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Family, Friends and Partners Trauma

Dealing with the Trauma of Domestic Violence

The impact of domestic and family violence

Those of us who have experienced domestic violence know the life-changing impacts it can have on us and our families. These impacts can extend to depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stresssubstance abuse and addiction. We may spend significant amounts of time in denial, or engaging in self blame, so it’s important to remind ourselves: Everyone has the right to live in a safe environment without fear.

Witnessing or experiencing domestic violence is a form of complex trauma and can trigger a range of emotional and psychological responses in us. If we’re constantly feeling unsafe in our own home or around the people who are supposed to love and care for us, it can lead to many challenging and distressing thoughts and feelings.

We may feel upset, scared, angry, ashamed, anxious or powerless, or we might feel like we’re in a constant state of fight, flight or freeze. We can find ourselves unsure of reality and with twisted perceptions of ourselves. These are all very common responses.

“We often see patients who have had a personal experience of trauma or witnessed domestic violence as a child between their parental figures,” explains Alyssa Lalor, Program Director of South Pacific Private.“Children exposed to violence in the home are especially vulnerable and can experience profound impacts on their physical, psychological and emotional health and wellbeing. Research suggests that the younger the child, the more harmful the traumatic experiences can be in terms of brain development.” 

When we’re in the thick of a domestic violence relationship, it can be difficult to make good judgments and see the reality of the situation clearly, Lalor says. We may be in denial, or we may blame ourselves. “Victims of domestic violence have been systematically programmed to believe that they cannot and will not survive without the abuser,” says Lalor.

Logistical and practical challenges can also present an issue. “They may have no means to support themselves or their children, no safe place to go or be in fear of retribution by the abuser so they are literally stuck,” she says.

Long after the family violence has occurred or after the abusive relationship has ended, we may continue to encounter triggers which leave us reliving experiences and re-experiencing our trauma responses and coping mechanisms. This has the ability to affect other relationships and lead to long-term psychological difficulties. According to Lalor, this is one of the many reasons why it’s important for survivors of domestic violence to seek support to unpack these experiences with a trained clinician.

Survivors of domestic violence may struggle to regulate strong surges of emotions such as fear or shame, here at South Pacific Private we aim to help them learn how to deal with these in a healthy and affirming manner through interpersonal work in our group therapy programs, as well as within our broader therapeutic community,” Lalor says. “Our aim is to help build a victim's sense of self and personal agency and safety by harnessing and growing the belief that they are 'good enough' and worthy of love – and do not deserve to be abused and hurt.”

The signs of coercive control and domestic violence

Domestic violence occurs predominantly between intimate partners, and is often gendered, committed primarily by men against women, but also in same-sex relationships, against children, and against other vulnerable individuals. It is a repeated pattern of behaviour that may include physical acts of violence, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse in intimate or family relationships. It can happen to anyone and be inflicted by anyone, regardless of their religion, culture, sexuality, gender, age or socio-economic status. 

Domestic violence is often also closely tied to a dynamic of coercive control, which refers to a pattern of controlling behaviours that create an unequal power dynamic in a relationship. “These behaviours give the perpetrator power over their partner, making it difficult for them to leave,” says Lalor.

Whether domestic violence is present or not, indicators of coercive control should be bright red warning signs in any relationship. They include:

  • Isolating you from your support system 
  • Monitoring your activity throughout the day 
  • Denying you freedom and autonomy 
  • Gaslighting 
  • Name-calling and putting you down 
  • Limiting access to money 
  • Reinforcing traditional gender roles 
  • Turning your kids against you 
  • Controlling aspects of your health and body 
  • Making jealous accusations 
  • Regulating your sexual relationship 
  • Threatening children or pets 

Getting out of a Domestic violence relationship

Unfortunately, many people feel trapped in their situation, facing both logistical and emotional hurdles. We may fear for our safety, the safety of others or may genuinely feel as if there's no way to address the issue within the relationship, or live without our abuser outside of the relationship. 

In all cases, it’s important for victims to seek support from someone trustworthy, to build outside connections and to start taking steps toward freedom and autonomy, even if they may be small or modest at first. “Sometimes it can feel like a game of chess," Lalor says, "as they start to move pieces of their lives around without being detected to lay the groundwork for more autonomy -- the last thing we want is to set off the abuser."

