The Complex Trauma Symptom Spectrum
Written by: Courtney Johnson MA, LPC, Executive Contributor Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.
Do you or someone you know have multiple mental health diagnoses? Some that fit, some don’t, but realize that each diagnosis doesn’t account for every symptom? Or have you or someone you know been given a diagnosis that feels inaccurate, like it doesn’t understand how you got to be where you are today? Trauma has been shown to directly impact the brain, how it develops and adapts. With this understanding, one can deduce that trauma can impact personality traits. Often a trauma survivor, especially one of narcissistic abuse due to the type of emotional abuse, can be misconstrued or misdiagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). This diagnosis is disproportionately diagnosed in women. The characteristic symptoms of BPD are: emotional dysregulation, self-harm, impulsiveness, relationship difficulties and fear of abandonment. Do any of these symptoms sound familiar? Other times a trauma survivor can be misconstrued or misdiagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). This diagnosis is disproportionately diagnosed in men. The characteristic symptoms of NPD are: lack of empathy, manipulation, difficulty in relationships, instability and difficulty in attachment/trusting others. Do any of these symptoms sound familiar? This is what I have been seeing in both my personal and professional life. People are attributing specific behaviors of a person to the whole diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) or Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). Correlation does not imply causation- simply the observance of behaviors that resemble NPD and BPD does not mean the person has NPD or BPD. A lot of symptoms of BPD and some of NPD are similar to Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD). The characteristic symptoms of CPTSD are: emotional dysregulation, impulsiveness, relationship difficulties, self-harm, difficulty trusting/paranoia, dissociation and shame and guilt. If CPTSD symptoms can often mirror BPD or NPD symptoms, it stands to reason that complex trauma survivors are often misdiagnosed with BPD, and yes, sometimes NPD. Now this gets me back to The Complex Trauma Symptom Spectrum. Trauma can rewire a person's brain, affect personality and create behaviors that stem from trauma. It stands to reason that trauma effects can be placed on a spectrum, from healthy to unhealthy. The Complex Trauma Symptom Spectrum can encompass multiple behaviors, personality traits, emotions, etc. that mirror or resemble other diagnoses. The purpose of this spectrum is to allow clinicians, doctors, and everyday people to understand that trauma is insidious, and treating it must start at the root. We cannot begin to treat trauma and expect healing if we are distracted by its symptoms. Maybe, if we begin to heal from the root, trauma survivors can move forward in their lives without being shackled with a diagnosis that is often wrong! A misdiagnosis is misleading, confusing, gaslighting and can lead to not receiving the proper treatment. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think mental health diagnoses are wrong as a whole, but I do feel they have compartmentalized symptoms too far; Compartmentalized into boxes that don’t allow for total treatment. This idea is simple (simple in theory but difficult in practice as I always tell clients). Treat and heal the whole individual, starting at the root of the symptoms. Again, trauma is insidious; It hides in all parts of ourselves and lives. We cannot heal if we hide too. Trauma can be the cause of our problems, but we can heal from it. Follow Courtney on Facebook, Instagram, and visit her website to learn more. Read more from Courtney! Courtney Johnson MA, LPC, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine Courtney Johnson, founder and therapist at Onyx Counseling and Wellness Center, is a trauma therapist in Austin, TX specializing in trauma, narcissistic abuse recovery and dissociation. She believes that healing from trauma requires rewiring of the nervous system and mind body connection; trauma cannot be healed if the mind and body are not treated as one interconnected system. She uses an eclectic approach with clients in her clinic to help them heal and emerge as empowered individuals. She is trained in and uses CBT, EMDR, mindfulness, attachment theory and shadow work in her practice.