Finding Your Voice in the Wake of Complex PTSD

Trauma recovery begins with the recognition that it is possible. It continues with the increased awareness of one’s spirit and worthiness. Power is restored when stories are questioned. Pathways can be formed when survivors find their voice often silenced by traumatic events. The time to speak is now.

We live in a culture of secrecy shrouding those who wish to speak. “€Keeping your voice down”€ is seen as a reflection of respect for others.  We are taught early in life to be mindful of our tone and expression.  Children naturally speak without filters. At first, it is cute and comical as anything would be coming from something so innocent.  The amusement, however, is short-lived and soon, they are taught to apply the filters of social norms.

Society encourages censoring and restriction to create an environment which conforms to the general consensus. For example, at one point in time, the popular belief in this country was that women are best to stay home while the men go to work. The power of women was blocked and placed in a box away from the male dominant world. When society began to question these traditional beliefs, the world started to unpack the power of women. This happened only because there were voices willing to speak of the injustices in this world. If people hadn’t spoken up thereby challenging the status quo, the power of women would still be stifled.

Social phenomenon like these inhibit the beliefs necessary to reconstruct growth after trauma.  Initiating change requires giving voice to alternate perceptions thereby inviting new concepts which more accurately reflect truth. In some circles, voicing one’s feelings and struggles is still seen as a weakness. However, movement begins when an individual finds her true inner voice.  The result is that likeminded people begin to hear others who share their thoughts and feelings.  As a result, they realize they are not alone. It is through this shared expression of a common experience that people begin to recognize a true place of acceptance. Healing takes place when people express their innermost thoughts and feelings which are then met with the words “€œme too.”€

Traumatic events are most often accompanied by silence, as people rarely want to address the dark parts of either their past or this world. People believe revealing their secrets will result in them feeling misunderstood or shunned. Some trauma survivors attribute their past to some sort of defect within themselves. They ask themselves what they could have done differently when in reality, they did the best they could.

The truth is that things happen in this world which block the light within the spirit. This does not mean the light has gone out. It simply means that one needs to speak the truth to allow the light to shine through. Trauma recovery often begins when one sees that darkness is not a reflection of being “broken,” it simply means that light is blocked.

Complex PTSD

Traumatic events reflect a broad range of experiences. They can happen in one instance (i.e. hurricane, sudden death of a loved one, assault, etc.) or they can weave themselves through the course of time (i.e. child abuse, drug addiction, living in poverty, etc.). Either one can be complex and severely influence a person’s world. The term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has brought much attention to survivors of trauma. It places responses to trauma into categories such as intrusive, arousal, and avoidance symptoms. It even speaks to the thoughts that accompany it. Often, this allows a survivor to understand what she is going through. However, there are those whose experience is reflective of a more complex path. In this case, the term Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is more appropriate.

Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is often seen when someone experiences “cumulative trauma.”€ This means there are traumatic events stacked on top of each other. Examples of these are child abuse, intimate partner violence, chronic illness, sexual abuse, etc. There are countless situations that can be considered to be cumulative trauma. For example, a child may grow up in an unstable home where she experiences abuse or neglect. It may be in a neighborhood filled with violence where there is no such thing as a safe environment. Traumatic events may be so commonplace that the impact is minimized.

Shame leaves a trace long after the experience. Themes such as personal invalidation and disregard are often found to result in Complex PTSD. Situations where someone is repeatedly deprived can lead to thoughts that she wasn’t worthy to begin with. If she is shown constantly that her thoughts and feelings don’t matter, eventually these messages are woven into her thought process. She may begin to doubt herself and assumes that her worth is lower than those around her. Stories often come out of treatment one has received. Someone who may be overpowered over and over may eventually abandon all hope that they have any influence over this world. Repeated situations or messages are often the foundation of Complex PTSD.

Effects of Complex PTSD

These themes or stories can alter people’s perception of the world and themselves. This can result in changes in their belief system as well as problems with identity development, self-worth, or interpersonal relationships. Complex PTSD may present itself in different ways. The following categories speak to the effects (Courtois, 2012):

  • Alterations in the regulation of affective impulses – “These may result in difficulty expressing or controlling anger, an increased tendency for self-destruction, problems with emotional regulation, and difficulties in self-soothing.
  • Alterations in attention and consciousness -These may lead to dissociation and depersonalization. It can also produce amnesia or difficulties in recalling the traumatic events. It may result in the tendency to withdraw from situations and over-compartmentalization.
  • Alterations in self-perception -€ “This may include a heightened sense of guilt, responsibility, and ongoing feelings of shame. There may be issues related to a sense of self-worth.
  • Alterations in perception of the perpetrator -€ “As human beings, our brains are wired for learning. Often, the perceptions of the perpetrator are incorporated into the survivor’s belief systems. This can be seen when the survivor is blamed for the actions of the perpetrator. When something is repeated over and over, people begin to believe it is true.
  • Alterations in relationships with others – Survivors may have an increased amount of distrust for other people’s motives. They may believe that human beings are self-serving, harmful, and exploitive. These suspicious motives may be a barrier to those in which they interact.