For more advice, and to reach out for help in ending a domestic violence situation or to seek support for yourself or others in dealing with the trauma:

If you or anyone you know needs help:

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Trauma

Childhood Trauma and its Life-Long Impacts

Long term impacts

Psychological trauma can come in many forms, and it describes the lasting damage inflicted as a result of distressing events which overwhelm our bodies’ natural ability to resolve and heal from those events. From a soldier returning from war to a victim of child sexual abuse to the partner of an abusive spouse, trauma can impact all of us at any point in our lives. 

One form of trauma which research has identified as inflicting particularly serious, long-term damage is known as ‘complex’ trauma, commonly referred to as childhood trauma. 

“While childhood may be the most common period, the reality is that complex trauma can be inflicted at any stage in life where we’re particularly vulnerable,” say’s Tori McCarthy, Senior Therapist at Sydney’s South Pacific Private rehab center. “That vulnerability is often due to a relationship where someone is senior, or where we’ve become dependent, either emotionally or physically.”

Instances of trauma may range in severity. It can include divorce or parents playing favourites at the lower end of the severity scale, to cases of child abuse, sexual abuse or parents struggling with addiction at the other end of the scale.

Complex trauma is distinguished from other forms of trauma because it is often:

  • Repetitive, prolonged and / or cumulative over a period of time
  • Interpersonal in nature, involving direct harm, exploitation, and mistreatment. This may include neglect, abandonment or indifference from a parent or parental figure
  • Occurring at developmentally sensitive or vulnerable moments, especially in early childhood or adolescence

“Because this form of trauma by definition occurs at developmentally critical moments, it’s impacts can be deep and far reaching,” McCarthy says. “Identifying the trauma and connecting its impact to current behaviours, and helping people become aware of this connection, is the first step in addressing longer-term impacts.”

Why is childhood trauma so damaging?

Because this form of trauma occurs at developmentally important times in life, it has the capacity to disrupt a person’s self-perception and can lead to a repetitive, negative internal dialogue.

Given that complex trauma is inflicted in relationships where there’s a power imbalance, or in which the other party is a parent or caregiver, it can also interfere with an individual’s ability to form healthy, secure relationships and attachments. If other authority figures ignored, minimized or dismissed the trauma, it may have compounded the damage, and made it even harder to trust others and reach out for help.

The impacts of childhood trauma in adults and children may include: 

  • Distrust of others 
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Episodes of feeling detached from one’s body or mental processes
  • Being overwhelmed and immobilised by feelings of isolation, guilt, shame, fear and pain
  • Often feeling there is something wrong with you
  • Difficulty building and maintaining healthy relationships
  • Helplessness and feeling hopeless
  • Becoming preoccupied with revenge or, conversely, giving total power to the perpetrator
  • Self-harm, self-mutilation
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Addiction and struggling with moderation
  • Feelings of worthlessness or strong negative perceptions of self

How to heal from childhood trauma

Resolving childhood trauma can be a challenging task, but McCarthy says that successful treatment can be life-changing. “Seeing people’s progress as they work through this is one of the most rewarding things about working at South Pacific Private,” she says.

McCarthy says a successful approach will normally start with raising awareness of how people’s responses and coping mechanisms in adulthood may have been shaped by trauma in childhood. “People often come to rehab at South Pacific with an addiction or depression or anxiety, and in the process of treating them we realise that complex trauma is a driving factor,” she says. 

Treatment includes equipping patients with healthier coping strategies and mindfulness techniques to lessen the impact of symptoms, as well as education on how complex trauma works. 

“Those who experience complex trauma often internalise the experience and blame themselves, leading to intense feelings of guilt and shame,” McCarthy says. “That can lead to having a very distorted view of yourself, leading you to feel unworthy, beyond your own control and completely hopeless.” 

Ending this cycle of internalisation by sharing the experience with a trained therapist, or in group therapy sessions, therefore, can be an integral part of the healing process. In South Pacific Private’s family programs, both clients and their loved ones – including partners and chosen family members – are brought into the recovery process as well. 

“If prior trauma has been impacting your relationships negatively, it’s important for you to be aware of that, but also for your loved ones to learn how they might have also been impacted by the problem – or unwittingly exacerbating it,” McCarthy says. 

