What Are Coping Behaviors of Complex PTSD? photo

What Are Coping Behaviors of Complex PTSD?

If you’ve experienced complex trauma, you might notice certain habits you’ve developed in response. Some might be healthy ways to process your feelings around your past, but others could be cause for concern. 

It’s never too late to identify and adapt how you cope with your trauma. Going to a holistic trauma treatment program can help you heal your unresolved trauma and learn healthier ways of dealing with its effects. 

Harmful Coping Mechanisms of C-PTSD

Complex trauma can make it hard to respond to stress in a helpful way. If you use any of the following to manage ongoing trauma, treatment could help you gain new tools that don’t compromise your well-being. 

Addiction to Drugs and Alcohol

Many people with complex trauma develop addictions – even more so than people with simple PTSD. If you don’t have healthy ways to process your emotions, you might use drugs or alcohol to manage your symptoms

A core symptom of c-PTSD is having trouble regulating your emotions. You might have emotional outbursts without cause. Or, the opposite may be true: you might feel numb to life. In either case, using drugs might ease these emotional responses. If that’s the case, you might start smoking weed to calm yourself down and lessen your outbursts, or use stimulants like cocaine to feel pleasure again. 

Another symptom of c-PTSD is a negative self-view. It’s very common to blame yourself for your trauma, or feel guilty about it. These feelings make it harder to connect with people, so you might start to use alcohol to ease social anxiety. Or you may use drugs with others as a way to relate to them. 

When you don’t have another way to manage your symptoms, drugs or alcohol can seem like the easiest fix. But it doesn’t get to the root cause, and it can cause a host of other problems in your life. Finding a trauma-informed addiction treatment program can support you in healing both your trauma and your addiction. 

The Need to Control 

The type of trauma that causes c-PTSD is chronic and difficult to escape. As a result, many people may develop issues with control because they weren’t in charge before. 

Studies show a link between disordered eating and chronic childhood trauma. Researchers believe that link is control. If you didn’t have control over your life or body before, you may attempt to regain it through food. Other studies indicate a link between exercise addiction and childhood trauma having to do with this same, unfulfilled need.

People with complex trauma may also develop workaholism, or chronic overworking, as a coping strategy. You can control how hard you work, even if you can’t control your emotions or thoughts. This can help distract you from your trauma, or boost your self-esteem. But working yourself to the point of burnout is dangerous for your mental and physical health.

Self-Destructive Behaviors

C-PTSD makes other high-risk behaviors, including self-harm, unsafe sex and speeding or drinking while driving, more likely. While these may seem like welcome distractions in the moment, they’re certainly not acts of self-love.

If your coping strategies are causing you harm, they’re extremely important to stop. The safe container of residential treatment is a great place to address what’s causing them.


There are two types of avoidance: emotional and behavioral

Emotional avoidance occurs when you try to prevent thinking about or feeling your trauma. If you’ve experienced childhood abuse, for example, you might avoid thinking about your early life or shut down sad feelings when they arise. This also can play a part in why people start using drugs or alcohol after exposure to trauma. You might use them to distract yourself or forget.

This type of avoidance can lead to people-pleasing behaviors, especially if someone you trusted caused your trauma. You might try to smooth things over more than necessary, or lose your voice in a relationship because you’re avoiding conflict that reminds you of the past. Others tend towards anger or aggression as a result of emotional avoidance. You may react in anger when really, you feel sad. 

Behavioral avoidance, on the other hand, is avoiding triggers of your trauma. You might stay away from the physical location of the traumatic event, for example. 

Like all coping methods, avoidance is a survival strategy. It’s your body’s way of trying to keep you safe. But avoiding thoughts, feelings and situations can mean you miss out on life. Only by resolving your trauma can you truly move past it. 


Like avoidance, detachment is a common coping strategy for PTSD. With detachment, you find it difficult to connect to others, especially emotionally. This can lead to self-isolation or a lack of close relationships. 

