Grief: Complex post-traumatic stress disorder and recovering

Many of us have heard of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and we associate this with those who are affected by the trauma of an event. When we have this, we can be once again in the event through anything that returns us to the trauma. This happens through smell, sounds, music, words, or any mimicked dynamics that reminds us of the event. They trigger the trauma and we re-experience it through a return to the event by whatever randomly takes us there.


However, there is also a less widely known disorder with a prefix of 'complex'. This is not event ignited, the return conduit is via relationships - those for whom all inter-relational experience (whether romantic or otherwise) is indeed complex.

An example of this, amongst many others, might be being "triggered" if you had a mother or care female giver who is angry and reactive a lot of the time and you are really uncomfortable around a boss or a friend who might behave in a similar, familiar way. Somehow, you lose your adult self and feel unable to respond accordingly. You go into a triggered state of flight, flight, freeze or fawn. These states can sometimes not be as obvious as their title names.

Here are some things you can do to help you if you go into a triggered state for any reason.


I am sure you might have heard this mantra before, however, when we are in a triggered state (whatever the reason), we go into flight, fight, freeze or fawn. If we focus on taking a breath in - counting to 1, 2, 3, 4 - and then breathe out - counting to 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 - we dis-engage from the trigger and we halt the trigger reaction in whatever our go-to trigger response is.

It makes a huge difference. I have done this myself many times and recommended it to patients who have found it very helpful. It is a mindful response; you don't have to make it obvious to those around you either, you can just say silently to yourself, "breathe." And if you do the above, it will truly help.

Use your senses

When possible, go to the bathroom or, if out, to the loo, and wash your hands in either warm or cold water. You are then focusing on your senses and the water on your hands.

Or you can smell something you like - your perfume, or a cut lemon or a flower. This alters our focus and shifts us from our triggered state.

These are but a few, the idea is to leave the rumination of the trigger. I hope these skills can help. Remember, our thoughts are transient - they come and go. We do not have to believe everything we think. Be kind in your thoughts, recognise when your thinking brain is starting to "shut down" and show some compassion and kindness to yourself by practising some of the above exercises.

It does not come naturally to us when we are in a trauma state to practice self-care. So, we need to employ mindfulness and if we do this again and again it becomes easier with practice, pretty much like any skill. Give it time. If you are starting or doing it bit by bit, it will become easier not to engage with the problem but the solution.

These practices are some tools that bring us back to ourselves.

There are numerous one-dimensional approaches to trauma that are hailed as cure-alls. But these singular approaches are unable to address all the levels of wounding and leave you stranded not knowing what you are dealing with nor how to cope with the shame of not understanding how to navigate clearly in our relationships. Parents or primary caregivers can abandon us on many levels - cognitive, emotional, spiritual, physical, and relational. 

What you might have difficulty with are:

  • self-acceptance
  • a clear sense of identity
  • self-compassion
  • self-protection
  • ability to relax
  • the belief that life is a gift
  • self-esteem
  • self-confidence
  • peace of mind

Efforts to nurture ourselves in what are arrested areas of development - because of lack of sufficient focus when we were children - fall upon ourselves as self critics, rather than upon others who, for a myriad of reasons, never provided us with what we needed as children to grow through our appropriate developmental stages. This is not always because of purposeful neglect but also can be the result of insufficient focus due to financial and/or work-related constraints or when, in some cases, there is one child who is ill or has a disability.

There are many more possible reasons not always associated with direct neglect. Nevertheless, the end effect produces the same deficit in necessary nurture and sufficient care.

We are all as unique as our stories. If you think that you might be someone suffering with relationships in these ways, do find someone to talk to who understands this issue. It is the core of my work and, through awareness, so much comfort and genuine change can be achieved.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Life Coach Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London, N8
Written by Gail Berry, Emotional and Relationship Coach
London, N8

Written by Gail Berry Emotional Coach - both a therapist and an alternative medical practitioner who works with healing people’s core wounds and uses Bach Flower Remedies alongside talking and behavioural therapy to make real change and transformation possible.

07771 715072
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