Comprehensive treatment will aim to help individuals develop healthier relationships, have a more balanced approach to their self-worth and build increased resilience. “For both clients and therapists and family members, this can be a real journey,” McCarthy says. “But when you reach that better place, there’s no doubt it’s worth it. 

To learn more about South Pacific Private’s comprehensive approach to trauma treatment, contact us now on 1800 063 332 or take one of our tailored self-assessments.

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Trauma

Understanding Shame and Self-Blame After Sexual Assault

Internalising trauma

Sexual assault can be one of the most traumatic moments we ever experience. It involves serious, intentionally inflicted trauma, invades our most intimate boundaries and can destabilise our sense of self and our trust in others.

Sexual assault has a range of consequences for us that can extend beyond physical injury,” says Alyssa Lalor, program director at Sydney’s South Pacific Private, a mental health and addiction treatment centre which specialises in trauma. “We may experience high levels of anxiety, fear, depression – and often immense amounts of shame and self-blame.”

Feelings of shame and self-blame can have long-lasting impacts because they distort our self perception and stop us reaching out for help. “Shame is the intrinsic belief that ‘there is something inherently wrong with me, I am wrong’, which means this toxic shame impacts our sense of self and self-esteem,” says Lalor.

In some cases, we may relive the experience with our self-blame centered on a perceived failure to act differently in the moment to stop the assault eg. “Why didn’t I fight harder?”, “Why did I let him do that?”. In other cases, we may focus our blame on a perceived, inherent character flaw about ourselves eg. “Why am I so naive?” “It’s because I’m weak and pathetic.” 

Why Survivors Blame Themselves

There can be a range of complex reasons why survivors may blame themselves.

In some cases, the perpetrator may articulate a reason for the abuse or attempt to justify the assault by blaming the victim, a pattern which risks becoming deeply internalised, especially if the abuse starts at a young age. If the abuser is a caregiver or someone we rely upon, blaming ourselves may also avoid us having to directly confront the reality that someone who is supposed to care for us is harming us instead. 

Self-blame may also arise from an attempt to find a reason for what may otherwise be a random, chaotic event – or from an attempt to answer the question “why me?” After experiencing a deeply disempowering, traumatic experience, blaming ourselves can also become an unhealthy coping mechanism – a way of telling ourselves that we’re in control, and always were in control. 

Sometimes, we may blame elements of our own masculinity, femininity or sexual identity, or a broader community that we’re a part of. In cases of assault where a survivor is also coming to terms with their sexuality, there can be a real risk of their perceptions of sexual identity becoming entangled with feelings of trauma, shame and distrust.

How to stop blaming yourself

All forms of shame and self-blame can be extremely damaging, Lalor says, because they stop us from reaching out for help and may make us believe we’re not worthy of recovery and happiness. “Silencing ourselves leaves us in a state of toxic shame, making reaching out in some cases near impossible,” she says. “Shame makes us want to hide, sharing shame allows us to connect.”

Speaking with a well-matched therapist or being a part of group conversations with fellow survivors can be a powerful part of the healing process, Lalor says. As much as we may want minimise an incident or pretend an assault never happened, sharing our experience in a supportive environment can often be the first step toward healing. “When shame is shared and we come out of the darkness, it no longer has power to control, and we are no longer hidden,” she says.  

For those of us with loved ones who have experienced an assault, it’s especially important to be aware that damaging feelings of shame can be reinforced by others. 

Cultural attitudes which blame victims for being inebriated or dressing a certain way can contribute to self-blame, as can responses from friends and family which include questions starting with “why didn’t you…” or comments like “I would have...”

“When someone tells you something significant about a traumatic experience, what they don’t need is advice-giving,” says South Pacific Senior Psychotherapist Di Young. “They need you to listen and empathise, they need unconditional support and love.”

Reaching our for help

With support and guidance, we can eventually acknowledge that the shame and blame shouldn’t be held by us; it belongs to the perpetrator. Another person has committed an act without our consent and they hold the ultimate responsibility, not us. 

Professional support is often an important part of the recovery process. Not only can it help us understand where our self-blame is coming from, but it can also help reduce the impact of shame and help us learn how to break free from unhelpful coping mechanisms. 

