Complex post-traumatic stress disorder, or C-PTSD, is the result of prolonged exposure to trauma. Whereas PTSD reflects a disorder that derives from a short-lived traumatic experience like a car accident or sexual assault, C-PTSD stems from instances of ongoing chronic trauma like domestic violence, being held in captivity or ongoing childhood physical/sexual abuse.
Imagine feeling in control of your body but out of control when it comes to your mind. You might feel like your home is your safe place and isolate yourself because you feel like you can’t trust anyone else. You might feel a sense of hopelessness and a loss of faith in the future, as well as humanity. Nightmares might haunt your dreams and flashbacks of repressed memories might darken your waking life. Anxiety and panic attacks may plague your existence. You feel trapped in a cycle chronic trauma helped create and internalize these “habits” as aspects of your nature that aren’t “normal.” Some days living with complex PTSD might not feel like life at all to you. However, it’s important to remind ourselves there is hope and you aren’t alone.
We asked members of The Mighty’s PTSD community to fill us in on some of the “habits” of people living with complex PTSD. This is what they told us:
1. Having Chronic Nightmares and Flashbacks
“I never feel rested. I have chronic nightmares, so my body is always on alert, even when I’m sleeping. I have a very hard time trusting anyone enough to relate these things to. Even people I care about, because I don’t trust that they will blame what happened to me instead of blaming me like it’s somehow all my fault… like something is wrong with me.” — Wendy M.
“I have woken up with nightmares or flashbacks, or ‘what if situations,’ and gone into full anxiety. I have a hypoallergenic teddy bear to help with nighttime terrors, and some people make fun of me for this because ‘adults shouldn’t have teddy bears.’ During the day I have my Mickey Mouse squishy, which helps ground me. But I recently lost it, so I’m not coping so well right now.” — Zafreen J.
“Emotional flashbacks, when I react to something in the present like it’s one of the many traumas I went through in the past… Disturbing nightmares, they’re not always about the past traumas I’ve gone through though. But the nightmares always wake me up in a state of anxiety, making me never feel rested. I’m always completely exhausted.” — Samantha D.
2. Distrusting Others
“I don’t trust anyone. It takes multiple visits with doctors, etc. before I feel semi-comfortable. People don’t know the inner battle I face daily. They don’t know about the flashbacks that make me feel like a victim all over again or the nightmares that follow me after I wake up. My family knows I need at least a week’s notice before they show up so I can clean and prepare myself mentally and emotionally…” — Tamasvi G.
3. Isolating From Others
“My house is my own personal safe haven. I never leave my house, not because I don’t want to, but because ‘complex PTSD’ comes with friends like ‘agoraphobia’ and ‘panic disorder.’” — Melissa C.
“My world has become so small. There [are] so many things I just don’t do anymore. Any kind of change is traumatizing. Even little things. It’s literally upsetting for me to have to change my clothes even. Hygiene has plummeted and is now another source of shame. The fear of being seen by anyone. I’m hiding out in my apartment, afraid to come out. I live in a fog of dissociation where time doesn’t make sense. I’m convinced my brain has deteriorated. I cannot think anymore. I’m scared all the time. Complex PTSD affects every aspect of my life. I’m not even sure I would call this living anymore.” — Heather C.
“Mentally/emotionally withdrawing when something feels the slightest bit unsafe, even if isolation isn’t at all what I need or want. The need to keep moving and protect myself at any cost even if it also makes me sad.” — Violet R.
“All of a sudden just walking away from people without explaining why or what’s wrong. I isolate myself more often when stressed and ignore text messages and phone calls.” — Krystian H.
4. Getting Startled Easily
“Startle response is a big one. People don’t understand when you jump every time someone touches you or whenever there’s an unexpected noise or person walking by… I think people just don’t realize how stressful it is to have to constantly be processing so much all at once while still trying to interact with others.” — Char B.
“I jump at the drop of a hat. Literally. The slightest sudden unexpected sound makes me jump, or flinch at the very least. The louder the sound, the bigger my reaction is to it.” — Jamie S.
“I sometimes get really angry when something in my peripheral vision makes me jump, followed by an overwhelming sadness. A few times I have jumped and reacted loudly and it’s scared my poor dog; I sat for so long apologizing to him. But it’s also why I can’t handle being around my very young nephew sometimes as I’m worried I’ll scare him by getting scared by him.” — Callum C.
“Not being able to relax. Hypervigilance makes me never get restful sleep and never be able to relax my muscles. They’re always tense. My jaw, back, shoulders, knees… feet if I’m really triggered. My entire legs will lock up and I’m frozen in myself.” — Tyler J.
