The symptoms of Complex-PTSD are often hard to pinpoint, since they developed over time due to repeated narcissistic abuse. Like the boiling frog, we were exposed to abuse gradually and are only now realising its debilitating effect. Much of the impact of narcissistic abuse can therefore be confused with general anxiety and an unshakeable feeling of inferiority. In short, a target of narcissism simply believes they are an anxious and worthless human being, rather than someone who is exhibiting the symptoms of long-term abuse.
A simple definition of PTSD is: Excess energy caused by an overwhelming experience which was not successfully processed. The excess energy, as a result, remains lodged in the body, and its presence in the body keeps our mind in a constant state of fight/flight. This leads to maladaptive behaviour to compensate, negative beliefs about yourself, and flashback episodes which become triggered when an experience in the present resonates with a traumatic experience of the past.
PTSD is typically attributed to singular and devastating incidents like war, accidents or natural disasters. Complex-PTSD has the same core as PTSD. However, rather than being a singular traumatic experience, it is a long series of smaller shocks brought on by emotional, physical, mental or sexual abuse in a relationship. In time these experiences fuse together into a monolith which can easily be triggered in the present, unleashing a torrent of crippling emotion. It is effectively a piling debt of unprocessed emotions which is due all at once any time you are triggered.
PTSD and its fight/flight response is attributed primarily to a sense of overwhelming fear and panic. However, for C-PTSD, we need to widen our scope to include the full spectrum of emotions:
- Fear: A sense that you are not safe, that your survival is at stake. This takes on the form of a panic attack.
- Shame: A sense that you are irredeemably and fundamentally flawed. Your body collapses, your mind goes blank, you start to compulsively compare yourself to others, and you berate yourself over and over. This is what John Bradshaw called a toxic shame attack.
- Guilt: A burning sense that you have done something fundamentally wrong. That you have displeased another person, and must make amends no matter the cost. This is a guilt attack.
In all of the above cases, it was an incapacity to process a series of overwhelming emotional experiences which caused the trauma. The lack of processing usually happens because at the time of the abuse, the response overwhelmed us, and we simply lacked the cognitive ability and support system to process it. Managing emotion is a lifelong skill which needs to be taught gradually from early childhood in a safe environment. Confidence with your emotions is not a given; it is learned from a positive role model. People with C-PTSD not only did not get a chance to acclimatise to their emotions, but were subjected to a constant stream of aggravating abuse. As a result, they do not have the confidence to ride out episodes of high fear, shame or guilt in the present. The result is crippling flashbacks which rock their self-esteem and regularly disrupt their daily life.
Symptoms Of C-PTSD Flashbacks
When a person leaves an abusive relationship, often all they have consciousness of are the lingering maladaptive behaviours which helped them survive the abuse.
Symptoms of C-PTSD Flashbacks are:
- Compulsive thinking: A person with PTSD is more often than not in a state of fight/flight. They have not yet learnt to use the ‘off’ switch. As a result, different situations will trigger varying levels of fight/flight. To help the person cope, their mind goes into overdrive, trying to find a solution for the underlying terror. The problem is that the situation that caused the fight/flight state to turn on is now gone, and the mind is trying to fight a demon that no longer exists. ‘Ruminating’ about it will not help. Ruminating in general will not help. Those with C-PTSD think about everything and anything constantly. In reality, they are creating a diversion from what they feel inside, to ensure it does not enter consciousness. When you sense your mind going into overdrive, you need to become mindful of what lies beneath the thoughts: high emotional arousal and an activated fight/flight response.
- Dissociation: To cope with the torrent of emotions running through the body, a person will escape into their imagination, while the world turns into an abstraction. In short, they ‘check out’. This is the psychological equivalent of sticking your head in the sand to protect you from overwhelming terror, shame or guilt. Dissociation numbs the fear but also disconnects you from having meaningful, emotional interactions with those around you. Dissociation also happens automatically, and like being a fish in water, can be hard to spot.
- Over-agreeability: In most situations, fight and flight are not feasible. They are primitive evolutionary adaptions which work only in high-risk situations. More commonly, a person with C-PTSD deals with the underlying emotions that plague them by becoming excessively loving to those close to them regardless of how they are being treated. Even with acquaintances and strangers, they generally maintain a strictly positive and agreeable stance. This ‘nice person’ persona is a way to numb negative emotions with loving feelings. ‘Stockholm syndrome’ is another manifestation of this response. A person with C-PTSD usually has low boundaries and is afraid to say no or rock the boat. In reality, they are terrified of what lies beneath the excessive agreeability.
