"Trauma" is often thought of as a specific event - like a form of physical abuse or engaging in military combat - and trauma certainly can include those things. Traumatic events such as sexual or physical abuse, military combat, or witnessing others being abused or killed can lead to physical, emotional, psychological and relational symptoms that individuals can find extremely distressing.
These symptoms, such as nightmares, flashbacks, dissociation, hypervigilance, heightened startle response, and sensitivity to any reminders of these traumatic events, as well as others, can be so distressing that individuals may turn to dysfunctional methods of coping in order to reduce or eliminate these painful and sometimes terrifying experiences.
This makes a lot of sense, because the symptoms can sometimes feel completely overwhelming, unmanageable, and debilitating, and any form of relief may feel deeply desired and even needed to get through a trauma-related symptom or multiple symptoms.
This is where process addictions or substance addictions may come into play for those who have experienced these types of traumas. As is explained in more depth on the pages about Process and Substance Addictions in this section of the website, these addictions may offer at least short-term relief from certain extremely painful feelings, thoughts, or physical sensations. The problem is, they often come with a host of new and painful negative consequences and can lead to even more pain, suffering, and destruction in one's life. What was once felt to be a helpful coping tool, such as a substance or process, may turn into an out-of-control spiral or unmanageability in relationships, work, finance, and with one's sense of well-being and safety in the world.
Those who have suffered from complex trauma may grow up to experience brand new relationships "as if" they are repeats of the old, traumatizing relationships or experiences from youth, just like someone who experienced military combat in the past may be triggered by the sound of fireworks in the present.
What is called "complex trauma" can also cause significant distress and lead to dysfunctional methods of coping.
Complex trauma may be less about a specific event, such as those described above, and more about repeated exposure to highly painful, invalidating experiences while growing up or in a specific relationship or relationships.
Examples of causes of complex trauma from childhood may be repeated experiences of: being emotionally neglected or belittled by a significant authority figure (such as a caregiver, teacher or coach); listening to a loved relative frequently speak negatively about themselves, their bodies, their weight, their personality, their attributes, their abilities, etc.; having an impaired caregiver, such as someone with an untreated addiction or mental illness, who was only intermittently cognitively and emotionally present; the experience of a physically absent caregiver; being triangulated within a family system (triangulation can mean many things, such as being used as a "go-between" between parents or feeling like a caregiver is "using" you to "get back at" or "get to" another adult or family member in the child's life; or being asked to hold secrets for caregivers or between/among family members); being treated as overly important to a caregiver's sense of self and well-being; being used as a caregiver's therapist or confidante; a caregiver making excuses for another caregiver's dysfunctional or abusive behavior; being told that one's reality is not real or that what one has seen or has experienced did not really happen; being verbally or physically bullied at school or other organizations by peers; being encouraged to "deal with it" when facing challenging emotions or events without being taught how to "deal with it;" a sense of being treated as a "black sheep" or "a golden child" in a family system and not recognized as "one among" a family system, no better and no worse than anyone else; and/or being subjected to physical, verbal, and/or sexual abuse repeatedly over time.
Complex trauma can result from these experiences or many others, often in combination with a child's or even an adult's developmentally appropriate inability to make sense of these experiences. Without being able to make sense of what is happening, and without caregivers or loved ones helping someone make sense of what is happening, the repeated experiences may be taken in by the child or adult as persistently profoundly confusing, intensely painful, terrifying, shameful, isolating, hopeless, or grief-inducing.
Those who have suffered from complex trauma may grow up or move on to experience brand new relationships "as if" they are repeats of the old, traumatizing relationships or experiences from youth, just like someone who experienced military combat in the past may be triggered by the sound of fireworks in the present. In the case of the former, individuals may find themselves in such distress in these new relationships that feel like old, harmful relationships that they turn to dysfunctional forms of coping to relieve their intense physical, emotional, and cognitive symptoms - and sometimes those forms of coping are process or substance addictions.