    Somatization and / or medical problems -€ “There may be an increase in medical issues or problems related to constant hypervigilance. Constant anxiety can manifest itself in numerous ways. It may also result in physical changes and problems in the body.

    Alteration in systems of meaning – “Despair may arise from feeling hopeless about their experience and that no one understands their pain and suffering. Individuals may believe that there is no justice in this world or things will always end up poorly.

Finding Your Voice

Trauma recovery includes finding one’s voice in the midst of negative views of oneself and the world. The truth needs to correct misconceptions surrounding the traumatic experiences and her own identity. Finding one’s voice includes overcoming the alterations mentioned above. Following are a few suggestions which some survivors have found to be helpful. It is important to note that survivors need support through this process. Some suggestions may resonate and others may be too overwhelming. Remember that knowing your own pace is a huge part of self-care.

  • Connection -€ “Great healing happens when people come together through mutual honesty and vulnerability. Being able to speak one’s truth while someone holds space for her to do so can be empowering. Connecting with others who understand accelerates recovery as commonality reduces feelings of isolation. There is power in being seen and heard.
  • Telling your story – “Often the words we say within our own mind have a different view when we say them out loud. Breaking the silence honors the experience. Telling a trusted friend or counselor about one’s experiences may provide an opportunity to question perceptions thus correcting some beliefs held in the past. This can be seen when survivors feel as if they are at fault for what happened. Statements such as “€If I wouldn’t have _____, then _____ wouldn’€t have happened”€ can plague the mind. By talking about these experiences, survivors can often identify where the responsibility truly lies.
  • Seeking out affirmation – “Remember that trauma heightens the sense that one is not good enough or undeserving of things other people may have. It has been said that self-worth comes from within. There is some truth to that, however, there are times when it is useful to borrow a friend’s positive thoughts until they can be developed within. In this case, it would be helpful for a survivor to ask trusted friends about strengths they admire in her. Getting this feedback may be uncomfortable at first but gets easier with practice.
  • Utilizing resources -€ “There are many resources for survivors such as counseling, support groups, literature, etc. Reaching out to others is a sign of strength and resiliency. Learning about the effects of trauma and recovery may assist with misconceptions. It is easier to maintain momentum when one is immersed in a collective consciousness. Asking for help is often the first step in realizing that one is worth it.

    Mental imaging and grounding -€ “Emotional regulation is part of a secure base. Allowing oneself to experience feelings without becoming engulfed by them reduces feelings of fear and instability. Using mental imagery to connect with the power and strength within can provide a foundation of safety. Using techniques to assist with self-soothing can increase the sense of self-efficacy. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction is just one of the many forms of meditation. Having established grounding activities that one can lean on when necessary enhances feelings of safety.

Finding one’s voice may not be easy or comfortable. It begins with questioning perceptions and honoring one’s experience. Trauma recovery is a process that may consist of many tiny steps. When one makes the decision they he or she is worth it, movement starts to happen. It may not always be smooth and momentum may vary at different times. It is not about doing it perfectly. It is about maintaining the stamina it takes to forge ahead.

Truth is not something that should be taken lightly. Exploration of one’s experiences and internal senses allows her to identify what has outlived its usefulness. Through taking a non-judgmental attitude of recovery, people are able to see that their responses were a means of self-preservation instead of signs of weakness. Remember to be gentle. Words are powerful. It’€s time to use that power to restore one’s spirit. Allow your voice to carry you. It is time to set the truth free.

A special thanks to Patti Pott, a member of Gift From Within for her assistance with this article. Patti is also the author of Cans In The Dryer (Why Can’t I Just Leave?)

Copyright: Dr. Amy Menna & Gift From Within.

Amy Menna has a Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision, is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, and Certified Addictions Professional.

Another article by Amy: Military-and-Substance-Abuse.html