Are you Overlooking CPTSD? 9 Signs to Check

Leah O'Daniel

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When I married, I married a military guy. At the time, rapid, back-to-back deployments to the Middle East were the norm. I learned all the signs and symptoms of PTSD. What to look for. How this could present. What to do. When to call for help.

Life is funny sometimes. Letting you believe you know things or have a handle on something.

Homecomings after long deployments are beautiful. Magical, even. Reintegrating is anything except that. Merging two adults into the same life after a year apart is difficult. They tell you that it will be hard in the beginning. You don’t believe it though. So wrapped up in the magical fantasy that you can’t believe it.

At first, it was mostly limited to readjusting. No sudden noises. No unexpected, fast movement. No large crowds. Nightmares. Insomnia. Emotional outbursts. Arguing. Mood swings. Fatigue. Caffeine dependence.

We adjusted our lives to it. I watched my friends experience and struggle with it too. I learned how groups of folks in uniforms operated with trauma changed brains. My whole adult life was encompassed with PTSD awareness and treatment. The reality of living with, adjusting to, and healing from.

Still, I couldn’t have been more shocked when my therapist suggested I was struggling with PTSD. Specifically, she went on to say that my PTSD was complex.

Life is funny sometimes.

PTSD

First, it’s important to define PTSD.

It’s important to note that PTSD can vary. Not everyone that experiences a traumatic event will develop PTSD. It is believed to be the result of one traumatic event. Though it is most often linked to military service, PTSD can occur from many different traumatic experiences. This is a condensed list of PTSD symptoms.

  • Intrusive thoughts or nightmares
  • Flashbacks of the traumatic event
  • Avoidance
  • Hypervigilance
  • Physical sensations such as sweating and/or elevated heart rate
  • Panic Attacks

CPTSD

CPTSD is all the symptoms of PTSD, plus more. First introduced in 1988 by Dr. Judith Herman. She believed CPTSD should be a separate diagnosis (It still isn’t, by the way).

Complex (sometimes called compounded) PTSD occurs when trauma happens over time. CPTSD is thought to occur in early childhood development. Often, CPTSD develops as a result of emotional neglect, abandonment, or physical/sexual abuse.

When the environment of childhood is uncertain, the fight, flight, fawn, or freeze responses of the nervous system become a survival mechanism. Childhood trauma can occur when emotional needs are unmet, living conditions are unsafe, or children experience abandonment.

In addition to extreme cases of sexual and/or physical abuse, CPTSD is common in adult’s with other types of traumatic childhood experiences too. Alcoholism, narcissistic parents, or parents with low emotional intelligence, etc. Ongoing verbal and emotional abuse can also cause CPTSD.

The enhanced characteristics of CPTSD include the above list and:

  • Dysregulated emotions
  • Chronic Negative Self-Image
  • Detachment
  • Unhealthy Relationships
  • Loss of systems of meaning (beliefs, religion, etc.)

The Lightbulb Moment

When my therapist suggested this, she referred me to another therapist. I was hesitant, but I went. The new therapist handed me a stack of books on the first visit. The first one was by Pete Walker.

A traumatologist and author of Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. He offers a different approach to understanding trauma and its effects. A survivor himself, Walker suggests that CPTSD can be an attachment disorder.

I’ve read this book several times since then. I highly recommend it if you think you may be struggling with CPTSD symptoms.

The lightbulb moment that made me believe my therapist wasn’t just full of shit? Armoring. The concept that the muscles in my body were chronically tight. Often causing unexplainable pain that wouldn’t go away no matter what I did.

Along with armoring, Walker lists 8 more characteristics of CPTSD. Check. Check. And check, for me.

9 CPTSD Characteristics

  • Hypervigilance
  • Shallow or incomplete breathing
  • Constant adrenalization
  • Armoring — chronic muscle tightness
  • Inability to be fully grounded and relaxed
  • Sleep Problems
  • Digestive Disorders
  • Physiological Damage from excessive self-medication with alcohol, food, or drugs

Again, CPTSD presents with all the symptoms of PTSD too. With CPTSD, the flashbacks are less of a traumatic event and more emotional. A triggering event, such as an argument with a spouse, can make you feel emotions from a similar situation in childhood.

The avoidance symptom in CPTSD is often played out in relationships. A deep-seated fear of abandonment, rejection, or abuse from a traumatic background can keep you trapped in solitude.

Toxic shame accompanies panic attacks. Many CPTSD survivors (like me) report that panic attacks and toxic shame happen at night. Ultimately affecting sleep patterns.

Turned Out

I cried. A lot. That day and many days since then. Grappling with patterns of my behavior that finally make sense. Physical ailments that physicians repeatedly told me I was imagining. Money I spent on alternative medicine. Physical pain from massages so deep I nearly cried. All attempts to “fix” whatever was wrong with me.

I apologized to my husband. Merging his PTSD with my CPTSD was a big root problem in our marriage. From my perspective, I had done all the work in our family to adjust to his mental health needs. Failing to realize that my short-tempered, emotional flashbacks, toxic shame, and panic attacks were just as big of an issue.

A few months into recovery, my back relaxed. I didn’t want to drink anymore for any reason. I slept well. I felt genuinely good for maybe the first time ever. My neck was stiff. I didn’t have a tension headache. My hips didn’t ache. My armoring had finally let go.

It really is funny what you can miss sometimes.

If you are struggling or think you may be struggling, please check with a mental health professional.

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Freelance writer. Adventuring military spouse sharing my favorite local spots across the US.

El Paso County, TX
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