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Complex Trauma/Developmental Trauma

I have personally experienced and witnessed in my clients that complex trauma entails children/teenagers/young adults not being seen or heard by their caregivers. Individuals who experience CPTSD likely have one or both caregivers who are emotionally immature or mental health is compromised by a severe mental illness or addiction. As a result, a child learns very early that their needs are either not important or must wait until the caregivers’ needs are met. Often times, both of the aforementioned exist at the same time. As a result, a growing child becoming a teenager and then a young adult who has had little or no space to lean into and be curious about who they truly are. Their own unique personality is often masked by the personalities and behaviors they have had to assume in order to survive their environment. As mammals, our survival is dependent on our adult caregivers, which requires some form of attachment. How do you attach to a caregiver who is dismissive, hurtful, rageful, unavailable, punitive? The answer to that question is that you survive by forgoing your personhood and your needs.

Individuals that grow up in these harsh and often chaotic, unpredictable environments learn to lean away from their intuition because they have been pushed past their threshold over and over, and over again. Imagine if you were born neurosensitive or neurodiverse? Individuals that survive these circumstances do so by developing incredible adaptations, such as dissociation as just one example of several trauma responses .

Imagine growing up with unreliable, infrequent, or nonexistent nurturing, attunement, validation, protection, or guidance. Without the above needs being met, individuals with CPTSD are more likely to be further victimized in society. How are you supposed to live in this world and navigate life’s demands without a guide, without a compass?

Below you will find a list of common trauma responses. As you continue reading, some of the trauma responses will definitely resonate with you.  If so, please consider asking the following internal questions: 

How have these ways of coping helped me survive? The assumption is that these coping tools were absolutely effective in managing our needs, otherwise, they would not have developed. In addition, I would like to invite you to also internally ask: What would have been the risks if I did not unconsciously or consciously employ these coping mechanisms? 

If you are reading this section and deeply considering continuing your healing, you hopefully are no longer in emotional, psychological, physical, or spiritual harm. Meaning, that you are not an adult, living away from the circumstances that were so damaging. You may now find that these coping mechanisms that one saved your spirit, your soul, you mind and body, may no longer be effective. These coping mechanisms may actually be keeping you from living the life you deserve and want. 

There is absolutely hope. Healing is possible. I have experienced it myself and have witnessed healing and growth in my clients. Our brain is neuroplastic and capable of continued learning. Treatment for CPTSD is very specific to each client, and this will be a discussion you will have with your therapist. 

Treatment will be a collaborative process. Your voice must be heard, and you will have choices.  

Common Trauma Responses

Autonomic defenses of survival  are strategies that once reduced the level of harm or enhanced one’s survival.

Typically, when any of these responses are present or activated, our thinking brain, our wisest self/selves/system is often not “in charge,” and can explain the behavior we engage in when we are triggered.

Please see below for a list and information about six different trauma responses. 









We are PROTECTING ourselves through ACTION, forcing things/environment/people to be just right, in order to experience real or perceived sense of safety. 

This is a state of SYMPATHETIC ACTIVATION with neuroception of THREAT/FEELING UNSAFE. This is a state of DEFENSE and PROTECTION.  This is a state mobilized by FEAR.  Reactivity and Impulsivity are seen in both fight and flight.  

Adapted from: Fisher, 2017 & Porges, 2017










Self-Harming Behaviors

Judgment and Criticism of Self and Others

Controlling of things/others/circumstances

Suicidal Thoughts

The automatic unconscious way the brain and nervous system and body evaluate and determine RISK in our environment. 


This is determined by what HAS ACTUALLY been THREATENING in the PAST.  

Neuroscientist Stephen Porges coined the term NEURECEPTION, which he defined as: 


Dana, D.  (2018).  The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy:  Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation.  Norton & Company.
Dana, D.  (2021).  Anchored:  How to  Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory.  Sounds True.
Fisher, J.  (2017).  Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors:  Overcoming Internal Self-Alienation.  10.4324/9781315886169.
Porges, S.W. & Porges, S.  (2023).  Our Polyvagal World: How Safety and Trauma Change Us.  Norton & Company.
Panksepp, J., & Biven, L.  (2012).  The Archaeology of the Mind:  Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotion.  Norton & Company.
Walker, P.  (2013).  Complex PTSD:  From Surviving to Thriving:  A Guide and Map for Recovering from Childhood Trauma.  First Edition.  Azure Coyote.  

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