Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Self-Harm

CPTSD Foundation
6 min readNov 28, 2023

This article includes an honest discussion about self-harming behavior. No triggering information is shared, but it is a highly triggering topic to some. Caution is advised.

We have published many articles on complex post-traumatic stress disorder and how it changes lives. However, this article is different in that we are going to discuss CPTSD and its role in self-harming behaviors.

A Review: What is Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) is a chronic condition that affects survivors of multiple traumatic events, usually in childhood. It I caused by repeated and severe abuse of any type, including, sexual, verbal, physical, and narcissistic maltreatment.

Some of the symptoms of CPTSD are as follows:

  • Alienation from others
  • Amnesia
  • Chronic mistrust of others or self
  • Flashbacks
  • Dissociation
  • Shame
  • Body memories
  • Re-victimization
  • Emotional dysfunction
  • Anger issues

All of the symptoms above, plus many more, alter the lives of those who experience them.

Self-Harm as a Response to Childhood Trauma

Self-harm occurs when a person becomes so overwhelmed with their emotions that they are desperate for relief and hurt their own body. The injuries that are sustained by hurting oneself can be severe and sometimes are life-threatening if the wound becomes infected or it is too deep.

Self-injury is not considered a mental health disorder; however, people who commit self-harm often have an underlying mental health condition. Although it may seem counterintuitive, people who self-harm are not usually attempting to die by suicide. Instead, they are reaching for the dopamine rush that hurting oneself can bring to relieve immediate stress.

Below, you’ll find a list (not all conclusive) of methods people use to hurt themselves.

  • Punching oneself or a wall
  • Pulling out their hair
  • Cutting oneself
  • Burning oneself
  • Extreme fasting

Self-harming behaviors bring very short-term relief, but when the dopamine rush wears off, the problems one faces are still there.

Recognizing Your Triggers

The situations that cause someone to harm themselves are called triggers. Triggers are difficult to explain because there are so many types. However, we can say that about anything can be a trigger. Triggers can be places, people, things, and anything else that triggers the fight-or-flight response.

The amygdala is a small region in the brain that is responsible for recognizing danger and telling the body to respond to danger. The problem is that people who have experienced complex trauma have a damaged amygdala that responds not only to triggers that signal danger but also to things that are not dangerous.

Survivors have great difficulty controlling themselves when their amygdala sounds the alarm and hijacks their brains, making them react in unpredictable ways. One of these reactions is self-harm.

People who self-harm might be attempting to calm themselves and overcome their fight-or-flight response. Other things people who hurt themselves are trying to control include:

  • Gain control over life, their feelings, and their body
  • Punish themselves because they feel flawed
  • Express distress, such as depression, to others
  • Give themselves reduced severe distress and a sense of relief
  • To externalize internal emotions and feelings

It is critical for people who self-harm to begin to recognize their triggers to help them use coping skills and find alternatives to hurting themselves.

Alternatives to Self-Harming Behaviors

Every emotion one feels is accompanied by a physical sensation. For instance, when anyone feels frightened or upset, they probably feel it in their stomach, neck, or chest. These survivors may also feel like their mind is foggy or blank.

The trick to overcoming self-harming behaviors is to find an alternative response when they are overwhelmed and have moved into reaction mode. Knowing and using alternatives, like those listed below, can empower those who self-harm to take back their lives.

Instead of harming oneself, they can:

  • Tear up a newspaper or picture
  • Exercise
  • Allow oneself to weep without shaming yourself
  • Watch music videos or use any device to distract yourself
  • Hug and squeeze something soft, like a plush
  • Take a cold shower
  • Look at Amazon and make a wish list
  • Go shopping in a toy store (you need not buy anything)
  • Practice mindfulness and meditation
  • Re-watch your favorite television series
  • Write down your thoughts

While it is true that there is no easy answer to overcoming self-harming behavior, it is also true that there are literally as many ways to distract yourself when you have the urge to self-harm.

Once you have recognized a trigger, immediately do whatever you find helpful to distract yourself from self-harming. Only you can do this; no one can do it for you.

Ending Our Time Together

Learning to recognize triggers is the key to overcoming complex post-traumatic stress disorder that can lead to self-harming behaviors. It is vital to remember that the emotions and the flashbacks that sometimes accompany them are only relics of the past and not happening in the here and now.

CPTSD is a tough diagnosis to live with, especially if you self-harm. You will need professional help from a mental health provider to end the worst of your symptoms and learn to live in the now where things are safe.

Keep in mind that you are wanted, needed, and loved. You may not have someone in your private life, but you have all the people who volunteer and work for the CPTSD Foundation.

I believe in you and hope you will believe that. I don’t know you personally, but I understand well what it is like to have CPTSD and self-harm. Both are not insurmountable problems and with care from an attentive and wonderful therapist, I have been able to now live a peaceful life. With time, you will too. I can promise you that.

“Believe in your dreams. Believe in today. Believe that you are loved. Believe that you make a difference. Believe we can build a better world. Believe when others might not. Believe there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Believe that you might be that light for someone else. Believe that the best is yet to be. Believe in each other. Believe in yourself. I believe in you.” — Kobi Yamada.

“I don’t even think you know how great you really are. I believe in you.” — Dick Vermeil.

References

Serafini, G., Canepa, G., Adavastro, G., Nebbia, J., Belvederi Murri, M., Erbuto, D., … & Amore, M. (2017). The relationship between childhood maltreatment and non-suicidal self-injury: a systematic review. Frontiers in psychiatry, 8, 1 https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2017.00149/full

CPTSD Foundation wishes to invite you to our Pride Program, offered weekly on Circle. In Pride, we discuss important topics related to complex trauma and how it has affected our lives. The program is led by a fantastic person who understands personally the issues facing the LGBTQIA+ community.

Come as you are, take what you like, and leave the rest.

The program is offered every Thursday at 7 pm Eastern time through the Circle app. If you are interested, you can find information here. Please, if you are interested, contact the support team of CPTSD Foundation and sign up.

We look forward to seeing you there.

Originally published at https://cptsdfoundation.org.

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CPTSD Foundation

Successfully equipping complex trauma survivors and practitioners with compassionate support, skills, and trauma-informed education since 2014.