By Melissa Riddle Chalos
Most adults are well aware of PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, and how it impacts millions of people from all walks of life. Whether a response to traumatic military service, the result of a serious accident, the loss of a child, physical abuse, sexual assault, or another event created the condition, PTSD is a serious and often debilitating mental health disorder that dramatically changes one’s sense of self and security.
What many of us don’t know is that for some people the roots of PTSD run so deep that the invisible wound is even more debilitating than the visible.
But what many of us don’t know is that for some people the roots of PTSD run so deep that the invisible wound is even more debilitating than the visible. It is multifaceted and ongoing. This is what is known as complex PTSD (C-PTSD) or complex trauma disorder.
What is Complex Trauma?
Complex trauma is defined by ComplexTrauma.org as exposure to multiple, often interrelated traumatic experiences in tandem with the difficulties that emerge from adapting to or surviving these experiences. In addition to being multidimensional, complex trauma also:
- Involves recurrent or long-standing traumatic experiences
- Often begins early in life, with formative attachment relationships
- Is compounded by generational risk and dysfunction
- Often intersects with societal, institutional oppression, or violence common to minorities or marginalized people groups
Complex trauma encompasses the exposure and experience of the above, in conjunction with the adaptation or behaviors that come post-trauma in order to survive. Anxiety, substance abuse, personality disorder, disassociation, developmental trauma disorder (DTD), among many others, are all considered adaptive survival-driven outcomes in complex trauma disorder. Historically, adaptive behaviors like these have been referred to as “‘comorbidities.” But today, complex trauma considers the traumatic exposure and the neurobiological effects and survival-adaptive effects to be two parts of a whole.
Treating Complex Trauma
To treat complex trauma, it is essential to consider the context of your trauma, as well as the ways in which you have adapted to such a significant life challenge. In other words, successful treatment requires a shift from blame (What’s wrong with you?) to context and causation (What happened to you?).
To treat complex trauma, it is essential to consider the context of your trauma, as well as the ways in which you have adapted to such a significant life challenge.
When it comes to treatment of complex trauma, one model has proven particularly successful. Developed by Meadows Senior Fellow Dr. Laurence Heller over the course of his 45-year career as a mental health clinician, the NeuroAffective Relational Model (NARM) is a method of psychotherapy specifically aimed at treating attachment, relational, and developmental trauma, also known as complex trauma.
NARM affirms that longstanding trauma creates symptoms that we experience as adults. These survival patterns, no longer needed for survival, create ongoing disconnection from your authentic self, both physical and emotional, as well as disconnection and isolation from others.
Dr. Laurence Heller’s NARM offers a powerful approach to addressing childhood traumas and the long-term consequences by focusing on five core capacities essential to a healthy sense of self. These core capacities are:
- Connection: having a sense of belonging in the world; being in touch with our bodies and emotions and being capable of consistent connection with others
- Attunement: to know what we need and to recognize, reach out for, and take in the abundance life offers
- Trust: having an inherent trust in ourselves and others, and allowing a healthy interdependence with others
- Autonomy: saying no and setting limits with others; speaking our mind without guilt or fear
- Love-Sexuality: having an open heart and the capability to integrate a loving relationship with vital sexuality
By developing these five core life themes, those who suffer from complex trauma can begin to experience a fundamental shift in the way they see themselves and the world in which they live.
Hope for Youth Healing
This neuroaffective relational model is an exceptional part of our treatment program at both Claudia Black Young Adult Center and our new, soon-to-open facility, The Meadows Adolescent Center.
There has been great success using NARM to treat complex trauma in adolescents who struggle with trauma-induced symptoms such as depression, eating disorders, drug abuse, self-harm, and other issues.
Adolescents are more impressionable than full-fledged adults and yet eagerly desire to understand what happened to them and how they can move toward connection with themselves and others. The core capacities of NARM introduce them to a new way of experiencing themselves — their authentic, connected selves — despite years of disconnection and trauma.
No matter how damaging or serious the trauma, each of us is naturally wired for connection, for community, for relationship. This is the pulse of NARM, to help all who have experienced complex trauma grow toward the light of reality and identity in the present.
If you or someone you love has experienced or continues to deal with the outcomes of complex trauma, it is never too late to help. To learn more, contact us at Claudia Black Young Adult Center.