Complex Trauma Therapy

Complex trauma therapy can help anyone who feels their childhood–or even adult life–has been “anything less than nurturing”. It is effective for those who have never sought counseling before as well as for those who have had therapy fail in the past.

What is complex trauma?

“Trauma” can sound like an intimidating word and a daunting concept. Often people only think of trauma as something that happens to those who go off to war or people in natural or man-made disasters. 

Trauma, however, is much more. Judy Crane, founder of The Refuge treatment center for addiction, trauma and PTSD recovery, describes it perfectly: 

“Trauma is anything less than nurturing that changes your vision of yourself and your place in the world.”

Trauma is any event that impacts an individual’s sense of control and ability to process a given event. While “large-scale” events like war, abuse, and natural disasters are traumatic events, more recent research on the nature of trauma has led to a growing understanding that events like divorce, loss of a loved one or pet, and interpersonal conflict are also traumatic events. 

Our understanding of trauma is growing, and the reality is that trauma is different for every person. Two people, for example, can go through the same “traumatic” experience, and one will experience significant, long-term effects while the other person may not. 

This difference could be explained by each person's past traumatic experiences, current or predisposed mental health diagnoses, and environmental factors. Regardless, trauma is not a “one-size-fits all” concept. 

Traumas come in all “sizes” 

Traumas happen when one event changes how you feel. Most often this change in feeling results in an individual feeling unsafe, such as a person being afraid or anxious about getting in a car after an accident. 

However, traumas do not have to be “big” events–they can also happen in the little moments of someone's life. This might look like repeated neglect, or simply a person’s inability to attune to a child’s needs. 

“Little t” trauma

“Little t” traumas are events that impact our ability to cope and function. These traumas most likely did not involve threat to our life or body, but still created feelings of helplessness in the individual who experienced the trauma. 

A person who has experienced a “little t” trauma may overlook the impact of the experience or even shame themselves if they perceive they are responding in a “weak,” “dramatic,” or “over-sensitive” way. 

Other times, an individual may be unaware of how the “little t” trauma impacted them and simply perceive that they are not functioning at the level they are used to.

“Little t” traumas can be circumstances like an ongoing abusive relationship or a continued stressful circumstance (e.g. someone in the family using drugs) that changes a person’s self- and worldview. 

These repeated traumas are often referred to as complex trauma. Complex trauma (also called Complex PTSD/CPTSD) usually changes one’s view of self, and shows up in feelings of worthlessness or being “not good enough”. 

“Big T” trauma

“Big T” traumas are typically events where there was an evident threat to life or body. These events are usually significant and more easily identified. 

An individual who has survived a “Big T” trauma likely experienced the sense that they had no control over their situation. This sense of helplessness may contribute to avoidant behaviors throughout life as a response to the trauma. 

Individuals who have experienced “Big T” traumas are likely to avoid things that remind them of the event in an attempt to minimize the distress they would feel. This individual will most likely experience a more severe impact on their daily functioning as the amount of energy used to avoid reminders or cues of the traumatic event will be quite consuming.

Complex trauma effects may manifest differently

Complex trauma permeates a person’s whole life. Many times, people do not realize they have complex trauma, as it can be very subtle and difficult to distinguish when present throughout one's family or circle of influence. 

Another reason someone might not realize that they have complex trauma is because the events that cause it are not the traditional ones most people attribute trauma to. 

Frequently, people dealing with complex trauma end up in therapy for later-in-life relationship problems, severe anxiety, depression, and self-esteem. 

Complex trauma effects can show up at any time

Another nuance of complex trauma is that it can “turn up” (or sometimes “down”) the “volume” of our reactions. Let us explain:

Say you get in a fight with your roommate, and the severity of the argument is a five on a scale of 1-to-10. Your reaction, however, may be a “10” on the same scale, simply because this fight triggers older memories of when your parents used to fight, causing an increase in the “volume” of your present reactions. 

But, wait–what? What do old family memories have to do with this argument years later with a completely unrelated person? 

Even when we are not consciously thinking about them, those old memories can be activated and make an impact on the present. 

