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How Does It Look Like To Have High-functioning C-PTSD?

Many people spend years of their lives without the awareness that their nervous system has been working in a maladaptive way.

Trauma is an injury to the nervous system. It affects the way the brain and the system in general operate. And remember that C-PTSD doesn’t happen necessarily in childhood. DTD does, but C-PTSD could occur at any age, and it’s characterized for going through an inescapable ugly reality.

  • Trauma affects our emotional being because we stay living in fear and alert even if we are safe, since the emotional brain is much more active than normal. The person may still be emotionally challenged and may be needy, but if there is a way to find satisfaction, and the environment is safe, the symptoms won’t bother much. If safety becomes a non-issue at some point, the person may not be in an alert mode as much, until something triggers again the sense of danger. Let’s imagine an individual that lived with an abusive mother and became quiet, passive, absent but successful professionally. S[h]e will feel “normal” in their professional life. Then s[h]e may find a partner that is loving and provides safety. The C-PTSD may still be in the background, or it may even start healing since life is safe now, and the alertness or hypervigilance may stop. Then s[h]e gets an abusive boss and a series of symptoms start appearing. Maybe paranoia, maybe somatization, and the state of alert comes back strongly. It’ll be as if the trauma got triggered without even the awareness of it. That may be the moment when the person would realize that the abusive mother had an impact on the nervous system and that there are C-PTSD alterations since.

  • C-PTSD affects our personality because it alters perception which makes it difficult to interpret the world correctly, and stops us from making a favorable connection to who we are. Since we feel different, we act differently. The feedback from others is what really influences extreme personality presentation.

    • If the person adopted a passive strategy for survival (dominant hypoarousal), s[h]e will become shy and reserved. If that presentation is criticized, invalidated, or rejected, the person will develop a poor sense of self and probably experience social anxiety, isolation, etc., followed by shame, unworthiness, lack of self-esteem, etc. The more that loop gets reinforced, the more extreme the changes in personality to the extreme of developing a personality disorder like PPD, DPD, or even schizotypal.

    • If the person adopted a more aggressive strategy for survival (dominant hyperarousal), s[h]e will be more outgoing and may develop some personality traits that mirror narcissism.

    • If the person develops a personality that was accepted among their circle, the person may feel content receiving the feedback from others and may not even know that his/her self depends on how others perceive him/her. That can be sustained for a very long time unless or until someone gives negative feedback and destabilizes the fragile sense of self, built on other’s assessment. That’s when the C-PTSD can become evident, when the person realizes that lacks a sense of self, and therefore, personality and identity.

  • Trauma injury also affects memory and leaves some dissociation as a norm. If the worse memories are not available, the person may ignore the reality of their history. It also may be the case that the person dissociates from noticing the way s[h]e is been abused because s[h]e has no other option but to stay. In these cases, the person may not notice many things that happen around, and still be completely functional. That could change if there is something that forces the awareness to notice what has been dissociated: either a horrible past or a horrible present.

Even if there is nothing triggering the complex trauma during the highly functional life that the person has built, his/her body may be affected. If the survival mode is still going on, the body will resent it at some point. Maybe some inflammation will happen, some autoimmune disorder will manifest, or even an inexplicable pain will appear without a medical reason.

But of course, if the person is high-functioning, the possibility that at some point life improved, and therefore, the fears dissipated, the person may have been working in healing out of awareness. As I have said many times, the brain prefers to be healthy. It’s too taxing to be in survival mode all the time. If survival is not an issue, then the brain can go back to function optimally, and the symptoms of the trauma injury will diminish until they disappear.

Can someone with CPTSD feel okay and "stable" at times?

Individuals suffering from C-PTSD learn to live “stable” by using some strategies that could be detrimental for their health.

There is a theory called “Structural Dissociation.” It proposes that individuals with complex are characterized by a division of their personality into different prototypical parts, each with its own psychobiological underpinnings. The theory says that the parts are divided into apparently normal parts (ANPs) for adaptation to daily living and two or more emotional parts (EPs) fixated in the traumatic experience. In my experience, this happens all the time. The person with C-PTSD has a “manager” that deals with life as usual without even notice how difficult it is to live with a nervous system that is always forcing the “apparatus.”

The ANP will manage to feel OK and stable using one or more strategies from dissociating pain, ignoring triggers, forgetting the damage, to using self-medication of some sort. ANP and EP are insufficiently integrated, but interact and share a number of dispositions of the personality. All parts are stuck in maladaptive action tendencies that maintain dissociation but that handle living in disarray for many years until the system crashes. The system as a unit can’t handle living unbalanced forever. It becomes ill physically, and many times is when the person realizes that in order to feel OK, has abused and neglected his/her nature.

Asking this question is an indication that you are already working on developing awareness of your mental and physical state. Trauma, especially complex or developmental, is not only a problem with the mind, but it also affects the whole body, organs, brain, and system functioning. Awareness is the first step to heal. It doesn’t mean you will stop feeling OK and stable; it means that you will work on making that feeling of stability to be permanent and not due to dissociation or any other strategy to silence the trauma.

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