What is Complex PTSD and how does it relate to anxiety and panic attacks? Buckle up, because this one may change your life.
The most common features of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are emotional flashbacks, toxic shame, self-abandonment, a vicious inner critic and social anxiety. Other characteristics include emotional disregulation, interpersonal turbulence, a tendency to misinterpret reality, catastrophic thinking, black & white thinking, self-destructive or impulsive behavior patterns, addiction and poor impulse control.
Cptsd develops usually from adverse childhood conditions, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional neglect and abandonment, and even from the often-overlooked circumstance of simply blatant, ongoing contempt and/or disinterest from caregivers. As the child is deprived of sufficient nurturing, whether he is spoiled or beaten, he is objectified, and not valued as a developing human being. And by this experience of being objectified and devalued, the child’s emotional development is stunted, and his personal boundaries are never allowed to form through healthy trials and safe conflicts. Many children in abusive and adverse settings learn to develop a shell and a false persona, one that is extra careful to avoid triggering the rage and/or rejection of the caretaker. Over time they tend to become hypervigilant, always on alert, and thus drained of energy. The child may become an ingratiating people-pleaser, denying his own needs in a desperate attempt to curry the interest and attention of the people around him. The child may become hypercritical of himself, as a naive child always assumes that love is being withheld because he is not worthy, because he is not loved. This experience ingrains an incredibly toxic inner critic into the mind of the abused/neglected child, who often grows up to become a very anxious, emotionally disregulated adult with porous boundaries, diminished self-esteem, and – AND – emotional flashbacks that feel and look a lot like what the psychiatric community has been calling “panic attacks”.
In Pete Walker’s outstanding book “Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving” he describes emotional flashbacks:
“Emotional flashbacks are perhaps the most noticeable and characteristic feature of Cptsd. Survivors of traumatizing abandonment are extremely susceptible to painful emotional flashbacks, which unlike ptsd do not typically have a visual component. Emotional flashbacks are sudden and often prolonged regressions to the overwhelming feeling-states of being an abused/abandoned child. These feeling states can include overwhelming fear, shame, alienation, rage, grief and depression. They also include the unnecessary triggering of our fight/flight instincts.”
If this sounds like what you’ve been experiencing, read Pete Walker’s book as it is a wealth of guidance toward full recovery and a solid understanding of the hidden damages that abusive/neglectful parenting can render.
On a personal note, this book helped me tremendously. After years of trying it all I can confidently say that I don’t think there is any amount of meditating or praying or imagining forgiveness that one could do and even come close to resolving childhood trauma issues and the lingering effects. Facing the root of a problem is the only way to transcend it. Facing the root cause of my “panic attacks” was the only way to truly begin to overcome them. Now I know that they are emotional flashbacks driven by a toxic inner voice. Why don’t more psychiatrists know about this? (Oh right, because they want to keep calling it a chemical problem so they can justify prescribing a chemical solution…)
Thankfully we have a few psychologists like Pete Walker who go a bit rogue and start writing a new, better map of the reality of mental health. I vividly saw my childhood in Pete Walker’s book, and saw my parents, and step-parents. Finally, someone had put into words the invisible wounds and scars and saw the unmet needs that went unseen by my own parents, someone finally showed me that I had developed a lot of my self-defeating personality traits in response to my quietly adverse childhood conditions. It made sense why I felt stuck behind a mask and why it was so incredibly hard to take off the mask for good. There was still a relentless toxic critic in my head, setting me up for failure with its brutal script of rejection and humiliation and worthlessness – and just knowing that and seeing it for what IT was – as in, not the real ME – this was the key to breaking the panic attack pattern. Grabbing the reins of that inside voice and making it my most adoring, supportive champion. It’s so simple and yet so life-changing. Read the book and it goes deeply into the dynamics of family relationships and provides a lot of examples to help reveal the dysfunctions that often get normalized or swept under the rug and left to fester like a road block on our path to emotional development. It’s time to clean house and tell our inner child that we are here now, we are in charge now, and we are going to take excellent care of ourselves, starting with the ending the self-abandonment.
Another fantastic resource for Cptsd support is Richard Grannon Spartan Life Coach, he has a website and a youtube channel with lots of free videos discussing Cptsd and recovering from narcissistic abuse, something which Cptsd folks often encounter as they are similarly co-dependent and tend to attract relationships that repeat the dynamic they experienced with a caregiver in childhood.
The best news is that it can be healed, it can be changed, it isn’t a permanent “disorder” in fact it’s more of a response than a disorder, as I’ve heard some comment. We can re-write the scripts and programs that drive this response. We can fully recover. And once we’re there, we can then consider exploring the emotion of forgiveness. Forgiveness toward an abuser is not necessary, and in some cases it is not advisable or healthy. First things first – rescue your inner child. Start there and the rest will unfold for you. Hugs to you all.