Post-traumatic Stress and Complex Trauma

Trauma comes in all shapes and sizes, but generally refers to an emotional wound that can occur as a result of a life event that is threatening to a person’s sense of safety or wellbeing.

At Foundation Psychology some of our Psychologists work comprehensively with people whom have experienced trauma.

Trauma may occur as a result of abuse, a serious illness, injury or disaster. People may also experience trauma as a result of witnessing or hearing somebody else’s traumatic experiences. This is called vicarious trauma. For some people, the impact of the trauma may be short term, but for others the impact of a trauma may be longer term and negatively affect other areas of their life, such as relationships, study, work, quality of life and identity. This can depend on how the trauma was processed at the time, the level of support a person had and their personal history. Experiencing trauma is not a weakness in character.

Post-traumatic stress (a.k.a. PTSD) can occur when trauma symptoms extend beyond a month and people may experience intense distress, anxiety or irritability. People can experience nightmares, intrusive memories and flashbacks. Some people may avoid important aspects of life. There may be problems with memory or concentration, feeling vague or detached or feeling more impulsive than usual. Trauma may also negatively affect the way people view themselves or the world and it can be difficult to feel joy.

Complex Trauma

While PTSD often stems from a single or short-lived traumatic event, complex trauma arises from prolonged, repetitive exposure to traumatic situations, often during formative years. This can include situations like long-term abuse, captivity, or exposure to ongoing conflict or violence.

The distinction between PTSD and complex trauma is critical. While they share many symptoms, complex trauma often leads to more extensive disturbances in self-concept, problems with emotional regulation, difficulties in forming relationships, and a fragmented sense of identity. Complex trauma may occur when people experience multiple traumas that affect a person’s safety. As a result, people may experience longer term difficulties with regulating their emotions, impulsivity, feeling detached from themselves or the world, feeling different from the world, shame, inappropriate self-blame, poor self-confidence and trust issues.

It is never too late to recover from the impact of trauma. Most people who engage in evidence-based treatments for trauma do recover and can learn how to re-establish a sense of safety, process memories at their own pace, learn skills to manage distress and re-gain a sense of control over life. There is emerging evidence to suggest that people can experience post-traumatic growth. This refers to the ability to grow beyond trauma to heal and experience a better version of themselves.

At Foundation Psychology, evidence-based treatments for trauma are available, including trauma-focussed cognitive-behavioural therapy, schema therapy and dialectical behaviour therapy.

You can book an appointment with us by calling 9039 2177. 

How Psychological Therapy Can Help

  1. Safety and Stabilisation: Therapy provides a safe space for individuals to explore their traumatic experiences. For many, just knowing they have a consistent, secure place to express themselves can be healing.
  2. Processing the Trauma: Therapists trained in trauma work employ techniques like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and Narrative Therapy to help individuals process and reframe their traumatic experiences.
  3. Integration: After processing the trauma, therapy can assist individuals in integrating their experiences into their larger life narrative. This step is crucial for moving from a place of mere survival to one of growth and flourishing.
  4. Skill Building: Therapists can teach coping strategies and skills, such as mindfulness, grounding techniques, and emotional regulation strategies, to help individuals manage their symptoms and reactions.
  5. Restoring Relationships: Trauma often affects relationships. Therapy can guide individuals in repairing and rebuilding connections with loved ones, or establishing boundaries with those who might be harmful.

Trauma, in its many forms, has profound impacts on the psyche. Yet, with the right support, individuals can navigate the path to healing. Psychological therapy, especially when provided by professionals attuned to the nuances of trauma, can be transformative, offering tools, understanding, and a way forward. For those seeking help, know that recovery is not just possible; it’s attainable.

Trauma therapy is a specialized area of psychological treatment that demands knowledge, sensitivity, and specific expertise. Not all therapies — or therapists — are equally effective, and this is especially important when dealing with trauma, given its sensitive nature. Let’s delve into the characteristics that differentiate good trauma therapy from bad trauma therapy:

Good Trauma Therapy

  1. Safe and Supportive Environment: A trauma-informed therapist creates an environment where the client feels safe, respected, and understood. This forms the foundation upon which trauma can be addressed.
  2. Pace and Respect: Good therapists respect the client’s pace. They understand that pushing someone to recount or relive traumatic events before they’re ready can re-traumatize them.
  3.  Evidence-Based Approaches: Therapists utilise evidence-based methods tailored to trauma, such as Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), or Prolonged Exposure Therapy.
  4. Empowerment: Good trauma therapy seeks to empower the individual, helping them regain control and build resilience.
  5. Holistic Understanding: These therapists recognize the connection between mental, physical, and emotional health and often incorporate techniques to address all aspects of well-being.
  6. Regular Assessments. A good therapist regularly assesses progress and is open to changing strategies if something isn’t working for the client.

Bad Trauma Therapy

  1. Lack of Safety: The environment feels threatening, dismissive, or non-confidential.
  2. Pushing the Client: Pressuring clients to discuss traumatic events or confront memories before they’re ready can be harmful and counterproductive.
  3. Lack of Specialized Training: Not all therapists have training in trauma, and those without this specialization can inadvertently exacerbate symptoms.
  4. One-size-fits-all Approach: Applying the same therapy techniques to every individual, regardless of their unique experiences or coping mechanisms, can be ineffective at best and damaging at worst.
  5. Not Staying Updated: Mental health fields evolve as new research emerges. Therapists who don’t stay updated might not offer the best interventions.
  6. Disregarding Client Feedback: A psychologist who doesn’t listen to or respect feedback might miss critical cues or needs expressed by the client.

The quality of trauma therapy plays a pivotal role in a client’s journey to recovery. While good trauma therapy can pave the way to healing and empowerment, poorly executed therapy can hinder progress or even exacerbate the trauma. If someone feels their therapy isn’t working or feels worse after sessions, it’s essential to either talk with your psychologist about your concerns or find a more suitable psychologist or approach. There are many psychologists in Melbourne who have experience with trauma, so support is available for you.

If you’re ready, we’d be happy to help. Call Foundation Psychology Melbourne on 9039 2177

Other important resources, especially if you are currently in an abusive relationship and feel unsafe include: or phone 1800 737 732.

References: Australian Psychological Society (peak body for psychologists) and Blue Knot (National Centre of Excellence for Complex Trauma)