Trauma & C-PTSD


"All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing", writes Judith Herman. And so very often, the perpetrator gets his/her way. Why? Because a traumatic event by definition inspires terror and helplessness, whether you are the actual victim or you are in some way close to it. The perpetrator attacks the foundation of life and living-- safety, provision, and the body. What more, long after the danger(s) have past, "traumatized people relive the event as if it is continually recurring in the present" (p. 37). The trauma is encoded, as it were, in our bodies. So even if we forget it, either by splitting off the affect from the image of it, or by outright dissociating into a different state, our bodies "keep the score" (van der Kolk).


Dissociation is simply a mechanism in the psyche that functions to protect our true selves from experiencing affective shocks again and repeatedly. Thank God we have something inside us that protects us! Dissociation exists on a spectrum. The good news is that everybody uses this mechanism on various occasions-- whether we forget that we got up in the middle of the night, or we day-dream in a classroom because we are bored, or occasionally not registering in consciousness how we got home driving after a iong day. These are all mild forms of dissociation. 

The kind of dissociation from which survivors of severe abuse suffer tends to be debilitating. The traumatic experiences don't merely get repressed or forgotten; they get cut off from consciousness. Dissociation on this side of the spectrum is the psyche’s way of maintaining a felt sense of equilibrium when “action is of no avail.” In other words, in service of not feeling terrified or helpless, your psyche tends to flip a switch so that you do not experience and/or re-experience the horror of the traumatizing event. What more, any time you now approach any situation (or time of day/year) and begin to feel vulnerable, helpless, uncertain, scared, surprised, confused, etc... your psyche without asking automatically flips the switch. You dissociate.

Whereas dissociation was an essential tool you used for your survival of great horror, it actually now tends to hold you captive to your past. So, in therapy, one major focus is dismantling the necessity of the defense by increasing your tolerance of terrifying affects and the stories attached to these which live in your body.


One reason traumas don't let go of us is because they demand a witness. It's as if the trauma itself is committed to being acknowledged and owned, and will not rest until we do so. This is very difficult to do since the number one force at work in all trauma is silence. The perpetrators ask that their shame be not revealed, or else...!? And so, in the safety of the therapeutic relationship and the therapeutic space, we witness and we dare to speak the truth. In so doing, the trauma begins to be metabolized and kindly placed in the past, so that you can "get busy living". You own the rights to your story.


Complex Post Traumatic Stress disorder (C-Ptsd)

C-PTSD is a condition that results from chronic or long-term exposure to emotional trauma-- which may or may not include, sexual and/or physical abuse-- over which a victim has little or no control and from which there is little or no hope of escape, such as in cases of:

  • domestic emotional, physical or sexual abuse
  • childhood emotional, physical or sexual abuse
  • entrapment or kidnapping
  • slavery or enforced labor
  • long-term imprisonment and torture
  • exposure to gaslighting and false accusations
  • long-term taking care of mentally ill or chronically sick family members
  • long term exposure to crisis conditions

The "Complex" in Complex PTSD describes the multi-faceted layers of various traumas and how they interact with one another.

Sufferers of C-PTSD may feel

  • un-centered and shaky, as if they are likely to have an embarrassing emotional breakdown or burst into tears at any moment. They may feel unloved-- or that nothing they can accomplish is ever going to be "good enough."
  • compelled to get away from others and be by themselves, so that no one will witness what may come next. They may feel afraid to form close friendships to prevent possible loss should another catastrophe strike.

C-PTSD symptoms:

  • Rage
  • Self-Loathing
  • Hyper-vigilence
  • Avoidance
  • Blaming
  • Catastrophizing
  • Denial
  • Fear of Abandonment
  • Identity Disturbance
  • Panic Attacks
  • Perfectionism
  • Selective Amnesia



Trauma and Resilience Land in our Bodies, Bessel van der Kolk - On Being, with Krista Tippett

Out of the Storm,  C-PTSD Resources

Transforming Trauma, with James Finley & Caroline Myss


Joe Biden on Harvey Weinstein, AVP Courage Awards -- power speaking to power


Ronan Farrow on Exposing Harvey Weinstein, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert -- on the importance of speaking, and the power of shame

How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Over a Lifetime, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris TEDMED

Why We Victim Blame -- and Why Larry Nassar Shows We Shouldn't, by Sarah Spain ESPN.COM


Recommended books

Boon, S., Steele, K., & Van der Hart, O. (2011). Coping with trauma-related dissociation: Skills training for patients and therapists. New York, NY & London, England: W. W. Norton & Company.

Emerson, D., & Hopper, E. (2011). Overcoming trauma through yoga. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Herman, J. (1997). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence-- from domestic abuse to political terror. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Walker, P. (2013). Complex PTSD: From surviving to thriving. USA: Azure Coyote.