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An Upside to CPSTD?

Updated: Jan 16

"How long does dealing with the aftermath of the sexual abuse last?" This question frequents my inbox when coaching male survivors. It's to be expected. No one wants to live with severe levels of dysfunctional coping mechanisms. There's a silver lining along this tumultuous, stormy ride of recovery.

First, when does one encounter complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPSTD)? For myself and most of the clients I coach, it developed in childhood during the extent of dealing with sexual abuse. However, it can originate from other abuses we experienced as children; emotional neglect, abandonment, spiritual abuse, and verbal or physical to name a few. Oops! What is post-traumatic stress disorder? I'll give you a paraphrased criteria definition from the DSM-5*.

  • "Exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence in one (or more) of the following ways: Directly experiencing the traumatic event(s). Witnessing, in person, the event(s) as it occurred to others. Learning that the traumatic event(s) occurred to a close family member or close friend. Experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event(s) (e.g., first responders collecting human remains; police officers repeatedly exposed to details of child abuse)."

Then what follows is a long list:

  • "Presence of one (or more) of the following intrusion symptoms associated with the traumatic event(s), beginning after the traumatic event(s) occurred:

  • Recurrent, involuntary, and intrusive distressing memories of the traumatic event(s)

  • Recurrent distressing dreams in which the content and/or affect of the dream are related to the traumatic event(s)

  • Dissociative reactions (e.g., flashbacks) in which the individual feels or acts as if the traumatic event(s) were recurring.

  • Intense or prolonged psychological distress at exposure to internal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event(s)

  • Avoidance of or efforts to avoid distressing memories, thoughts, or feelings about or closely associated with the traumatic event(s).

  • Avoidance of or efforts to avoid external reminders (people, places, conversations, activities, objects, situations) that arouse distressing memories,

  • Persistent, distorted cognitions about the cause or consequences of the traumatic event(s) that lead the individual to blame himself/herself or others

  • Reckless or self-destructive behavior.

  • Hypervigilance.

There's more.

You probably get the point. Whatever adverse event(s) that are taking place in life is too overwhelming to deal with, and your brain is simply attempting to adapt or cope. CPTSD for childhood sexual abuse survivors is more severe. Our sexual abuse and its components are multidimensional, and the severity of CPTSD worsens. Now, picture a child with an undeveloped brain experiencing the above partial list, with no support, coping skills, strategies, or idea of what the @#$! is going on. Brain synapses fire, and portions of the brain are prematurely stimulated. The complex brain, although overwhelmed, develops sets of learned responses, mostly dysfunctional, and it has no reference points to address the magnitude of life that continues. It's not DNA, genetics, or an inherent characterological flaw but neurons and synapses creating pathways that, at the least, see the child survive. From age six to forty-two, this has been the modus operandi. Now that's complex!

OMB! Where is the silver lining in all of that? Since the CPTSD functioned as a set of learned responses trying to, but failing to complete our developmental growth stages, we can unlearn the dysfunctional coping responses and begin to complete the developmental stages. I am not saying it will be easy; however, this point fuels us with hope, desire, and the expectation that we are not stuck. There are ways to work through the chaos and create an extraordinary life. No longer filled with settling and getting by, but thriving. That's why I have a passion for coaching male survivors because I want all my clients to experience the flip side.


* Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It's a book that lists all the criteria used by mental health professionals to diagnose or label your mental health issue.

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