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What is complex trauma and how does it affect us?

Let's look first at what trauma is and what differentiates complex trauma from other trauma. Trauma occurs whenever a person is in a place where they perceive that they are in danger and they can neither prevent nor handle it.

There's essentially two types of trauma

  1. Simple trauma - This is a one time event that ican lead to PTSD or not. For example, a home invasion, rape or  car accident. 

  2. Complex trauma  - occurs when a person is in a traumatic situation on an ongoing basis. So, it's not just one incident of being raped; it's being sexually molested over and over for a number of years or on a number of occasions. It's not just one experience of a home invasion; it's living with somebody who constantly invades your privacy or makes you feel unsafe or is critical of you. it's an ongoing series of events that create complex trauma.


How do you know if you have experienced complex trauma?

There are four different places that complex trauma comes from

  1. An environment where there was someone who was  abusive in some way. This doesn't just have to be physical abuse. The following all count as abuse: criticism, name-calling, humiliation, teasing, taunting,  mocking .This could be a parent. It could be a sibling but it could also occur at school at work. So, it's not necessarily just your home environment. It can be any situation where somebody is more powerful than you and they're in some way hurting you. So, this could be the father who's a dictator and you can't challenge him. It could be an older sibling who's constantly mocking you. 

  2. An environment that involves neglect . Examples of neglect- a parent who is a workaholic and is never around  so the kids are left to fend for themselves, a parent who's not emotionally available to you because they have their own issues , a situation where somebody wasn't there for you when you were hurt or when you needed them  so you felt rejected, abandoned or unsafe.

  3. An environment where there is abandonment. We'll see this with a child who has been adopted or where Child Protective Services has come in and removed a child. It can happen in an environment where there's divorce or where there's some kind of instability, where a parent isn't around. This could be a situation where a parent or grandparent, someone significant to the client, has died. It doesn't have to be an actual experience of abandonment. What matters is your perception of the event at the time. For example, I had a client whose parents went away on vacation when she was 2. She didn't understand that they were going to come home again and so this event led her to feel abandoned.  This category also includes people who have experiences several losses within a relatively short period of time. 

  4. Where there has been a failure to meet our basic human needs. As human beings, we have many needs and so if there's ever a situation or a series of events where these needs don't get met then this can lead to complex trauma as well.  Some of those needs: safety, food,  shelter,  respect, feeling valued ,being respected for who you are, having a sense of belonging, being validated, having people believe in you, having people stand behind you , a sense of fairness and justice,  consistent rules,  honesty, being able to trust other people and being trusted ,having people believe you, intimacy,  privacy- not having to share your secrets, being able to be emotionally connected to people, having consistent boundaries, having unconditional love.


We now know the mind and body cannot be separated. It used to be that these were seen as two separate things but we are now aware that the experiences that we have in our lives impact on us physically as well as emotionally and psychologically. There is now scientific evidence that Chronic trauma can result in the following issues:

  • Addiction

  • Depression

  • ADD, ADHD and other learning difficulties

  • Anxiety disorders

  • Conduct disorders

  • Phobias

  • Sexual dysfunction

  • Disassociation

  • Juvenile delinquency

  • Attachment disorders

  • Psychotic disorders

  • Narcissistic disorders

  • Bipolar disorders

  • PTSD

Aside from the scientifically studied conditions that results from trauma, I have also witnessed the following conditions in my clients resulting from trauma:

  • Perfectionism

  • Difficulty setting and maintaining boundaries

  • Enmeshment in relationships

  • Self worth and self esteem challenges

  • Trust issues

  • Difficulty with speaking up

  • Tendency towards people pleasing and care taking of others

  • Having to be the grown up when a child-- a sense of over responsibility for others, rescuing others

  • Victim mentality

  • Shame

  • Guilt

  • Not feeling "enough"


Many of the above issues result form the client having to find coping mechanisms to deal with the traumatic environment. They are adaptive. For example, hyper vigilance is a coping mechanism that allows the person to be one step ahead of others in their environment, able to detect when something "bad" is about to happen. People pleasing is a coping mechanism-- if you can figure out what someone who poses a threat to you wants you to be, and then BE that,  then you are more likely to be able to protect yourself from them. Over responsibility for others may be a way to cope with a parent who is dysfunctional-- If the dysfunctional parent seems incapable of caring for the child, the child may take on caring for the parent. if a child can learn to take care of the parent, then the child is ensured survival. Because the SC is illogical, once  a coping mechanism is developed, it remains active. If it was necessary then, it must be necessary now, is the reasoning.


Often when a client is coming to me to work on one of the above symptoms, what we actually end up doing is working through whatever childhood experiences they have had that have resulted in those conditions.This is done in a noninvasive way.We are looking at what the experiences may have taught you about yourself, the world, other people and re-framing the experiences so as to remove the impact of them. 

The effects of trauma can  happen at a subconscious level. Many people who come to see me are coming for relief of the above symptoms without even being aware that these symptoms are the result of trauma that is still unresolved on a subconscious level.  For example, I've had women who have come to see me about their trust issues  or  their sexual dysfunction or to figure out why they have a hard time having an orgasm ,and sure enough, when we do a little bit of uncovering work in hypnosis to find out where that symptom came from, it goes back to some ongoing sexual trauma.

I had a client who was having a difficult time letting go of a partner. He came in wanting me to erase his memory for this person that he had been  involved with.  When we did a bit of delving into it in hypnosis,he recognized that because  his mother had committed suicide when he was a child he was having a hard time letting go of his ex, who was also mentally unstable and suicidal,  because he felt as though he had to rescue this woman where he wasn't able to rescue his mom. So, sometimes people are coming in focused on their current crises or their current challenge or their current problem, but they haven't necessarily traced it back themselves to some kind of trauma in their past.

Some clients are aware that they have complex trauma. I had a client who had ritualistic abuse. So she was quite aware that she developed multiple personality disorder as a result of the trauma that she'd experienced. I have clients who come to me who have had some kind of sexual trauma or repeated sexual violations. They know that they've experienced complex trauma. They may not know the name of it, but they know they've had ongoing situations of trauma.

However, the client doesn't necessarily always recognized that they've experienced complex trauma. For example, they may have grown up in an environment with a depressed parent or an alcoholic parent and to them that just feels normal until they see a contrasting environment. Or, because the past situation is "over" for them, they do not recognize that is is still impacting on their behavior or emotions on a SC level.

So, in some cases, I have clients come to see me who recognize that they are still being impacted by the past whereas others only figure that out as we are working on seemingly unrelated symptoms.


If you suspect that trauma may be underneath your symptoms, or are aware that you have unresolved past experiences, contact me for a free consultation. Hypnotherapy is very effective for dealing with these types of issues without having to relive the experience.


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