Signs & Symptoms of Complex Trauma and How To Heal

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No matter the exact cause or duration of a trauma, it’s not something that can just go away overnight. Individuals who experience trauma often carry that trauma with them for months and even years after the trauma has occurred.

It takes time to process all of the different emotions and move forward in life again. While working through trauma may not be easy, it’s also not impossible. Healing from a trauma is possible, even if the trauma is a bit more complex compared to another form of trauma. 

Let’s learn more about the signs and symptoms of complex trauma and how to heal.

What is Complex Trauma?

Trauma is often a singular event that can harm someone and their life moving forward. Single-incident trauma is what we’re mostly familiar with. This can happen when someone experiences a single, one-off incident of trauma from a natural disaster such as a tornado or a flood, a physical or sexual assault, or an accident like a car crash.

While all types of trauma can be complex, complex trauma is used to describe the type of trauma that is repeated or prolonged. This type of trauma occurs over a few months or years instead of just one time. Complex trauma often goes hand in hand with experiencing abuse or neglect during childhood. It’s a disturbing event or upsetting experience that can impact anyone, especially young children.

Exposure to trauma at a young age, especially done so by someone whom you trusted and loved, can cause mixed emotions. Not feeling like you could overcome or escape that trauma can also bring on signs and symptoms of complex trauma.

The Cause of Complex Trauma

Similar to other forms of trauma, there isn’t just one known cause of chronic trauma. There are several believed causes and factors that can cause someone to develop signs and symptoms of complex trauma. These are some of the causes of complex trauma:

  • Childhood abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Neglect
  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Sex trafficking
  • Slavery
  • Violence
  • War

The Signs and Symptoms of Complex Trauma

Most of the signs and symptoms of complex trauma overlap with the signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This can make it more challenging to get a proper diagnosis or to recognize the signs and symptoms of complex trauma, especially when compared to other mental health disorders.

These are some of the most common signs and symptoms of complex trauma to look out for:

  • Difficulty forming and maintaining relationships with others
  • Dissociation
  • Flashbacks
  • Lack of concentration
  • Low self-esteem
  • Memory problems
  • Negative world view
  • Nightmares
  • Numbness
  • Struggle to regulate and control emotions and behavior

How to Heal from Complex Trauma

Treating complex trauma is possible, but it’s not as easily treated as other mental health disorders. Complex trauma is one of those things that may continue to be happening while the treatment is taking place. Complex trauma is also something that may have occurred throughout childhood but the signs and symptoms are still evident and present today. Thankfully, there are many different treatment options available to individuals who may be struggling with signs and symptoms of complex trauma. Healing is possible, no matter the type or cause of the trauma.

While there are many different treatment options for individuals struggling with complex trauma, the main goal behind the treatment approach is to build a more secure attachment to a trusted adult again. If you’re interested in learning more about treatment options for complex trauma for you or a loved one, we’re here for you when you’re ready. Reach out today to learn more and to set up a consultation to get started with trauma therapy.


Jeffrey Aviles, LCSW-C

Baltimore Counseling Center