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Explain C PTSD to Someone

How to Explain C PTSD to Someone Who Doesn’t Have It

by Isabella Coronel
Published: Updated:

Describing Complex Trauma Symptoms to Your Loved Ones

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a natural response to a traumatic event that changes your life in some way. If you have been under constant trauma, or experienced trauma as both a child and adult, you may instead form a different version of the ailment, often referred to as complex PTSD or C-PTSD.

Whether your trauma stems from early childhood or an occurrence in your adult life, you need to know how to explain C PTSD to someone who doesn’t have it so that they can better understand you.

This is where our experts at Catalina shine, by providing help for our clients with complex trauma as well as offering resources and ways for your family and friends to better understand the challenges of the condition.

As a part of our extensive trauma programs, Catalina Behavioral Health is here to help you deal with complex post-traumatic stress. When you need insight to cope with traumatic events in your life, our team of skilled professionals can help you through these tough times. We can even help you better communicate about your complex PTSD and its effects on loved ones through family therapy.

Keep reading to get resources that can help others understand, as well as find out more about our proven support programs at Catalina!

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Explaining the Difference Between Complex PTSD and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Many people have a general idea of what PTSD is, due in large part to the push for recognition in the mental health field. The very first thing you often need to do to explain complex PTSD and its symptoms is to define the difference in diagnoses. While they do have some factors in common, there is a huge difference that shapes and informs your treatment.

The traditional form of PTSD often occurs after a single traumatic event. For example, you might be in a car accident or some other type of brief encounter with a life-threatening situation. This is difficult to deal with on its own, but C-PTSD poses even greater challenges.

Complex PTSD is formed when you are repeatedly exposed to traumatic events. Oftentimes, this forms when there is childhood abuse that is ongoing throughout the years. However, physical abuse or domestic violence from a partner, human trafficking, or experiences in combat can also lead to this more involved diagnosis.

In other words, it is not one single event that has caused a deterioration of your mental health. Instead, it is the cumulative effect of life-threatening and harrowing traumatic events.

Explaining Symptoms of Complex Trauma Following Traumatic Events


If you have a few minutes to explain this diagnosis to supportive friends and family, going over the list of symptoms of PTSD might be your best option.

Here are some of the highlights you might want to make for someone who does not understand your situation.

Always Being On Guard for Danger: Hypervigilance

Human beings have an uncanny ability to tell when they are in a dangerous situation. People who cope with C-PTSD often have a more attuned sense of impending threats. Imagine being on guard all the time: your muscles are tensed to run, your brain is trying to figure out every exit strategy, and your heart is racing.

In other words, you are in fight or flight mode almost constantly. Even if you freeze (the third option in this common phenomenon), the sense of danger is real.

Even among your closest loved ones, you may feel helpless, as if they are going to betray you both physically and emotionally. It manifests itself as constant anxiety which is something that many people can relate to and that makes C-PTSD easier to understand in context.

How To Explain C PTSD to Someone: The Reliving of Traumatic Events

Oftentimes, people who have the diagnosis relive the events of their trauma over and over again. This can surface in the form of intrusive thoughts, nightmares, or even flashbacks to the event. Your loved ones can think of it like a movie in your mind, playing the highlight reel of your trauma repeatedly when something triggers it.

When you experience a trigger that reminds you of past trauma, your mind automatically reverts back to that place of danger.

As a result, you may not be able to respond to your loved ones until the flashback has run its course. It leads to a detachment from the present moment and mires you directly in the past. Everything you see, hear and feel fades away as your brain plays out the traumatic event.

It can often be helpful to associate your flashbacks with seizures. While you are frozen, there is nothing anyone can say or do for you to bring you back to the present until the event has run its course.

Avoidance Behaviors

Avoidance Behaviors

Does anyone ever want to relive the worst days of their life? Whether it is a natural disaster or chronic childhood abuse, chances are that you do not want to be in a position that reminds you of what you have been through.

