Trauma and…

A Blog Series on All Things Trauma – Part 3

Complex Trauma and Relationships

*Trigger warning discussion about trauma and types of trauma

After a traumatic incident occurs, the symptoms a person experiences may vary. Last week’s blog included a brief overview of those symptoms 

“Difficulty with or lapses in memory, sleep disturbances, flashbacks, or nightmares, dissociation, derealization or depersonalization, difficulty regulating emotions, hypervigilance, low self-esteem, avoiding people, places, and things that remind the person of a traumatic event, difficulty with relationships, body aches, lowered immune system, and chronic health conditions. There is also a strong link between complex trauma and substance use as a way of coping.” – Acute, Chronic, and Complex Trauma.  

This week, we discuss how complex trauma may impact a person’s relationships with others. 

Our brains do an amazing job to keep us safe by setting off the alarms to respond and react to danger. However, when that danger is chronic and/or repeated, the alarm stays on and the body remains in a heightened state of arousal. Complex trauma can actually change the structure of the brain, wiring the person to stay on high alert and in a hypervigilant state. When a person repeatedly experiences a trauma, their view of the world may change and they may lose their sense of safety.

Complex trauma is defined as multiple traumatic events that occur over a prolonged period of time that is often severe and interpersonal in nature. Prolonged childhood abuse and neglect, abandonment, domestic violence, human trafficking, and torture are some examples of this type of trauma.

This trauma is often rooted in betrayal as the survivor’s trust is violated at the hands of a trusted person in their life. This can leave the survivor to feel unsafe and on high alert. They may lose their sense of safety (physical, emotional, and psychological) and feel unsafe in their home, in public, around friends, family, or a significant other. 

The interpersonal nature of complex trauma creates a bind. Although a survivor may desire close relationships with others, it can also feel very threatening to be vulnerable and trust another unconditionally.

Relationships are often affected because those closest to the survivor are most likely to trigger feelings of fear and distrust. For example, interpreting constructive feedback from a friend as critical and shaming, the person may go into a hypervigilant state because it feels unsafe.

Then, as a way to protect themselves the survivor may lash out, shut down, avoid or push away from the relationship. This bind of wanting to connect while feeling unsafe can further trigger feelings of shame, anxiety, and depression. This perpetual cycle of wanting to connect, feeling unsafe, becoming hypervigilant, lashing out or withdrawing, and feeling shame continues until the underlying trauma is healed and the survivor gains tools to help them feel safe again.

While trauma, the symptoms, and its impact on relationships can feel overwhelming, the good news is that it can be treated. If you have experienced trauma, recognize some of the symptoms, or notice difficulties in your interpersonal relationships you are not alone. Reach out for a free 20 minute consultation to see if we would be a good fit working together:

If you or a loved one are having a medical emergency or are in immediate danger- call 911. If it is important to let the 911 operator know if it is a mental health emergency and ask for police officers trained in crisis intervention or trained to assist people experiencing a psychiatric emergency.

Resources are available, free, and 24/7 to support you:

9-8-8 The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Dial 988. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Crisis Text Line: Text MHA to 741741 to connect with a trained Crisis Counselor, text-based support, free, 24/7

SAMHSA’s National Hotline: 800-662-4357. Free, confidental, 24/7 information service for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders. 

The Trevor Project: 866-488-7386 or text START to 678678. A national 24-hour, toll free confidential suicide hotline for LGBTQ youth.

Trans Lifeline: 877-565-8860 for US and 877-330-6366 for Canada. Trans Lifeline’s Hotline is a peer support service run by trans people, for trans and questioning callers.

National Domestic Violence Hotline:

For any victims and survivors who need support, call 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-799-7233 for TTY, or if you’re unable to speak safely, you can log onto or text LOVEIS to 22522.

StrongHearts Native Helpline:

Call 1-844-762-8483. The StrongHearts Native Helpline is a confidential and anonymous culturally-appropriate domestic violence and dating violence helpline for Native Americans, available every day from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. CT.

The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline:

Call 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area