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  • Brittany Montes, Psy. D.

What is Complex PTSD?

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is becoming more widely understood in both the psychological community and across social media.  However, researches and clinicians have long been discussing the concept of complex PTSD affecting individuals who have experienced some of the most severe forms of trauma.  Unfortunately, the concept of complex PTSD remains a topic of debate as this has not been recognized by the APA (Cleveland Clinic, 2023).  Notably, complex PTSD has been recognized by the WHO and holds a diagnostic code within the International Classification of Diseases (ICD).

Therapy for Complex PTSD

The concept of complex PTSD was first introduced in 1988 any Dr. Judith Herman of Harvard University (U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs, 2007).  At the time, she noted that this form of PTSD primarily affected individuals who had suffered childhood trauma, especially sexual abuse.  More recently, researchers have found that complex PTSD can develop in individuals who have experienced chronic and long-term trauma.  Specifically, evidence suggests that the “duration of traumatic exposure is most likely linked to the concept of complex PTSD” (U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, 2007).  Examples include domestic violence, childhood abuse, human/sex trafficking, combat, and community violence (Cleveland Clinic, 2023).  Additionally, research has found that approximately 1 to 8% are affected by complex PTSD.

In addition to experiencing symptoms that are typically seen in PTSD, individuals with complex PTSD are likely to experience more severe difficulties with emotion regulation, consciousness, self-perception, distorted perceptions of the perpetrator, relationships, and one’s system of meanings (U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs, 2007).

Unfortunately, similar to PTSD, complex-PTSD is often viewed as a chronic and lifelong condition.  However, with the help of medication and therapy, individuals can learn how to manage their symptoms so that they may lead meaningful and purpose-filled lives.  Currently, recommended treatment options for complex PTSD include trauma-focused CBT, exposure therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR), and cognitive processing therapy (CPT).  Each of these forms of treatment are evidence-based and their benefits are well-documented within the psychological community.  However, determining which treatment modality is best for you will likely require a conversation with your provider.

About the Author

Dr. Montes is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-owner of Cognitive Behavior Therapy Center in Chesapeake, VA.


Cleveland Clinic. (2023, April 5). Complex PTSD. Cleveland Clinic.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2007a, January 1). Veterans Affairs. Complex PTSD.


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