nothing because you’re stuck thinking “I don’t know where to start” that’s fine… and, I’d encourage you to just pick one thing. Flip a coin if you have to. Write all the options on pieces of paper and pick one at random. Build a spreadsheet with a random number generator. Making decisions for yourself when you have complex PTSD can be really hard – and is also a learnable skill.
2. DIY it
Honestly? We all DIY it most of the time, drawing on help, support and guidance from peers, professionals and publications along the way. I’ve written a few articles that might help you… and you can sign up for my mailing list if you’d like to receive extra insights and new articles by email.
3. Work with me and other professionals
I won’t bite. I support people healing from complex PTSD and other traumas, as well as coming to terms with neurodivergence and a whole load of related topics. Find out more about working with me here.
There’s a hugely wide array of support professionals who can help you along various parts of your journey. From massage therapists to dieticians, fitness coaches to psychologists, counsellors to guided meditation retreat experts. Draw on the support you need, when you need it.