- Numbness: C-PTSD causes a person to lose touch with their senses and their body. Often any part of the body below the neck effectively disappears from consciousness. Sensing the body in all its fullness is necessary to have the full experience of life.
Activating The Warrior: Standing Your Ground Against C-PTSD Flashbacks
Narcissistic abuse remains lodged in a person’s body and soul as trauma. At the time of the abuse, the target of narcissism did not have the ability to process it because their mental capacity and willpower were compromised. The source of the abuse is now gone. This shame-and-fear-based energy finally has a chance to bubble to the surface. It wants your Higher Self (your consciousness) to recognise it, to legitimise its right to exist, and finally, to provide it space where it can be expressed. This means being present with it, and allowing it to roam and play itself out in Your presence. ‘Your’ is in capital letters here because it represents not your mind or your ego, but the ‘you’ which lies beyond and above your mind.
To embrace your trauma is to exist in a state of spaciousness and intensity the likes of which you have never experienced. It requires a warrior mindset. During a flashback, look for the intensity and heaviness in your body which accompany it. Be alert, but relax your body. Become the feeling. Surrender to the horror of what you are experiencing in this moment. Look directly into this wave from the past. Go into it. Do this by directing all of your focus into it, gently brushing aside your thoughts and conflicting instincts. If you can take the leap of faith, your consciousness will grow, and your capacity to handle intensity will increase. This is how evolution works. Before you can simply ‘be present’, you need to be present with what is getting in the way of that. Evolution is a process where an organism’s state of being takes on a form that never existed before. You are capable of this, and you do it through faith, courage and conscious presence in the face of terror.
However, standing in front of the dragon is not always a wise strategy. You could get burnt to a crisp. Rather, you need agility and guile if you are to succeed in this fight. You need to pendulate in and out of the hot zone.
Having A Battle Strategy: Pendulating Between Safety and C-PTSD Flashbacks
Throughout the day, as you deal with difficult people and challenging situations, your trauma can be triggered in countless ways. It courses over your skin, causes your heart to start pounding, your sense of Self to scatter, and makes it incredibly uncomfortable to be in your body. If it overwhelms your capacity to create a psychological container around it, and you dissociate and begin behaving erratically. If, however, your day is going well and you feel generally safe, you may grow calm enough to enter the flow, now able to think clearly and feel like yourself. The threshold between the two is the level of raw life energy which you are confident in managing.
C-PTSD flashbacks can be triggered at any time, and we are often not present in our bodies when this happens. If we dissociate, the emotional energy builds until the adrenaline exhausts us and our dorsal vagal ‘freeze’ response takes over, numbing us and making us drowsy and fatigued. That mid-afternoon or early evening slump can often signify that we were checked out from our bodies for too long, and our defence mechanism against fear took over in the meantime.
By becoming mindful of your body, including its emotions and sensations, you can witness the symptoms of C-PTSD in real-time. Sometimes this will be within your threshold and other times beyond it — especially during panic or toxic shame attacks. You will need to face it all eventually, although you will also need to be tactful. Trauma is serious business, and requires a light touch. It takes many back and forth attempts over a long period, each of which supports the process. In moments where you feel overwhelmed with anxiety or fear, go to a quiet place and try the following:
- Invite your body to relax, especially your shoulders, stomach, thighs and buttocks. Allow your breath to move in and out of your lower belly at its own pace.
- Locate the intensity or heaviness in your body. It can be in your skull, throat, chest, legs or in multiple places.
- Welcome the negative feeling, and create a point of focus within it. This is your centre, which will keep you anchored in the face of the storm.
- Become aware of yourself as the observer of the intensity.
- Continue to welcome the excess energy, staying with it as long as possible.
It is normal that, in the heat of the moment, the gravitational pull of fear, shame or guilt will hinder your capacity to focus. If you do manage to persist, you will eventually notice a shift. Emotions cannot kill you, even though it feels like they can. Courage leads to metamorphosis. Nonetheless, trauma is not to be trifled with. Easy does it. If you reach a point where you cannot tolerate any more, you should turn your focus back to the world and anchor yourself in an external source of safety until you feel ready to try again. This is the basic rhythm of pendulation.
Some ways in which you can anchor yourself in a feeling of safety are:
- Breathe slowly and deeply.
