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Healing the Hidden Wounds of Complex Trauma

You thought you'd moved past it, but there it is again - that familiar feeling of dread, anxiety, fear. A seemingly small trigger has activated your body's threat response, launching you into survival mode. Your heart races, stomach churns, muscles tense. Invisible wounds of complex trauma have a way of haunting us, impacting our lives in subtle and not-so-subtle ways long after traumatic events have passed.

The good news is, you can heal. It won't happen overnight, but with understanding, self-compassion, and targeted coping strategies, you can overcome the effects of complex trauma. You can build new neural pathways in your brain, calm your threat response, and rediscover a sense of safety in your own body. This journey of healing hidden wounds is challenging, but so worth it - because you deserve to feel whole.

What Is Complex Trauma?

Complex trauma refers to exposure to repeated traumatic events over a long period of time, often starting at a young age. Unlike a single traumatic experience, complex trauma impacts you in many areas of life and can be difficult to heal from.

If you've experienced long-term abuse, neglect, violence, or other adversities as a child, you may be struggling with complex trauma. The traumatic events were pervasive, disrupting your development and sense of safety. As a result, you may deal with problems like:

  • Difficulty managing emotions and relationships. You never learned how to regulate emotions or build healthy connections.

  • Low self-esteem. When you're told you're worthless for years, it's hard not to internalize that.

  • Health issues. Complex trauma can manifest in your body through chronic pain, digestive problems, and other physical symptoms.

  • Addiction or self-harm. You may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with painful emotions or memories.

The good news is healing is possible. With support, awareness, and effort, you can overcome the effects of complex trauma. It begins with:

  1. Learning to regulate your emotions.

  2. Challenging negative beliefs about yourself and building self-compassion. You are not defined by what happened to you.

  3. Setting boundaries and learning to trust others. Connecting to a support system will help you feel less alone and safer.

  4. Addressing the pain in your body through exercise, nutrition, rest, and professional counseling or trauma therapy.

  5. Creating meaning and purpose. Focus on engaging activities that motivate and fulfill you.

Recovery is a journey, not a destination. Be gentle with yourself and celebrate each small win. You deserve to heal, be happy, and live free from the shadows of your past.

How Complex Trauma Affects the Brain and Body

Living through complex trauma literally changes your brain and body. Repeated traumatic events reshape neural pathways in ways that can be difficult to undo.

  • Your brain's alarm system gets stuck in the "on" position. Small triggers can make you feel threatened and afraid even when you're safe. This is known as a hyper-reactive amygdala.

  • Your body's stress response gets out of whack. Your fight or flight system activates too easily and has trouble calming down. This can lead to issues like insomnia, digestive problems, high blood pressure, and autoimmune disorders.

  • You develop unhelpful thought patterns. You may struggle with negative thoughts about yourself, the world, and the future. This mindset makes healing and happiness harder to achieve.

The good news is neuroplasticity means your brain can rewire itself. With professional support and self-help strategies like mindfulness, somatic therapy, neuro-experiential techniques like Brainspotting, art therapy, and journaling; you can recover from complex trauma. It's a journey, not a destination, but healing is possible.

There are many compassionate therapists, support groups, and online resources to help you better understand your trauma, release painful emotions, improve your relationships, and lead a more fulfilling life. You deserve to feel safe, loved, and at peace. Make that your goal and take steps each day to get there.

Common Symptoms of Complex Trauma

Living with complex trauma can take a major toll on your health and well-being. Some of the common symptoms you may experience include:

Emotional Distress

  • Feelings of shame, guilt, and low self-esteem. You may blame yourself for the traumatic events.

  • Difficulty regulating your emotions. You may feel overwhelmed by intense emotions like anger, fear, anxiety, and depression.

  • Feeling detached or estranged from others. You have trouble connecting to people or trusting them.

Unhelpful Thoughts

  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions. Your mind feels foggy or preoccupied.

  • Flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, or nightmares. Unwanted memories of the trauma frequently haunt you.

  • Negative beliefs about yourself, others, or the world. For example, believing that you are unlovable or that nothing is safe in the world.

Physical Ailments

  • Insomnia or sleep disturbances. You have trouble falling or staying asleep.

  • Changes in appetite and eating habits.

  • Chronic pain like headaches, stomach issues, or muscle tension. The body keeps the memory of trauma alive.

  • Substance misuse. Using drugs, alcohol, food, sex, or gambling to numb painful emotions and memories.

Traditional Talk Therapy May Not Be Enough

Complex trauma requires a specialized approach

If you've experienced complex trauma, traditional talk therapy may not be enough to heal the hidden wounds. Complex trauma often stems from prolonged, repeated exposure to traumatic events, especially in childhood, and can disrupt your sense of safety, identity, and ability to regulate emotions.

  • Talk therapy focuses on discussing thoughts and gaining insight into your issues. While this can be helpful, it typically does not address the physiological effects of trauma.

  • Trauma-informed therapy approaches, like Brainspotting, EMDR, somatic experiencing, and Ketamine Assisted Psychotherapy, are often better suited for complex trauma. These therapies work by reprocessing traumatic memories, releasing pent-up energy and emotions, and rewiring unhealthy patterns in the brain and body.

Find the right therapist for you

Not all therapists are trained in complex trauma, so find one with expertise in this area. Some signs of a good trauma therapist include:

  • They focus on building a safe and trusting relationship. This provides a model for healthy relationships and a foundation for healing.

  • They take a holistic view of health. They consider how trauma has impacted your thoughts, emotions, behaviors, relationships, and physical wellbeing.

  • They teach practical coping skills. Things like mindfulness, grounding techniques, emotional regulation, and self-care strategies.

  • They go at your pace. They do not push you into traumatic material before you feel ready. The therapy unfolds based on your needs and what you can handle.

Holistic Approaches to Healing Complex Trauma

Complex trauma can be difficult to heal from, but holistic and integrative approaches offer hope. Some techniques to try:

Mindfulness practices

Mindfulness meditation, yoga, and deep breathing can help you gain awareness and control over your thoughts and reactions. Start with just 5-10 minutes a day of sitting quietly, focusing on your breath, and bringing your attention back to the present when your mind wanders. Over time, you may find yourself better able to stay calm in stressful situations.


Writing down your experiences, thoughts, and feelings can be very cathartic. Journaling helps you gain perspective and release pent up emotions. Try free writing, making lists, or answering guided journal prompts about your trauma, relationships, life events, hopes, and dreams. Refer back to see your progress and insights over time.

Creative expression

Art therapy, music therapy, dance/movement therapy are all ways to access your subconscious mind and work through complex feelings. Don't worry about the end result or skill level - just move, paint, sculpt or play with the intention of emotional healing and release.

Connecting with others

Don't isolate yourself. Spend time with people who love and support you. Join a support group to connect with others dealing with similar issues. Let close friends and family know what they can do to help and be there for you. Ask your therapist for advice on developing healthy relationships and setting boundaries.

Professional counseling

For complex trauma, traditional "talk therapy" may not be enough. Look for therapists experienced in Brainspotting, somatic experiencing, EMDR, and other trauma-informed modalities. Be patient and give different approaches a chance to work.

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