Complex PTSD and Dissociation: Understanding Detachment and the Healing Process

When someone develops complex PTSD and dissociation, it is their mind’s way of coping with an intensely traumatic experience. But this development does not resolve the trauma; in fact, it brings symptoms that are distressing and confusing and that stand in the way of a fulfilling life. But treatment for C-PTSD and dissociation symptoms can reroute the painful memories toward a more positive future.

For someone who has experienced—or is still experiencing—abuse or other complex trauma, it can feel as if time stops and life stands still. But time hasn’t stopped, and life keeps going on around them whether they are ready to keep up with it or not. Even months or years after the traumatic events, they may need to summon enough energy just to fulfill their basic needs for the day.

Their mind does its best to protect them from the intense pain and suffering. It might even find a way to separate their experiences of trauma from their everyday life and presence so they can go through the motions. But this is not a clearcut process, triggers can surface anywhere, and the mind’s dissociative strategy can be confusing and traumatic in its own way.

When the symptoms of complex PTSD and dissociation cross paths, therapeutic recovery is accessible but very difficult. The individual needs to develop a new, productive relationship with their past, present, and future trauma. With the help of a knowledgeable therapist, this is entirely possible. But the dissociation poses additional barriers to access and healing. So, it takes time in a safe and compassionate environment to untie the knots that hold a person back from living their life fully.

How Do Complex PTSD and Dissociation Work to Counteract Trauma?

Trauma disorders occur when an intense and traumatic experience is too much for someone to process and they carry the unresolved pain with them long after. Many triggers—related or unrelated—may serve as reminders and stir up that lingering trauma. Someone with post-traumatic stress disorder might experience nightmares, flashbacks, and other forms of overwhelming anxiety. And these symptoms can surface even when there is no present threat of danger in reality.

But the severity of PTSD pain is reality enough. And the suffering is further intensified for someone with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, which developed following more extreme and extended abuse or other trauma. Ironically, C-PTSD is the mind’s way of trying to protect someone from trauma in the first place. In one way or another, a person’s consciousness shuts down in order to block the intensity of the trauma. But, even with dissociation and other forms of detachment, the underlying trauma doesn’t go away; it just gets trapped and may even grow over time. On top of the remaining trauma, a person also carries the burden of post-traumatic stress disorder and its fractured concept of reality.

Not everyone with complex PTSD experiences symptoms of dissociation. But those who do may feel detached from their surroundings, their actions, their body. They may experience gaps in their memory surrounding the original trauma or even regarding a normal, everyday task. And they may feel out of touch with their own grounded identity.

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How Does Treatment for C-PTSD Help to Alleviate Suffering?

Not only do C-PTSD and dissociation not resolve an individual’s trauma, but they also contribute additional distressing symptoms that can last for years until comprehensive treatment steps in. In a comprehensive care environment, clinicians can help to ease a person’s symptoms and simultaneously help to reframe their relationship with the trauma for real healing in the long term.

An important early step is to get a thorough diagnosis from an experienced clinician. Knowing whether this person has complex post-traumatic stress disorder with dissociative symptoms or complex PTSD and a co-occurring dissociative disorder is extremely important in paving the treatment path. Not to mention, other co-occurring substance use or mood or other disorders may also be present and need careful attention.

The best kind of treatment for complex post-traumatic stress disorder and dissociation is a combination of therapies. With time and patience, clinicians and clients develop a trusting alliance and gradually approach the trauma that has been building and weighing on the person’s memories and emotions. They will discover the barriers that have stood in the way of healing and in the way of more productive coping strategies. Simultaneously, they will heal the post-trauma symptoms and the relationship to the traumatic experiences that have been unresolved for so long.

The healing process takes time, but it can make way for lasting freedom from debilitating pain and fear. And no one must endure this journey alone. In an immersive residential treatment center, one is surrounded by supportive professionals and peers. There are even opportunities for clients’ families to get involved and prepare for a successful long-term recovery path. Here, there are diverse therapies available from medication and individual psychotherapy to holistic wellness and relaxation practices. This healing journey is an empowering one.

BrightQuest offers comprehensive residential treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance use disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned program and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward recovery.