Home Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy Is Complex PTSD Neurodivergent or Not?

Is Complex PTSD Neurodivergent or Not?

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Our behavioural health blog today continues our series on trauma topics, and addresses the concept of complex post-traumatic stress disorder and whether it falls under the umbrella of neurodivergent conditions.

Complex PTSD, or CPTSD, is a mental health condition that emerges from sustained exposure to traumatic experiences, particularly during critical developmental periods. Childhood trauma is a significant factor in the development of CPTSD, leading to long-lasting effects and overlapping symptoms with neurodiverse conditions like Autism and ADHD. 

This prolonged trauma can stem from various sources, including childhood abuse, domestic violence, and captivity, as well as from other causes of adult trauma that cause one to develop PTSD.

Unlike PTSD, which typically results from a single traumatic event, CPTSD involves repeated trauma over months or years. Fortunately, there are programs that treat symptoms of PTSD successfully, offering hope and healing for those affected.

Keep reading to get more details on the symptoms of CPTSD from our latest guide to trauma topics, brought to you by the dedicated and compassionate writing team at PsychReg.org!

What are the most identifiable symptoms of CPTSD?

Complex trauma encompasses the symptoms of PTSD, such as flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety, but also includes additional features:

  • Emotional dysregulation. Persistent difficulty in managing emotions, leading to extreme emotional responses.
  • Negative self-concept. Deep-seated feelings of worthlessness, shame, and guilt.
  • Interpersonal difficulties. Challenges in forming and maintaining healthy relationships, often due to mistrust and fear of intimacy.

The neurobiological impact of CPTSD

Trauma exposure affects the brain significantly, altering structures like the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. These changes can lead to heightened stress responses, difficulties in emotional regulation, and memory issues. Given these profound neurobiological impacts, some experts argue that CPTSD might be considered a form of neurodivergence.

Neurodivergence and CPTSD

What is neurodivergence?

Neurodivergence refers to variations in the human brain regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood, and other mental functions. This term encompasses conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and dyslexia, among others.

Is CPTSD neurodivergent?

The classification of CPTSD as neurodivergent is a topic of ongoing debate. On one hand, CPTSD involves significant changes in brain function and structure, akin to other neurodivergent conditions. On the other hand, neurodivergence typically refers to inherent, often lifelong conditions, whereas CPTSD arises from external trauma. However, given the lasting impact of trauma on brain function, some argue that CPTSD should be recognized within the neurodivergent spectrum to better address the unique needs of affected individuals.

It is important to note that CPTSD is not recognised as an official diagnosis in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illnesses).

The impact of complex trauma

Emotional and psychological effects

People with CPTSD often struggle with intense emotions and psychological distress due to traumatic events. They might experience:

  • Persistent fear and anxiety. Constant feelings of being on edge, easily startled, and unable to relax.
  • Depression. Overwhelming sadness, loss of interest in activities, and feelings of hopelessness.
  • Self-esteem issues. Deep-rooted feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing.

Interpersonal challenges

CPTSD significantly impacts relationships. Individuals may have:

  • Trust issues. Difficulty trusting others due to past betrayals.
  • Attachment problems. Struggles with forming healthy attachments, leading to either clinginess or detachment.
  • Conflict in relationships. Frequent misunderstandings and conflicts due to emotional dysregulation.

Physical health consequences of traumatic memories

The chronic stress associated with CPTSD can also lead to physical health problems, such as:

  • Chronic pain. Unexplained aches and pains.
  • Gastrointestinal issues. Stomach problems, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
  • Cardiovascular issues. Increased risk of heart disease and hypertension.

Effective programmes by mental health professionals that treat symptoms of CPTSD successfully

Trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy (TF-CBT)

TF-CBT is a highly effective approach for treating CPTSD. It combines cognitive-behavioral techniques with trauma-sensitive interventions to help individuals process and reframe traumatic memories. TF-CBT addresses both the emotional and cognitive aspects of trauma, making it a comprehensive treatment option.

Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR)

EMDR is a specialized therapy that helps individuals process traumatic memories by using bilateral stimulation, such as eye movements. This therapy has been shown to reduce the intensity of traumatic memories and alleviate associated symptoms. EMDR is particularly effective for those with CPTSD as it directly targets the traumatic responses caused by a loved one.

Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT)

Dialectical behavioural therapy is another effective treatment for CPTSD, particularly for emotional dysregulation and interpersonal difficulties. Although developed for the treatment of borderline personality disorder, DBT is also effective for trauma recovery. 

It combines cognitive-behavioral techniques with mindfulness practices to help individuals manage intense emotions and improve their relationships. It focuses on building skills in distress tolerance, emotional regulation, interpersonal effectiveness, and mindfulness.

Somatic experiencing (SE)

Somatic Experiencing focuses on the physical sensations associated with trauma. It helps individuals release stored traumatic energy and restore their nervous system to a balanced state. SE is beneficial for those whose trauma is deeply rooted in bodily sensations and physical responses.

Group therapy and support groups

Participating in group therapy or support groups can provide individuals with CPTSD a sense of community and understanding. Sharing experiences with others who have similar struggles can be incredibly validating and healing. Group settings offer opportunities to practice new skills and receive feedback in a supportive environment.

Traumatic responses caused by a loved one

The unique impact of interpersonal trauma

Trauma inflicted by a loved one, such as a family member or intimate partner, can be particularly damaging. This type of trauma often involves betrayal, loss of trust, and deep emotional wounds. The sense of safety and security that should come from close relationships is shattered, leading to profound psychological and emotional distress.

It is crucial to consult with mental health professionals for proper diagnosis and treatment, as they can provide specialised approaches to address the unique impact of such interpersonal trauma.

Healing from interpersonal trauma

Healing from trauma caused by a loved one requires specialized approaches. Trust-building and safety are paramount in the therapeutic relationship. Therapies like TF-CBT, EMDR, and DBT can be adapted to focus on these interpersonal aspects, helping individuals rebuild their sense of self and trust in others.

While PTSD is recognized as an official diagnosis by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) is not. However, the ICD-11 recognizes C-PTSD as a distinct disorder.

The role of family and loved ones in recovery

Family members and loved ones can play a crucial role in the recovery process. Supportive relationships can provide the necessary emotional support and stability for individuals with CPTSD. Family therapy can also be beneficial in addressing dynamics that may contribute to ongoing trauma and in fostering healthier communication and interactions. Additionally, support from family can help prevent the development of PTSD following exposure to traumatic events.

A new member of the neurodivergent community 

Understanding whether CPTSD is neurodivergent is crucial in shaping the support and treatment approaches for those affected. While CPTSD stems from external trauma rather than inherent neurodevelopmental differences, its profound impact on brain function and behavior aligns it closely with other neurodivergent conditions. 

Like PTSD, it can safely be considered a form of acquired neurodivergence, whether as a part of a dual diagnosis or as a standalone disorder.

Effective treatment programs that treat symptoms of CPTSD successfully, such as TF-CBT, EMDR, DBT, and somatic experiencing, offer hope and healing. Recognizing and addressing the traumatic responses caused by a loved one is essential in the journey toward recovery. 

By adopting a comprehensive and compassionate approach, we can support individuals with CPTSD in reclaiming their lives and building a healthier, more fulfilling future. It is our hope that this latest guide from our team at PsychReg.org has proven insightful as you seek resources and answers on mental health topics close to our hearts. 




Jeffrey Grant, a psychology graduate from the University of Hertfordshire, has a keen interest in the fields of mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.

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