Trauma is caused by the experiencing or witnessing of an overwhelming or threatening event.  This is a comprehensive definition that includes trauma due to one incident or several isolated incidents in addition to trauma that is due to repetitive exposure to chronic stressors.  Isolated incident and chronic trauma have similarities in terms of some symptoms described as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and treatment that requires therapy for the mind and body.  There are differences in how they are treated.

Chronic trauma is distinguished from isolated incident trauma because chronic trauma usually involves relationships with a caregiver or trusted individual and the harm done is complex because it includes the depth and strength of attachment bonds critical for survival.  This type of trauma is referred to as Relational or Complex Trauma. Our brains and bodies are wired to bond and understanding relationship trauma requires understanding the vital significance of attachment bonds. Because they are survival bonds, when they are ruptured and left to languish, through mental illness, addiction, divorce, or lack of understanding of the care and  nurturing they require,  we may experience that rupture or neglect as traumatic.

Some of the adverse consequences of untreated complex trauma are relational difficulties, a sense of guilt and shame, a distorted self image, dissociation, difficulties regulating emotions, assorted physical ailments, hopelessness and loss of meaning that stay with a person long after the trauma occurred.

Time does not heal the wounds of traumatic memories, it conceals them.   The wounds do not fade away or stay dormant, they are embodied and all to readily activated.  Traumatic memories are sometimes triggered without conscious awareness that they have been activated, and before one has time to understand what has happened, the past has become present.  An experience of psychological or physiological distress in the present is fused with traumatic memories from the past because trauma memories are not stored like autobiographical memories. They remain in the mind and body with all the emotional content, physical sensations and beliefs from the time when they were formed.

Complex trauma that occurs in childhood is also referred to as developmental trauma because it adversely impacts the healthy development of the child. Children are by their nature dependent on caregivers to respect their vulnerability, to meet their needs, to set healthy boundaries, to let them know they are loved and valued unconditionally.  Parenting that is less than nurturing enough for the child’s healthy progression through the stages of development can be perceived by the child as their fault. Symptoms of complex trauma arise from what did not happen for the child as well as what did happen. A lack of attunement,  betrayal of trust, enmeshment, emotional avoidance or parentification of the child are some examples that are experienced by the child as traumatic.

Relational trauma is born our of dysfunctional ways of relating in family systems. In most cases, parents do a good enough job of parenting and have no intention of passing on dysfunctional ways of relating that were handed down to them through previous generations. Unfortunately, this happens  until someone makes an effort to stop the cycle from continuing . Complex relational trauma  occurs in families coping with poverty, lack of social support, mental health issues and addiction. A well know study that was undertaken by the Center for Disease Control, called the ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences‘ study’ (ACE)  showed a correlation between  ACEs and negative health and well-being outcomes. In other words, as the number of ACEs increases so does the risk for negative outcomes.


Complex relational trauma can be understood as an attachment relationship. Infants and children are dependent on their caregivers to create a secure attachment relationship through which the child’s body and mind learn that upsetting experiences are followed by support and comfort. Over time the nervous system and the mind learn to self soothe as well as rely on others for help when it is needed. The development of a secure bond is a crucial task of the parent-child attachment relationship. If a parent is unable to bond with their child due to his or her own history of trauma, mental illness, or a personality disorder, the parent will become a source of danger and fear rather than safety and comfort. Due to the developmental stages that occur throughout childhood, the results of this type of ongoing trauma can be devastating to a child’s mental and emotional health. Complex relational trauma does not necessarily lead to addiction, but addiction is usually a response to complex relational trauma.  

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