- Take a warm bath.
- Spend time with someone who makes you feel good.
- Watch a movie or TV show.
- Listen to some soothing music.
- Go for a walk.
- Do some exercise.
When you get comfortable with pendulation, you can use it as a base to move into bodywork, which takes trauma release to the next level.
The Return From Body Exile After Narcissistic Abuse
Trauma is so profoundly distressing, it exiles you from your body. It forces you to dissociate into your imagination, get lost in compulsive thought, work compulsively, or focus all your energy on another person as a way of distraction through co-dependence.
The only way past trauma is through it. Using the principle of pendulation, you can take the fight to the source. Through movement, touch and vibration, you can awaken the body and, above all, bring it back into the light of your consciousness. Bodywork is a tremendous way of releasing old emotions and learning to manage higher energy states with skill.
Some practices you can try for re-integrating the body are:
- Yoga: While the poses can be challenging, staying with it is extremely rewarding. Embracing the discomfort while breathing deeply induces transformative states of consciousness which stay with you a lifetime.
- Humming: The vibrations from humming meditation can help bring awareness to your inner body.
- Kundalini Meditation: Kundalini Meditation involves body shaking and dance as ways to activate the energetic body. This is followed by fifteen minutes of stillness to help integrate that energy and become more intimate with the body in its alive state.
- Dancing: Dancing awakens the energy body and connects us with our body wisdom, allowing us to intuit movement in a spontaneous and fun way.
- Singing: Songs awaken particular emotions in us, and their vibrations are a wonderful way to experience the body with its infinite frequencies.
- Somatic experiencing therapy: Visit traumahealing.org for more information on this body-oriented approach to therapy.
In each of the above activities, maintaining awareness of sensations during and after is crucial. You want to feel your body, and be conscious of that feeling. Just be careful of overdoing it, since going too far can induce discomfort or even panic attacks. Easy does it.
Learn To Love The Fear
Coming back to your body and learning to cope with intense waves of fear and emotion is the difficult journey one must take to recover from C-PTSD. This involves getting support from a calm and capable practitioner, being aware of the above symptoms, and having a hero mindset. Your journey into C-PTSD is like fighting a dragon. It is a harrowing and immensely difficult undertaking which, when you successfully navigate it, leads to the emergence of the person you were supposed to be; strong, all-sensing and wise. Finally, it is important to remember that fear is more than a dragon. It is the lightning which illuminates our path forward. The more fear we allow, the stronger we become, the more insight we gain, and the more capable we become of channelling the hero energy which we lacked when in the abusive relationship but which we had inside us all along. This also applies to shame and guilt. The more releasing and presence we do around those emotions, the more able we are to feel our divine nature, allowing us to challenge our impostor syndrome.
Measuring Success: The Layers Of C-PTSD Flashbacks
Yes, you will be normal again, even though it feels like you won’t. C-PTSD caused by narcissistic abuse is a stubborn force, but it can be dislodged. With a plan, good support and courage and patience, you can release a great deal of it.
The most crucial requirement is space. Whether it’s the therapist’s office, your favourite spots, time with a good friend, or your journal, you need to have space for the healing to begin. At its core, ‘healing’ means having physical, mental and emotional space to feel your trauma. This exhaustion and inability to think is because your trauma and C-PTSD are unfathomable right now. You can’t grasp it. This is expected, and there’s nothing wrong with you. Trauma by design happened because it was impossible to grasp. Now that you are facing it again, you will still initially encounter the feeling of helplessness that came with the original experience.
To begin with, you don’t need to make sense of anything. You only need to experience and feel what is arising inside you. Having good support in the form of therapists or friends can make this part of recovery easier. Understanding will come in time, and the feeling of being ‘normal’ again will also come. Once you have been mindful and patient of your trauma, and allowed it space to exist, it will transform, and you will transcend it. This is all possible, and it will come true when you do the work. The rest is just taking it day by day, and being kind to yourself.
Like the stages of a video game, see your trauma from narcissistic abuse as a ‘level’ which you must work through. It’s frustrating, it’s uncomfortable, it’s downright agonising for a brief moment, but once you find your way through it using surrender and focus, you can rest in the joy of your spiritual growth and then prepare yourself for the next level. Narcissistic abuse can cripple you, or it can be the force which propels you toward your actualisation. It’s only a matter of perception and the willingness to undertake your own personal hero’s journey.
To learn more about recovery from narcissistic abuse, check out the following books: