How Do You Explain Complex PTSD to People?


ptsd-word-cloud-drawing_csp20722702So many times I’ve heard friends say, “You mean you’ve got major trauma that leads to PTSD that happens outside of the military?” The answer, of course, is a big, resounding, YES! The problem is that we don’t have enough sources demystifying trauma and PTSD so that it’s easy to see where it comes from and how it happens. (Finding Meaning in Trauma and PTSD)

Have you ever heard about someone else’s awful traumatic experience and thought that yours was inconsequential, or less awful? All too often we look at the experience of others and judge our own experiences against them. But that’s fundamentally wrong. Just because your trauma may not, on the surface, appear “as bad” as someone else’s doesn’t mean it’s any less traumatic or has less adverse effects.

Adding to this kind of thinking is the opinion of other people. Whether you’re in a competitive support group where members try to outdo each other with horror stories, or you’re surrounded by people who don’t understand what trauma is, it’s easy to feel devalued and invalidated by the comments of the world outside. If you have Complex PTSD, PTSD or other Trauma related Disorder you are invariably invalidated by other people’s ignorance of the types of issues that cause the disorders. They can range from car accidents, to work issues, to child abuse, domestic violence, messy divorces, the death of child/spouse. In other words a whole range of issues.

Explaining Trauma and PTSD Starts with Knowledge

Educating yourself about how to define trauma becomes critical in appreciating your own experience and recovery process, plus educating those around you. This week, I had a terrific conversation with Judy Crane, founder of The Refuge – A Healing Place, a treatment center for addiction, trauma and PTSD recovery. During our chat, Judy defined trauma down to a very minute level. I want to share it with you and hope that you’ll share it with others so that we spread the word about what trauma really means.

What is Trauma?

When it comes to trauma and PTSD, some people don’t understand the depth of the problem. Here’s how you can explain trauma and PTSD so they easily get it.A trauma survivor herself, Judy first defined trauma as

“anything less than nurturing.”

Wow, that casts a wide net and repositions trauma from the exotic to the every day, which makes it much more accessible and ubiquitous. If you’ve ever felt like you’re separate or disconnected from the world because of your trauma, the truth is that the world is full of it; you are very connected, indeed.

Judy then went on to deepen the definition by saying that trauma is

“an event or experience that changes your vision of yourself and your place in the world.”

From this perspective, you (and anyone you share this info with) can see how easily trauma leaves its mark. Without your permission, a negative, frightening, hurtful or disempowering event occurs that shifts you into a place of feeling “less than”. From here, it’s a slippery slope to feeling unworthy, undeserving, purposeless and useless, the very feelings that contribute to post-traumatic symptoms and interrupt a normal life.

Explain Trauma & PTSD Simply; Others Will Get It

The next time someone (including you) poo-poos your trauma or PTSD experience or belittles the effects it’s had on you, share Judy’s simple explanations. You can say, for example,

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

Explain, too, that trauma happens in both the big and little moments of how life negatively alters you.

From bullying to verbal abuse to abandonment and neglect, trauma comes in as many forms, shapes and sizes as the human race. That means experiencing trauma is part of the human condition. When you feel traumatized you are a normal, feeling, thinking being who has just had a perspective shift that can be shocking, startling, disconcerting and leave you feeling at a loss for how to respond.


  1. I always liked Judith Lewis Herman’s definition of trauma as
    events that “overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection,
    and meaning.”

  2. I am an incest survivor of multiple family perpetrators as well as non- family associates of my “father”. I have been in recovery on and off for 33 years. I still have PTSD, though infrequently now. My mother died 4 years ago. Just after she passed away, I had a Sudden intense scary flashback that caused me to cry out and shake right after she died. My sister and nephew were in the room. My sister said sarcastically to me, “What’s wrong with you? It always has to be about you, doesn’t it.” Her reaction added to the trauma I was experiencing. She was very cruel. I did not recall what I was remembering however it was very frightening. She stormed out of the room, went for a walk and returned 45 minutes later and was still very angry. My sister is in deniable about my mother’s enabling of the extreme sexual abuse even though my mother admitted to me a year before her death that after the third time (of incest) my mother knew it was wrong but it continued anyway. My sister is in denial about my the sexual
    Abuse that happened to me, refuses to listen to me about any of the abuse or how it has effected me all these years and is in denial about abuse happening to her. She says she has no memories and that I have defaced my mother and “father”. He died when I was 13 , fortunately. I know I can’t change her at all. I want to know how to explain to her other than what I have already told her, what is PTSD, how it has effected me and how cruel her response was to me on my mothers death bed as well as how my sister’s reaction to me deepened the trauma for me by yelling at me and has and had, no compassion for me. I don’t know how to handle her refusal to acknowledge the sexual abuse at all yet staying in some sort of relationship with her. I’m Considering cutting off my relationship with her altogether. My sister texted some horrible insults and criticisms of me that are completely unrealistic and unfounded, yesterday, via text that caused something to snap inside of me. Why do I want her in my life at all? The only reason I wouldn’t right now, is my nephew, her son, is waiting for a heart and liver transplant. I feel done with her. Because she is under stress doesn’t give her the right to be abusive toward her when I have been, only kind, to her and my nephew. Any ideas or comments please? Thank you!!

    • Hi Cindy

      I am sorry you had such a dreadful experience as a child. I totally understand what you went through because I was the victim of a paedophile ring for 14 years organised by my parents. I too found their deaths very traumatic and discombulating. I couldn’t understand my feelings. My siblings are totally unaware of the abuse. At least they say they are which maybe true as they are significantly older than me.

      I would suggest if possible, if you are having therapy that you ask your sister to attend a session with you that can be facilitated by the therapist. She would explain the situation to your sister and you would both have the opportunity to share your feelings and attitude.

      Hope this helps

      Best wishes and good lucck


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