This trauma can also have an effect in the opposite direction–that of “dulling” our reactions to circumstances. This might look like responding to circumstances that warrant a “level-5” (out of 10) response with a reaction closer to “1” or “0”. 

Does this sound familiar? Do your reactions never seem to quite fit the current situation? Have people remarked that your response seems too big or too small? If so, complex trauma might be affecting your ability to respond appropriately. 

Complex trauma symptoms

To help you see more of the big picture, here are the most common symptoms of trauma/PTSD:

  • Anxiety
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks (feeling as though one is reliving an event)
  • Being jumpy or always needing to know one surroundings (hypervigilance)
  • Feeling numb to the world
  • Feeling disconnected from others
  • Avoiding people, places, and things relating to the event(s)
  • Mistrust of others
  • Loss of pleasure in things you once loved
  • Social isolation
  • Sleeping too much or not enough
  • Unwanted thoughts
  • Feelings of helplessness  
  • Over or under reacting to situations
  • Trouble feeling good about yourself

Those who suffer from trauma and do not know they have it, can still be affected greatly by symptoms. 

Many people do not know that there is help for those who have complex trauma and PTSD. You do not have to suffer in silence and can find relief. 

Inner Balance Counseling specializes in treating all types of trauma, and we have helped many individuals walk through healing.


How does therapy for complex trauma work? 

A large part of healing from trauma is acknowledging and validating the experience – and this applies to both “Big T” and “Little t” traumas. 

One way to do this is to seek professional help to process the past and decrease the impact of the trauma response on daily functioning. 

There are a number of different approaches for complex trauma therapy. Here are some of the treatment modalities we use to help you on your healing journey: 

  • EMDR : Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) helps the brain process disturbing memories with bilateral stimulation (usually eye movement). EMDR supports natural healing in the brain by encouraging it to make new neural connections that correctly recognize an event as in the past rather than still occuring in the present.
  • DBT : Dialectical behavioral therapy is used to treat emotional instability and feelings of overwhelmingness that happen due to trauma. It is also used to help people become more present and mindful in life. 
  • CBT : Cognitive behavioral therapy is used to help people challenge their negative thoughts and beliefs about themselves and the world around them. It helps people to have a different perspective on their past and a more compassionate view of themselves in the present. 
  • Dissociation Treatment : Dissociation denotes feelings of being disconnected from your body or the world in experience or memory. This can cause a person to feel detached from themselves and/or the world around them, which makes it hard to deal with life. Dissociation can also be the reason why you may have tried EMDR in the past without the expected results. 

Counselors at IBC use specific treatment to help you live in the present moment by dealing with your past–even in areas that you may not remember partially or fully. We help you to process the felt sense of something being “wrong” or “missing” in your life. 

Trauma-focused treatment is not a quick-fix, and it involves the participant being open and dedicated to their own healing process. Inner Balance tailors each trauma treatment to the individual client, and honors their trauma circumstances and goals for a better quality of life. It is work, but it is worth it.

Who does complex trauma therapy help? 

Complex trauma therapy can help anyone who feels their life and/or childhood has been “anything less than nurturing”. It is effective for those who have never sought counseling before and also for those who have had therapy fail in the past. 

The inner balance approach to complex trauma therapy

At Inner Balance we are experts in treating complex trauma. We know about dissociation and how to treat it, we know about attachment and relational trauma, and we have training in EMDR, dissociation, and DBT. 

We know this journey has been hard, let us join you on it so that you can find the healing you deserve. 

When you arrive at Inner Balance you will be greeted by your therapist and shown back to their inviting office. Your first session is a “get to know you” session. We will take note of your history, hear your concerns and ask you about your goals. 

Your second session will focus on what YOU want to achieve, not what other people, society, or your family thinks you should be doing. We create a personalized treatment plan so we can help you achieve your goals. After that, we begin journeying down the road of health and healing with you–however long that takes. 

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Inner Balance Counseling

1234 S Power Rd Suite 252
Mesa, AZ 85206

1414 W Broadway Rd Suite 122
Tempe, AZ 85282

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