“Hypervigilance and startle response are big issues for me. I’m constantly scanning to make sure everything’s safe. I can’t sit with my back to a door, and if I do, it’s on my mind that there could be danger. Loud noises startle me easily. I hate the Fourth of July. People laugh when I jump, they think it’s funny. Last year, it was so bad I came home, turned the music as high as I could, and just started screaming and sobbing. I couldn’t handle it.” — Kate G.
“I tighten my muscles and hold my body in strange ways so that I am always ready for what may happen next. Being constantly ready for danger to come at me gets painful when I hold a strange pose for too long. I don’t realize I’ve crooked my back until it starts hurting and I release the muscles only to find something else hurting instead.” — Andee J.
“Hypersensitivity to sounds. Sometimes I snap at my boyfriend’s 4-year-old because to me it’s like he’s screaming in my ear when really he’s just talking to himself as he’s playing. Everything seems so loud all the time…” — Samantha D.
“Getting upset at sensory stuff. I literally just got in an argument because after I stated my boundaries, they basically invalidated them and turned the music up that I asked [them] nicely to change. Then I’m the bad guy. I don’t want to have sensory problems. I hate it.” — Amanda C.
“[I’m] hypersensitive to loud noises, especially sudden, unexpected ones.” — Maya M.
“Blaring music in my headphones to block out triggers around me.” — John K.
“I can be in the middle of a conversation and if a trigger word or situation happens, I disassociate. I am present in the moment but have no memory of what happened or what was said. My mind literally shuts down and I ‘zone [out].’” — Janell R.
“Dissociating. A lot of the times even my closest friends won’t know when I’m on autopilot, I have lots of years of practice. But since I’ve started therapy, I can easily recognize it in myself. It’s why I don’t drive much.” — Rebekah S.
8. Having a Hard Time Communicating
“People don’t realize I have a difficult time coming up with the right word(s) for things (like, I can’t remember it’s called a ‘pencil’) when I’m panicking, and they laugh it off.” — Angi H.
“I don’t mean to be ‘sensitive’ to certain words but you don’t know when those words mean to me [or] how I was taught to interpret them. How every instance of me coming across as ‘selfish’ or ‘ignorant’ was me distancing myself. Being unable to explain what I’ve been through because I know you won’t understand. Being misunderstood and not able to explain yourself because it hurts to talk about… Everyone just thinks you’re a poor communicator, when in reality you’re struggling and no one sees a thing.” — Tyler J.
9. Feeling Anxious
“Feeling anxious all the time, sometimes for no apparent reason, to the extent of friends or family asking me why I’m rocking back and forth as I do something as simple as watching TV…” — Samantha D.
“Loud places and things. I can’t handle it. [I] have to leave or get away. People fussing or arguing, I have to do the same [because it] puts me into severe anxiety.” — Chris M.
“People don’t know the anxiety I face just going out my front door to get the mail or the terror of trying to shop for groceries. Even anxiety meds aren’t working anymore and doctors’ visits are expensive. People just don’t know or understand unless they are going through it.” — Tamasvi G.
10. Having Trouble Feeling or Expressing Emotions
“I have a hard time saying ‘I love you’ or being loving. It’s hard because I used to wear my heart on my sleeve, but sometimes it almost feels like I’m going to vomit when I say ‘I love you.’ This is true even though I love the person. It’s hard because sometimes people think I don’t care about them, but I truly do. Love and closeness just feels uncomfortable.” — Michelle L.
“It takes me from an hour to a couple of days to feel emotions if you tell me something sad or shocking or horrible. It makes me seem heartless even though I will cry and feel all the feelings about it later.” — Katie H.
“Oversharing/undersharing because my boundaries are messed up… Always being late because I freak out over social interactions and have to talk myself into going… Never wanting to stay anywhere that isn’t my own bed because at 37, I still get homesick away from my own home.” — Peta J.
11. Doubting Yourself
“I have zero self-esteem. After being told all your life how awful you are, you believe it. It’s been a huge journey to not loathe my own existence.” — Jordan P.
“Needing constant reassurance because, after years of gaslighting, it’s hard for me to trust my perception of things. I am constantly second-guessing myself. I’ve also had rather important relationships ruined because instead of freeze or flight, I have gone into fight after being triggered. Panic attacks and flashbacks don’t always look like fear or crying, sometimes they look like irritation and aggression.” — Lazarie E.
When living with a chronic disorder or illness, it’s normal to feel isolated in your experience and as if people don’t understand the habits your mental health issues manifests as. Whether you’re someone with C-PTSD who experiences hypervigilance, a sensitivity to noise and responses, anxiety, nightmares or a combination of them all — you aren’t alone in your experiences.