If we can’t find a way toward healing and empowerment, survivors run the risk of depression, anxiety, negative self-perception, social withdrawal, addiction and PTSD. With the right support, however, we can regain control, move toward healing and build resilience when encountering triggers. 

“You don’t have to deal with this alone, professional help and support groups are available,” Lalor says. “Eventually, we can move to a place of personal power and desire to take our control back and part of that is often in reporting and seeking justice. We move from 'victim' to 'survivor'.”

Sydney's South Pacific Private offers comprehensive, holistic treatment programs for trauma, addiction, depression and anxiety. To schedule an assessment or discuss treatment options, call now on 1800 063 332.

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Family, Friends and Partners Trauma

How to Respond When Someone Discloses Trauma

Knowing what to say

If a family member, friend or even a colleague confides in you by sharing their traumatic experience, it can be difficult to know what to say or how you should respond. 

Watching someone you care for and love struggle with trauma can be extremely difficult. It’s natural to want to take their pain away and support them through this challenging time.

Often a person who has disclosed a traumatic event, whether a recent event or a long time ago, wants to be heard,” says Di Young, senior psychotherapist at Sydney's South Pacific Private, a treatment center with rehab programs dedicated to healing trauma. “It takes courage to tell their story. They will hope that you can sit with their pain, many unfortunately can’t.” 

If this is a new experience for us, our instincts in responding may be off. We might seek to talk too much because we want to ease tension, or seek to minimise the experience as a way of avoiding our own distress and discomfort. 

Instead, Di says, we should take a moment to acknowledge the enormous trust placed in us by the person who has made the disclosure. The person sharing their trauma is often looking for validation and empathy, Di says. “They need you to listen and empathise, they need unconditional support and love."

 

Compounding Trauma: What not to say

For those of us with a natural inclination to try to fix things, holding back and just stitting with the moment can be difficult. "When someone tells you something significant about a traumatic experience, what they don’t need is advice-giving," Young says. Even if it's because we're genuinely trying to help, it can often come off as judgmental or minimisation if we offer unprompted advice like "have you tried this?" or "why don’t you do that?" 

Some of the worst responses are those which can compound shame and self-doubt, even if they're well-intentioned. Young says statements such as "you'll get over it", "it wasn't that bad" or "what's wrong with you?" can be particularly damaging. “They're not helpful for the person suffering with a significant mental illness and can actually make things worse,” Young explains.

Even if you hope to encourage an individual to seek professional support and treatment, report an incident to authorities or take another course of action, the first step should always be to listen and empathise. “Only when the person has received an open, non-judgemental response, may they be open to practical support, possible treatment avenues and professional help,” says Young.

While talking about trauma can be painful and upsetting, the support of family and friends is often. Don’t insist on talking if they don’t want to, but if they are open to speaking about their experience or feelings, make sure you're there to listen.

 

 

A wide range of experiences have the capacity to inflict long-term trauma, from sudden, life-threatening events to longer-term, ongoing traumatic experiences, such as recurring abuse or parental neglect. However, any situation that leaves us feeling overwhelmed, desperate and isolated can result in trauma.

Just as physical trauma can leave lasting scars, so too can psychological and emotional trauma. While most of us might experience negative psychological responses following traumatic events, over time we can expect them to fade and disappear. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and its more common variant, Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, are diagnosed when these symptoms persist or intensify for months or begin to interfere with our ability to function normally in our daily lives.

We may feel anxious, upset, numb, sad, agitated or overwhelmed. We may be filled with rage or emotionally-frozen, finding connection and expression near impossible. Often, these symptoms begin immediately or several weeks after a traumatic experience, but sometimes symptoms can take months or years to develop, which can be especially confusing and distressing. 

Take someone like Kate for example – not her real name – who has recently gone through a tough divorce and is now struggling with anxiety and depression. Growing up as the eldest child with a single mum who was an alcoholic, she always felt she had to be the perfect one, keeping it all together.

When her marriage ended, it triggered all her feelings from childhood – the shame, the sense of failure, that nagging feeling that something was wrong with her and she was responsible for it all. "More complex cases of long-running trauma like that can have a very significant impact on people's lives," young says.

