What is Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD)?

What is Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD)?

What is Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD)?

Traumatic events are situations that cause people great and lasting distress. The way a person deals with stress is relative and personal to them, which means any type of negative experience can be considered trauma. With that being said, trauma can result from experiencing a car accident, going through a nasty divorce, or being a victim of some form of assault or abuse.

Unfortunately, many people experience trauma at least once in their lives. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), about one-half of U.S. adults have experienced a traumatic event.[1]

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that results after experiencing significant trauma. While half of people in America experience trauma, most of them do not develop PTSD.

There are several types of PTSD, with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) being one of them. CPTSD occurs when someone experiences chronic or long-term trauma. For example, experiencing abuse from a parent over some time can cause someone to develop CPTSD.

What is Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD)?

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) is a type of PTSD that is caused by experiencing multiple traumatic events. These traumatic events can be related, such as suffering long-term abuse from one person, or be unrelated and caused by multiple traumatic events throughout one’s life.

While most people who develop CPTSD experienced trauma during their childhood, adults who are burdened with chronic trauma can also be stricken with the condition.

CPTSD may be caused by the following traumatic events:

  • Childhood abuse or neglect
  • Domestic violence
  • Sexual abuse
  • Torture or slavery
  • Sex trafficking
  • War

People are more likely to develop complex PTSD if they experienced trauma as a child, were harmed by someone they trusted, or were unable to escape long-term trauma.

According to a study published by the National Library of Medicine (NLM), the prevalence rate of CPTSD is 3.8% and it is more common among women than men.[2]

What are the Symptoms of Complex PTSD?

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder includes the symptoms common among people with simple PTSD, like:[3]

  • Flashbacks of the traumatic events
  • Avoidance and detachment from people, environments, and events that remind them of the trauma
  • Hypervigilance
  • Frequent negative thoughts and emotions

However, complex PTSD also includes symptoms that are not commonly experienced by traditional PTSD. These symptoms may include:[3]

  • Excessive reactions to triggers that cause outbursts of anger or aggression
  • A negative sense of self that involves persistent feelings of guilt, shame, or worthlessness
  • Severe difficulty in forming and maintaining meaningful relationships with others

The emotional dysregulation among people with CPTSD can be so severe that it is often mistaken for borderline personality disorder (BPD). Another symptom that overlaps with BPD is troubled or unstable relationships, as complex PTSD causes people to become untrustworthy of others and avoid close relationships.

What is the Difference Between PTSD and CPTSD?

The main differences between PTSD and complex PTSD are the length of the trauma the individual endures and the lasting symptoms they experience.

For example, people with PTSD typically only experience short-term or one-off traumas, like car accidents or natural disasters. On the other hand, people with complex PTSD tend to have a long history of trauma, like experiencing neglect or abuse during their childhood.

Additionally, PTSD does not tend to cause symptoms like emotional dysregulation, negative sense of identity or self, and unstable relationships, which are common among people with complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

How is CPTSD Treated?

Complex PTSD is mainly treated through psychotherapy. The preferred type of therapy for people with this condition is trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Trauma-focused CBT for complex post-traumatic stress disorder can:

  • Teach you how your body responds to trauma and stress
  • Help you learn to manage your symptoms healthily
  • Teach you to identify problematic thinking patterns
  • Lessen your symptoms through exposure therapy

In addition, medications may be used to manage the symptoms of CPTSD that are not responding to therapy. Examples of common medications used off-label to treat complex PTSD symptoms include antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, and sleep medications.

Complex PTSD can either be treated in a residential treatment program or on an outpatient basis. The type of treatment you undergo will depend on your needs and the severity of your symptoms. If you are at risk of harming yourself or others, inpatient treatment is recommended.

Find Help for Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

If you or a loved one struggles with the symptoms of complex PTSD, it’s time to seek professional help. Whether you are interested in inpatient or outpatient treatment, Florida Recovery Group is here to support you.

To learn more about our treatment options for complex post-traumatic stress disorder, contact us today.


  1. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Retrieved December 2023 From https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd
  2. The National Library of Medicine (NLM): ICD-11 Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in the United States: A Population-Based Study, Retrieved December 2023 From https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31800131/
  3. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA): Complex PTSD, Retrieved December 2023 From https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/treat/essentials/complex_ptsd.asp