What are the differences between the effects of short-term trauma and the effects of chronic trauma?
The diagnosis of PTSD accurately describes the symptoms that result when a person experiences a short-lived trauma. For example, car accidents, natural disasters, and rape are considered traumatic events of time-limited duration. However, chronic traumas continue for months or years at a time. Clinicians and researchers have found that the current PTSD diagnosis often does not capture the severe psychological harm that occurs with such prolonged, repeated trauma. For example, ordinary, healthy people who experience chronic trauma can experience changes in their self-concept and the way they adapt to stressful events. Dr. Judith Herman of Harvard University suggests that a new diagnosis, called Complex PTSD, is needed to describe the symptoms of long-term trauma.
What are examples of captivity that are associated with chronic trauma?
Judith Herman notes that during long-term traumas, the victim is generally held in a state of captivity. In these situations the victim is under the control of the perpetrator and unable to flee.
Examples of captivity include:
* Concentration camps
* Prisoner of War camps
* Prostitution brothels
* Long-term domestic violence
* Long-term, severe physical abuse
* Child sexual abuse
* Organized child exploitation rings
What are the symptoms of Complex PTSD?
The first requirement for the diagnosis is that the individual experienced a prolonged period (months to years) of total control by another. The other criteria are symptoms that tend to result from chronic victimization. Those symptoms include:
* Alterations in emotional regulation, which may include symptoms such as persistent sadness, suicidal thoughts, explosive anger, or inhibited anger
* Alterations in consciousness, such as forgetting traumatic events, reliving traumatic events, or having episodes in which one feels detached from one's mental processes or body
* Alterations in self-perception, which may include a sense of helplessness, shame, guilt, stigma, and a sense of being completely different than other human beings
* Alterations in the perception of the perpetrator, such as attributing total power to the perpetrator or becoming preoccupied with the relationship to the perpetrator, including a preoccupation with revenge
* Alterations in relations with others, including isolation, distrust, or a repeated search for a rescuer
* Alterations in one's system of meanings, which may include a loss of sustaining faith or a sense of hopelessness and despair
What other difficulties do those with Complex PTSD tend to experience?
Survivors may avoid thinking and talking about trauma-related topics because the feelings associated with the trauma are often overwhelming.
Survivors may use alcohol and substance abuse as a way to avoid and numb feelings and thoughts related to the trauma.
Survivors may also engage in self-mutilation and other forms of self-harm.
There is a tendency to blame the victim.
A person who has been abused repeatedly is sometimes mistaken as someone who has a "weak character."
Because of their chronic victimization, in the past, survivors have been misdiagnosed by mental-health providers as having Borderline, Dependent, or Masochistic Personality Disorder. When survivors are faulted for the symptoms they experience as a result of victimization, they are being unjustly blamed.
Researchers hope that a new diagnosis will prevent clinicians, the public, and those who suffer from trauma from mistakenly blaming survivors for their symptoms.
The current PTSD diagnosis often does not capture the severe psychological harm that occurs with prolonged, repeated trauma. For example, long-term trauma may impact a healthy person's self-concept and adaptation. The symptoms of such prolonged trauma have been mistaken for character weakness. Research is currently underway to determine if the Complex PTSD diagnosis is the best way to categorize the symptoms of patients who have suffered prolonged trauma.