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Trauma Seeking Help

Understanding Intergenerational Trauma

Inheriting trauma

In the 1960s, a group of psychologists in Canada began to observe high rates of psychological distress which appeared to be linked to the Holocaust. What made their subsequent research groundbreaking was that it wasn’t just in survivors themselves, but in their children.

Their observations sparked the first major wave of research into the notion of intergenerational or trans-generational trauma. Subsequent studies have confirmed the observations. 

“[The children of Holocaust survivors] present an increased vulnerability to psychological distress and to post-traumatic stress disorder,” a 2003 study in the American Journal of Psychotherapy reported. “They also suffer from impaired self-esteem, from problems with the inhibition and control of their aggression and from difficulties entering into intimate relationships as well as in handling interpersonal conflicts.”

As research has continued, our understanding of intergenerational trauma has expanded. 

Studies have explored the impact of intergenerational trauma on the children of slaves, Native Americans, veterans, refugees and Indigenous Australians who were taken from their parents as part of the Stolen Generation. Research has also shown that similar dynamics exist for parents with substance addictions, or who are survivors of sexual assault. 

“Whether the trauma occurs on a societal or personal level, it's something we think about a lot in our trauma-related work,” says Tori McCarthy, a senior therapist at Sydney's South Pacific Private, a treatment centre specialising in addiction, trauma, family systems and mental health. “There’s a very real risk of problems being handed down to children if parents are survivors of trauma, or battling addiction, and we’re proud to be one of Australia’s only private hospitals to have a dedicated family and children’s programs designed to break the cycle as early as possible.”

 

Trauma's Developmental impact

A range of theories have been advanced to explain how trauma is passed down through generations, the most straightforward of which is that the ongoing impacts of trauma affect an individual’s ability to parent properly. This, in turn, can impact their children’s development, a condition known as Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. 

Other theories focus on more specific impacts such as parents who struggle with silence, over-disclosure or re-enactment of trauma responses and children who over-identify with the trauma experienced by their parents. 

Some theorists originally suggested that children spent too much time thinking about the Holocaust, that they experienced elements of the Holocaust through their parents’ retelling of their experiences, or that parents focused excessively on teaching trauma-survival skills and inadvertently passed on distorted coping mechanisms.

“Some of the more complex theories might seem debatable, but when you zoom out, the overall notion of intergenerational trauma seems rather obvious,” McCarthy says.

“If a person has been through severe trauma or is struggling with addiction or mental illness, their ability to parent may be compromised. Their children may be less likely to see the modelling of healthy adult behaviour, and that may put them at a higher risk of challenges stemming from that experience as they progress into their own adulthood.”

 

Trauma and The Stolen Generation

In recent decades in Australia, the impact of intergenerational trauma has become increasingly understood by clinicians and policy-makers when it comes to Indigenous Australians as the country continues to come to terms with the ongoing impacts of state-sanctioned child abuse under Australia’s Stolen Generation policies.

“There’s things in my life that I haven’t dealt with and I’ve passed them on to my children,” one Indigenous Australian who was taken from their parents told the authors of the 1997 ‘Bringing them Home’ report. “Gone to pieces. Anxiety attacks. I’ve passed this on to my kids.”

“I look at my son today who had to be taken away because he was going to commit suicide because he can’t handle it; he just can’t take any more of the anxiety attacks,” they said. “I have passed that on to my kids because I haven’t dealt with it. How do you deal with it? How do you sit down and go through all those years of abuse? Somehow I’m passing down negativity to my kids.”

As the report itself noted, most forcibly removed children were denied the experience of being parented by a person to whom they were attached, leading to significant attachment issues (alongside a higher risk of emotional abuse and neglect). “Denial of [proper, loving parenting] results in an individual whose ability to parent his or her own children is severely compromised, and this is certainly my observation with people who were removed in early childhood,” child psychiatrist Dr Brent Waters told the report’s authors. 

Whether it’s societal trauma or personal trauma and addiction, it’s important for clinicians, therapists and rehab centres to be aware that intergenerational trauma is a real and proven risk. 

“When you're designing a rehab program you have to attack it at both ends. At one end, you have to work to identify and address the trauma with the individual – at the other, you have to identify potential impacts on children and parenting, and work to resolve those issues with both the client and their family members,” McCarthy says. “That dual focus is necessary if you’re going to stop the cycle in its tracks.”