As a result, you likely go out of your way to avoid people, places, and things that are bound to trigger your flashbacks. Whether these triggering memories are from repressed childhood trauma or a traumatic event experienced as an adult, knowing and respecting the circumstances you find triggering is a valuable insight.

This might seem limiting to your loved ones, but you can explain to them that it is not good for your mental health. When you put yourself in these positions, you are more likely to trigger the feelings and experiences associated with your trauma, leading to a spike in anxiety, memory loss, and increased risk of flashbacks.

Memory Loss and Gaps

When people think of memory loss, they often imagine Dory from Finding Nemo. Complex PTSD has a similar effect on your ability to code and store memories. You may have crystal clear recollections of the trauma you have been through, but only minimal memories of the good times that surfaced afterward.

Even if your brain is able to ‘code’ new memories and store them correctly, you might find that some of your memories are repressed because they are too painful. This leads to a fragmented version of events for anyone struggling with PTSD.

Explain to your loved one that your memory loss does not mean that your interactions with them were not important to you. Instead, it is simply that certain parts of the brain (namely the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex) have rendered it challenging to store new memories and retrieve old ones.

You may have a good idea of where you are right now and what you are doing (unlike Dory), but it can be harder to access past events especially if they surround trauma. Our repressed memories quizlet and guide can help you determine the severity of such symptoms, and let you know the relative frequency of your recollections.

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Negative Personal Thoughts

A personality disorder is not the only diagnosis that can leave you with negative personal thoughts. Trauma has a way of coloring your world with unpleasant images and recollections. Because of what you have been through, war veterans and other trauma survivors often take a more cynical and jaded approach to the world.

You can try to explain it to your friends and family this way: Once you have seen the darkest parts of reality, it can be hard to see the positive in any situation. It is not necessarily that you want to be a pessimist or to see the glass as half empty. It is just that your experiences make it next to impossible for you to be optimistic about the future.

You might also repeatedly blame yourself or take responsibility for your trauma, even if it was not something within your control.

Persistent Sadness or Sorrow

Persistent Sadness

Whether you have survived domestic violence or childhood abuse, you likely have some negative feelings surrounding life in general. C-PTSD is typically accompanied by a form of chronic sadness or possibly even clinical depression. This is closely related to your negative personal thoughts and self-blame.

Most people can relate to what depression feels like and have a good frame of reference. Explain that you have sadness that envelopes you and makes it hard for you to complete daily tasks. Even getting out of bed every day might be a real accomplishment. The things that used to interest you no longer hold any joy.

Nothing lifts your sadness, and you may even have suicidal thoughts if left untreated. If you are experiencing suicidal thinking in any form, reach out for assistance immediately, whether to Catalina or a nationwide resource such as the 988 crisis line.

Irritability and Getting Easily Annoyed

Of course, persistent sadness can lead to another symptom: irritability. You may not be able to tolerate the things that you once did because they seem trivial or pointless to you now. When someone around you engages with behaviors or thoughts that are contrary to your way of thinking, you might become extremely irritable with them.

Tell your friends and loved ones that your irritability and anger are not necessarily directed toward them. Try to engage them in what it might feel like to be bombarded by events that go against your current emotional status. You simply lack the bandwidth to cope with small daily irritations that trigger the trauma layered deep in your psyche.

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Impulsivity and Risk-Seeking Behaviors

Once you have been through trauma, everything else might seem like a breeze. Oftentimes, people who have survived this long with C-PTSD become more inclined to take risks than other people. Not only do these situations not seem as threatening in light of what you have already survived, but they can also be a coping skill.

Is there any better way to ignore your current tumultuous emotional status than to engage in something that consumes your full attention?

This can be a challenge to explain to others. If you can, try to make a link between how depressed you feel right now and the adrenaline rush that you get from engaging in risky behaviors. The uplift in mood and energy can be quite appealing for trauma survivors, even if it is only temporary.

