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What is Complex Trauma?

Jamie Marich, Ph.D., LPCC-S, LICDC-CS, RMT, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D. Updated: Jul 15th 2015

As we have seen from the preceding discussion, the experience of abuse and trauma are nuanced. Hence, many trauma scholars and clinicians have found it helpful to use a word or a phrase that better captures the diverse range; from the acute, severe, single wounding episodes, to the chronic, cumulative, series of ongoing wounding experiences. Judy Herman, M.D. broke new ground with her 1992 book Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror by introducing the term complex PTSD (or complex trauma). A pioneer of her time, Herman noted the conceptualizations of trauma during that era, especially the PTSD diagnosis, were too limited, focusing on a single event or incident. She identified that while many people experience trauma of the single incident variety (e.g., one car accident, one robbery, witness to a single act of violence or abuse), most survivors' stories can better be described as a series of multiple, layered experiences. Rarely is it just "one thing."

In general, the term complex trauma refers to conditions of prolonged trauma or trauma that occurs at developmentally vulnerable times for an individual. Two scholars, Courtis and Ford (2009), have written extensively on complex trauma. They describe complex traumas as having some, or all of the following characteristics:

1. Repetitive or prolonged actions or inaction,
2. Involving direct harm and/or neglect or abandonment by caregivers or ostensibly responsible adults,
3. That occur during developmentally vulnerable times in the victim's life, such as early childhood, and
4. Have great potential to severely compromise a child's development.

Other scholars, like Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. (2005) have made use of the term developmental trauma over the years to specifically highlight the role that trauma and adverse life experiences during early childhood development can play in personality development, behavior, and affect.


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