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Mental Health PTSD Trauma

What People Don’t Understand About PTSD

PTSD isn’t always like the movies

The most widely held understanding of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is one which has been popularised by film and television. It’s a version characterised by flashbacks and panic attacks, almost exclusively following acutely violent or threatening events. 

This is a very real condition which can have a significant and debilitating impact on individuals, especially those whose work routinely exposes them to such trauma. While such responses to trauma in the short term are normal, it's categorised as a ‘disorder’  when symptoms persist, recur or intensify for months, or begin to interfere with our ability to function normally in our daily lives.

But there’s another and far more common form of PTSD which is less well understood, and it’s called Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or ‘C-PTSD’. 

C-PTSD describes the impact of ongoing, longer-term forms of trauma which occur during developmentally important periods of life, such as childhood or young adulthood, or at other times of extreme vulnerability. Rather than a singular threatening event, this form of trauma is often inflicted by individuals intentionally and often involves a power imbalance such as older-younger, parent-child, teacher-child or boss-employee.

Examples of such trauma may include parental neglect, a parent’s drinking or substance addiction, witnessing or experiencing domestic violence, the death, imprisonment or separation of a loved one, or instances of physical abuse, sexual abuse or emotional abuse. “Trauma from our childhoods, especially early childhood, has an especially deep impact because it’s inflicted while our social, emotional and physical responses and identities are still developing,” says Tori McCarthy, a senior therapist at Sydney's South Pacific Private, an addiction and mental health tretment centre with a special focus on trauma.

 

 

Understanding Complex PTSD

“Trauma that an individual perceives as intentionally inflicted, and when it occurs in an intimate, interpersonal relationship, can have a long-lasting negative impacts,” McCarthy says. Sexual or physical abuse from a caregiver or authority figure can have especially deep impacts, even if memories of the events have faded, been blocked out or become jumbled. “That kind of trauma wreaks havoc with our notions of trust, our sense of self and ability to maintain healthy relationships.”

Several symptoms of C-PTSD and PTSD are quite similar, they may include:

  • Hyperarousal, which describes being easily startled, on high alert or feeling an ongoing sense of threat
  • Intrusions, which describe past traumatic experiences recurring in our thoughts, and are sometimes described as flashbacks.
  • Avoidance, which describes a defence mechanism which may include withdrawing from others, avoiding emotional triggers, or numbing feelings with substances, behaviours, addictions or self-harm.

Symptoms which are more unique to C-PTSD include:

  • Emotional dysregulation, which describes struggling to control our mood and emotions.
  • Negative self-concept, which describes a persistent feeling of worthlessness and defeat as well as extreme feelings of shame and guilt.
  • Disturbance in relationships, which describes ongoing difficulties in forming and sustaining relationships, including within friendships, partnerships, families and the workplace.

 

Trauma's Long-lasting impact

McCarthy says that because C-PTSD symptoms can persist for years after the trauma and last deep into adulthood, they can be mistaken for inherent personality characteristics or other mental health issues. Such symptoms may include an unhealthy relationship with shame, enduring sadness and loneliness, issues with body image and self-worth and/or an ongoing search for, or reliance upon a ‘saviour’.

“Close friends and family members, including the individuals themselves, may not realise that the challenges they’re experiencing in adulthood actually stem from trauma experienced in childhood or early adulthood,” McCarthy says. “In our rehab programs at South Pacific, we pay special attention to it because C-PTSD can often lead to addictions or other mental health conditions including depression and anxiety. If you don’t treat it directly and just focus on medication or detox, then the driving cause will remain unresolved.”

Just like PTSD, C-PTSD is treatable, and there is hope for survivors of ongoing trauma.

“Treatment includes equipping patients with healthier coping strategies and mindfulness techniques to lessen the impact of symptoms, as well as raising their own awareness of how their responses to situations in adulthood may stem from the impact of trauma,” McCarthy says. 

“Compassionate, delicate therapy by a therapist or psychiatrist can also aid in addressing unresolved aspects of trauma,” she says. The aim is to help individuals develop healthier relationships, a more balanced approach to their self-worth and increased resilience.

“It can be a challenging but rewarding process for both therapists and patients – it can be a real journey,” McCarthy says. “There’s a reason it’s known as ‘complex’ PTSD.”

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