Complex PTSD

Possible Causes and Tips for Helping Yourself

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a type of anxiety disorder which you may develop after being involved in, or witnessing, traumatic events. The condition was first recognised in war veterans and has been known by a variety of names, such as 'shell shock'. But it's not only diagnosed in soldiers – a wide range of traumatic experiences can cause PTSD.

When is it diagnosed?

When you go through something you find traumatic it's understandable to experience some symptoms associated with PTSD afterwards, such as feeling numb or having trouble sleeping. This is sometimes described as an 'acute stress reaction'.

Many people find that these symptoms disappear within a few weeks, but if your symptoms last for longer than a month, you might be given a diagnosis of PTSD. Your GP might refer you to a specialist before this if your symptoms are particularly severe.

“I started experiencing symptoms of PTSD after my boyfriend died. I suffered extremely vivid flashbacks that could happen at any time, anywhere, and were deeply distressing… I threw myself into another relationship very quickly to try and avoid how I was feeling, but then also would not express much affection to my new partner.”
Are There Different Types of PTSD?

If you are given a diagnosis of PTSD, you might be told that you have mild, moderate or severe PTSD. This explains what sort of impact your symptoms are having on you currently – it's not a description of how frightening or upsetting your experiences might have been.

PTSD may be described differently in some situations:

  • Delayed-onset PTSD – if your symptoms emerge more than six months after experiencing trauma, this might be described as 'delayed PTSD' or 'delayed-onset PTSD'
  • Complex PTSD – if you experienced trauma at an early age or it lasted for a long time, you might be given a diagnosis of 'complex PTSD'
  • Birth trauma – PTSD that develops after a traumatic experience of childbirth is also known as 'birth trauma'

If you experience some PTSD symptoms while supporting someone close to you who's experienced trauma, this is sometimes known as ‘secondary trauma’.

“I couldn’t understand why I felt like my brain wasn’t functioning – I couldn't remember things, I couldn’t process things. It was like my brain had just slowed down and ground to a halt.”
Experiences of Facing Stigma

There are lots of misconceptions about PTSD. For example, people may wrongly assume it means you are 'dwelling' on past events. They might even suggest that you should 'get over it' or 'move on'. But having PTSD isn't a choice or a sign of weakness, and it's important to remember that you are not alone.

Common symptoms of PTSD

These are some common signs and symptoms that you might recognise:

Reliving Aspects of What Happened

This can include:

  • vivid flashbacks (feeling like the trauma is happening right now)
  • intrusive thoughts or images
  • nightmares
  • intense distress at real or symbolic reminders of the trauma
  • physical sensations such as pain, sweating, nausea or trembling
Alertness or Feeling on Edge

This can include:

  • panicking when reminded of the trauma
  • being easily upset or angry
  • extreme alertness, also sometimes called 'hypervigilance'
  • disturbed sleep or a lack of sleep
  • irritability or aggressive behaviour
  • finding it hard to concentrate – including on simple or everyday tasks
  • being jumpy or easily startled
  • self-destructive behaviour or recklessnessother symptoms of anxiety
Avoiding Feelings or Memories

This can include:

  • feeling like you have to keep busy
  • avoiding anything that reminds you of the trauma
  • being unable to remember details of what happened
  • feeling emotionally numb or cut off from your feelings
  • feeling physically numb or detached from your body
  • being unable to express affection
  • using alcohol or drugs to avoid memories
Difficult Beliefs or Feelings

This can include:

  • feeling like you can't trust anyone
  • feeling like nowhere is safe
  • feeling like nobody understands
  • blaming yourself for what happened
  • overwhelming feelings of anger, sadness, guilt or shame
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