How Long Does Complex PTSD Last and How Can it be Treated?

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Since living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be a nightmare, there are many concerns in the minds of both patients and their loved ones. These questions could include, “how long does complex PTSD last?” or “will it ever go away?” But the answers to both of these questions can be different for each person, because the nature of the condition itself varies individually, as well as other people’s reaction to it.

There are also factors at play that can influence how a person reacts when they have PTSD. So, let’s learn more about this condition and ways it can be treated.

What Is Complex PTSD

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (complex PTSD or c-PTSD) is a condition where a person can experience some of the common symptoms of PTSD, along with other symptoms not usually associated with it. These include:

  • Inability to control emotions: Having uncontrollable feelings, like explosive anger or deep sadness.
  • Changes in consciousness: Feeling detached from emotions or the body and forgetting about the traumatic event.
  • Negative self-perception: Feeling guilt or shame and completely different from other people.
  • Difficulty with forming or maintaining healthy relationships: Aversion to relationships with others because of mistrust or inability to know how to interact with them. Some individuals can also choose to form a relationship that can harm them, because it feels similar to their experiences preceding the trauma. 
  • Distorted perception of the abuser: Becoming preoccupied with a relationship with the abuser, such as plotting revenge, or giving the abuser complete control over one’s life.
  • Loss of system of meanings: This may refer to religion or beliefs about the world. These include losing faith in some long-held beliefs and developing a strong sense of despair or hopelessness.

Doctors and therapists also use these terms to denote this condition:

  • Enduring Personality Change After Catastrophic Experience (EPCACE)
  • Disorders of Extreme Stress Not Otherwise Specified (DESNOS), which is more commonly used in the U.S., compared to other countries

How is it different from the usual type of PTSD?

The main difference between c-PTSD and PTSD is that the former is a result of months or years of chronic exposure to traumatic events. The events that are known to cause this condition are long-term childhood sexual abuse, torture, being a prisoner of war, prolonged physical or emotional abuse, human trafficking, or any other profoundly stressful condition that becomes too stressful for us to deal with and process. These experiences are a testament to the complex nature of circumstances that lead to the onset of PTSD as well as its subsequent progression and treatment.

A person who will likely be diagnosed with this condition is someone who has been physically and mentally abused by a spouse or a partner. In this instance, alongside the usual symptoms of PTSD, a person may feel that she or he is responsible for the abuse and feel shame or guilt. This prohibits them from having a positive sense of self or developing healthier relationships.

Additionally, these individuals can also have feelings of “checking out” or feeling like they are watching themselves from the outside looking in. 

Are there any risk factors?

Anyone can develop c-PTSD, but some people may be more likely to have it compared to others. Apart from experiencing traumatic experiences in the past, the risk factors are:

  • Existing mental illness, like anxiety or depression, or a family history of these conditions
  • Genetics or inherited personality traits, which are more commonly characterized as temperament
  • The brain’s hormone and neurochemical regulation in response to stress 
  • Lifestyle factors, such as dangerous work environment or lack of a strong support system

How Long Does Complex PTSD Last

How one recovers from this condition depends on each person. Some people can recover quickly, while others take years to combat the lifelong effects. But, with proper therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes, symptoms can be managed, and people can regain a good quality of life. 

People diagnosed with complex PTSD should also allow their friends and family to join them in facing the challenge, since having a strong support system can help with accelerating recovery for most individuals.

How Complex PTSD Is Diagnosed

C-PTSD is a condition that is currently being studied extensively, and a lot of what we know about it is still in its fledgling stages. So, it is sometimes hard to get an official diagnosis, and people have been misdiagnosed with PTSD instead of c-PTSD. So, if you ask them, “how long does complex PTSD last?”, you will receive different answers.

But keeping a detailed log of symptoms can help doctors make the right diagnosis. The record should include when you first noticed the symptoms and the changes that happened over time. 

Once you visit a doctor, he or she  will start asking about your symptoms, along with the traumatic events that you experienced in the past. The practitioner may also ask about your family history of mental illness and other risk factors. 

You should also tell your doctor about the medications or supplements you are taking or any recreational drugs you use. If you’ve had the symptoms for at least a month and they hamper your daily activities, a starting diagnosis of PTSD will likely be made by the doctor. Based on the traumatic experience and the additional symptoms you’re experiencing, the practitioner may finally diagnose you with PTSD. 

It is also likely that you may also need to go to a few doctors before finding someone you feel comfortable talking to. Don’t worry, as this is normal, especially for those who have post-traumatic stress and the vulnerabilities that come with the symptoms.

How Complex Traumatic Stress Disorder Is Treated

Complex PTSD can be treated using the same methods used for conventional PTSD, although many experts and new studies suggest that care must exceed these, and doctors must help individuals regain control, power, and self-identity. This can be achieved through some form of therapy that involves healthy, supportive, and safe relationships, as well as empowering activities.

Most doctors employ these treatments for people who have c-PTSD:

Cognitive processing therapy

CPT is 12-session psychotherapy for PTSD and c-PTSD. This treatment seeks to evaluate and change patients’ upsetting thoughts ever since they were first traumatized. By changing their thoughts, patients can change how they feel. 

Prolonged exposure therapy

Shortened as PET, this treatment helps individuals face their fears and control them. It gradually exposes them to the trauma that they experienced in a safe and controlled manner. PET employs imagination, writing, or going to the place where the trauma occurred. Doctors or therapists use these techniques to help patients cope with their feelings. 

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing

Instead of relying on communication and medication, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) uses the patient’s own rapid, rhythmic eye movements. These eye movements can lessen the effect of emotionally charged memories from traumatic events in the past. 

Stress inoculation training

Stress inoculation training (SIT) is a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) commonly used to treat PTSD. It usually uses psychotherapy (talk therapy) to help patients identify and alter negative thoughts that have been controlling their behavior. 

Medications

Some medications meant for depression can reduce the symptoms of c-PTSD. These drugs can be very useful when combined with psychotherapy. A patient may also take the medication in the short or long-term based on the seriousness of his or her symptoms and the therapy’s effectiveness. 

Usually, a doctor will prescribe the following antidepressants for c-PTSD:

  • Fluoxetine (Prozac)
  • Paroxetine (Paxil)
  • Sertraline (Zoloft)

Living with PTSD and Finding Support

Living with a relatively unknown mental condition like c-PTSD can make a person quite lonely. If you feel that you need to get some extra support for yourself or for a loved one, there are PTSD centers that provide information and several resources, like PTSD coaching apps, that you can use. Although most of these resources are meant for patients, you can still make use of them to help someone with such a condition. 

Many organizations and businesses geared toward treating complex grief and PTSD, such as guardsdown.com, also provide support by the means of sharing stories of hope, organizing events, and offering online counseling resources for affected individuals, especially veterans diagnosed with c-PTSD.

The treatment for this condition can take some time, and for many people, it can be a process that lasts a lifetime. Nevertheless, knowing how to explain complex PTSD to someone is one small step to make towards helping others heal. If you have enough knowledge about the condition, you’re in a good place to make the situation better for them. 

Also, going through treatment can be quite overwhelming, especially at the beginning. So, if you’re the one with the condition, consider joining support groups—either in person or virtually. Opening up about your past experience with other people who share them is one of the best ways to start your journey to healing and thriving. 

Conclusion

Getting diagnosed with complex PTSD can be very difficult for both patients and those around them. Therefore, equip yourself with the right knowledge by finding applicable information and resources about this condition. This will empower you to take those initial steps toward prioritizing self-care, finding support that you need and getting the proper treatment required.

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