Pete Walker, M.A. Psychotherapy – How Did I Get Complex PTSD?
How Did I Get Complex PTSD?
The genesis of complex PTSD is most often associated with extended periods of ongoing physical and/or sexual abuse in childhood. My observations however convince me that ongoing extremes of verbal and/or emotional abuse also cause it. Moreover as an upcoming article on my website will explicate, long-term childhood emotional neglect alone can also create complex PTSD and a propensity to emotional flashbacks.
This can perhaps best be understood by noting the conditions that prevailed as the human brain evolved during hunter-gatherer times, which represents 99.8% of our time on this planet. Children’s vulnerability to predators caused them to evolve an intense, instinctual fear response to being left alone without protection. Fear became the child’s hard-wired response to separation from a protective adult, and linked automatically to the fight response so that the infant and toddler would automatically cry angrily for attention, help, cessation of abandonment – even at the briefest loss of contact with parental figures. Beasts of prey only needed seconds to snatch away the unprotected child.
In present time dysfunctional families, many parents disdain children for needing so much attention from them, and react contemptuously to a baby or toddler’s plaintive call for connection and attachment. Contempt can sometimes be more traumatizing than physical abuse. It is a toxic cocktail of verbal and emotional abuse, a deadly amalgam of rage and disgust. Rage creates fear and disgust creates shame in the child in a way that soon teaches her to refrain from crying out, from ever asking for attention, and before long from seeking any kind of help or connection at all. Particularly abusive parents deepen the abandonment trauma by linking corporal punishment with contempt.
Moreover, as stated above, complex PTSD can also be caused by emotional neglect alone; (emotional neglect also typically occurs in most situations of prolonged contempt and physical abuse). Parents who systematically ignore or turn their backs on a child’s calls for attention, connection or help, abandon their child to unmanageable amounts of fear which over time devolve into the child giving up and succumbing to depressed, death-like feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. These types of rejection simultaneously magnify the child’s fear, and eventually add a veneer of shame to it. Over time this fear and shame cancerously begets a toxic inner critic that increasingly dominates the psyche with programs of endangerment and self-disgust (perfectionism), until a full blown case of PTSD is established. (See my articles on The Inner and Outer Critic).
Moreover, to the duration and degree that emotional abandonment takes place and to the degree that there is no alternative adult (relative, older sibling, neighbor, teacher) to turn to for comfort and protection, to that degree does the PTSD set in, and to that degree can a myriad of triggers (external or internal) activate the individual into flashing back into the painful emotional and toxic cognitive conditions of childhood. This is especially true when the abandonment occurs 24/7, 365 days a year for the first few years.