You do not stop to think through the risk. Instead, you are focused solely on the outcome.

Difficulty Sleeping: Night Terrors and Reliving Traumatic Events

Difficulty Sleeping

No matter what happened to you in the past, you may struggle to feel safe. As a result, slipping into unconsciousness while sleeping is difficult for many people with these disorders. Some people fear the time of night when they have to lie in bed, thinking about all of the memories they were able to fight back during the day.

If you never go to bed, you may not be forced to relive that pain and those memories.

Some people avoid sleep for fear that they will have terrible nightmares. Would you want to go to bed if you knew you were going to relive the worst thing that ever happened to you? This is often a great way to explain what causes insomnia to your support system.

This is also a good time to remind them how sleeplessness affects your mental status. Lack of sleep can lead to more feelings of sadness, anxiety, and irritability.

Distancing from Emotions or Dissociation

While some people worry that their emotions are too big when they cope with symptoms of C-PTSD, others have the opposite problem. People with PTSD or CPTSD sometimes seem to have no feelings at all. This distancing from your emotions is known as dissociation.

Instead of feeling the emotion, you may have a more detached view of the events in your life. Picture it like watching a sitcom on television. Nothing feels real and you do not have any tangible emotional reaction to what goes on. You are a few steps removed from the relationships around you.

You may not even know how to reach out for support because this removal feels comfortable for you. It protects you from having to feel the emotions that might surface when triggers arise.

Dissociation can be a little like living in a cloud that protects you from feeling the difficult things that surface. You feel a certain distance from everyone and everything in your life. Have your loved ones think about what it would be like to live in a fog all the time, and they may have a clear picture of what trauma is like for you.

Lack of a Belief System or Hope in the World

For many people, they have a general sense that this world is a good place to be and that the people who surround them are important to them. In the aftermath of abuse or violence, trauma makes you question everything you thought you knew. It might lead to a radical shift in your belief system.

This does not necessarily mean your religious beliefs, though these often suffer following trauma as well. You can explain to others that C-PTSD leads to a lack of hope and faith in the world around you.

Some people may be able to relate to this if they are pessimists who see the world as a terrible place to be. It may not take much explaining to get them to stretch their imagination to consider this symptom from their more limited perspective. In this same vein, your relationships might suffer.

Relationships Suffer and Isolation Occurs

Relationships Suffer

Perhaps the most significant thing you may find when it comes to C-PTSD symptoms is that your relationships no longer feel easy. Relating this to your loved ones and support system might be extremely difficult because they are viewing it through the lens of their own feelings. They might struggle to understand your separation from them and take it personally.

To keep your relationships intact, it is necessary to have a conversation about how this disorder makes close relationships a struggle.

Relate to them that you have been through something unimaginable for you. Likely, this was caused at the hands of another person from physical abuse or something else. While you would like to have sustaining faith in humanity, it can be difficult. The pain you feel keeps you at arm’s distance from those who used to be closest to you.

Along with losing your hope in the world, you lose the ability to hope that people are inclined to be good to you.

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Get Proven Help for C-PTSD at Catalina Behavioral Health

If you are struggling with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, you need help to overcome what happened to you. This often requires some heavy lifting on your part, but it also requires the support of your loved ones when you are discharged from a therapeutic program. At Catalina Behavioral Health, we believe in guiding you through family therapy so that you can relate these feelings to others.

Family therapy is a safe space where your conversations can be moderated by an objective third party. Our skilled therapists can help you word your personal experience with C-PTSD in a way that your friends and family members can better understand. Educating those around you is a great first step to setting yourself up for success well into the future.

Are you ready to start tackling the symptoms of your C-PTSD today? Reach out to our warm and welcoming admissions staff to learn more about your insurance benefits, our programs, and our team of trained professionals who can help you live life on your own terms regardless of trauma.

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