Adults who endured childhood trauma often continue to suffer distressing effects from their experiences that differ from the posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) commonly associated with war veterans and disaster survivors. Physically and sexually abused children, as well as women exposed to prolonged interpersonal violence, have a complex set of reactions referred to as “complex post-traumatic stress disorder” (CPTSD) that is distinct from PTSD. In basic terms, the criteria for PTSD is event-focused, whereas CPTSD is impact-focused, and these differences have significant treatment implications.
While PTSD treatment focuses on the specific past events and the processing of related traumatic memories, clients with CPTSD often require treatment for emotional regulation, dissociation, and interpersonal problems. Helping clients regulate emotions is the foundation of CPTSD treatment because affect dysregulation, or the inability to adaptively manage or tolerate intense emotions, is pervasive among adults with histories of early and chronic childhood trauma, especially childhood sexual abuse. Early and prolonged interpersonal trauma impedes the ability to regulate affective states such as anger, anxiety, and sexuality, and can lead to destructive attempts at self-regulation through self-mutilation, eating disorders, and substance abuse. Those with CPTSD often feel out of control or powerless over their response to people and events. They say things like “It just happens” or “I can’t control it; it just builds up and I explode.”
Recent trauma research shows that childhood abuse persists in the body and that the physical processing of the emotional stimuli is an important component of effective trauma therapy, especially with CPTSD clients who often ignore, reject, or harm their bodies. Core Energetics, a spiritually-integrated body psychotherapy, helps clients get in touch with their bodies, heal the mind-body split, and regulate affect. Core Energetics therapists help clients achieve a physical sense of control by setting boundaries, managing physiological arousal, and regaining a physical sense of self-protection.
Although learning to regulate affect is considered the most important self-regulatory skill for CPTSD sufferers, these clients also benefit from psycho-spiritual interventions to address the frequent feeling of desertion by God and man. Core Energetics integrates spirituality into the mind-body healing process, helping CPTSD clients achieve affect regulation and move beyond the trauma to secure loving, creative lives. The process can free adults from childhood trauma and may even lead to genuine emotional and spiritual transformation.
— By Kathleen E. Scheg, JD, LCPC
Kathleen E. Scheg practices Core Energetics body psychotherapy and pastoral counseling at PC&CC.