Having trouble forming and maintaining healthy relationships is a primary symptom of c-PTSD. Maybe your trauma taught you that trusting another person is dangerous, or that getting close to somebody just leads to hurt. So to protect yourself, you won’t get close to others so they can’t hurt you. In rehab for PTSD, you can reframe what you want your relationships to look like, and how supportive connections can make you feel safe and loved. 

Lashing Out

Having extreme emotional responses, even to small stresses, is common for people with c-PTSD. If you lash out and don’t know why, you may be able to trace it back to your trauma. 

And while it’s a very common response, you’re still responsible for how you handle situations. Seeking treatment for your trauma, and learning new ways to cope, can set you up for success in all aspects of life. 

Healthy Coping Strategies for Complex PTSD

Living with complex trauma can lead to some harmful coping strategies. But it’s not your fault. Your body and mind are doing the best they can to protect you from further hurt. But living with those patterns can hurt, too. 

Developing healthier ways to cope can help you live a fuller life, so you don’t have to live in fear or isolation. 


Mindfulness meditation is an excellent way to cope with trauma, especially from childhood. Studies prove that meditating can improve quality of life, reduce depression and anxiety and decrease other symptoms of complex trauma. Not only can it help you relax, but meditating can also help rewire your brain for the better. 

Meditation is a great tool to have in your kit, especially when you feel overwhelmed by stress. If you’re not sure where to start, you can take meditation classes to develop your practice, or listen to guided meditations in the comfort of your home. 

Physical Activity

Exercising – particularly doing cardio workouts – is a fantastic way to cope with your trauma. Studies show that physical activity can decrease hypervigilance, improve mental clarity and reduce inflammation. Plus, it can decrease anxiety and depression symptoms. And it doesn’t have to be intense. Walking, cycling and even doing household chores can all contribute to a healthier mindset.

However, it’s important to recognize when a healthy coping strategy turns into an unhealthy one. If you can’t take a day off without extreme guilt, or you exercise through injuries, that could be a sign of an exercise addiction

Art Therapy

Sometimes we don’t want to talk about our trauma, or we may not even have the words to do so. In those instances, art therapy can help you process your emotions without having to verbally express them. Plus, you might find it easier to organize your thoughts around your trauma visually because it activates both sides of your brain at once. 

Art therapy can take many forms. Some people like to use paints to create a visual representation of their trauma. Others may prefer to use writing, dance, creative movement or music to tell their story. Whatever helps you process your emotions is the right choice.

Balanced Diet

Eating healthy meals and taking nutritional supplements can be an incredible way to start feeling better mentally and physically. Your gut health plays a huge role in your overall well-being, especially your mental wellness. By eating nutrient-dense foods, you can lower inflammation and stress levels, improve your digestive health and enhance your mood. 

Plus, trauma can lead to negative health behaviors like a poor diet. That’s why at The Sanctuary, we use nutrition to heal your body and mind from trauma. We also teach nutritional education, so you can return to your life able to cook yourself healthy meals to support your long-term recovery.

Learn Healthier Coping Strategies and Heal Your Trauma at The Sanctuary

Managing symptoms and finding healthy coping methods is an important step in your healing journey. But only by resolving your trauma in a safe and supportive environment can you free yourself of its lasting effects.

Contact us today to learn how you can heal your past and start living in the present, healthier and happier. 

Kelley Alexander JD. photo

Kelley Alexander JD.  is the co-director of The Sanctuary at Sedona and has worked over the last decade to develop its innovative Integrative Addiction Recovery Program that has helped hundreds of clients to be recovered from addiction and co-occurring disorders. Through her pioneering work, Kelley and her team at The Sanctuary also work with clients to overcome issues related to codependency, anxiety, depression, and PTSD. A JD and former practicing attorney, Kelley holds a BA in World Religions and has done graduate work in psychology. She is an ordained minister, certified shamanic breathwork facilitator, and a graduate of the Four Winds Healing The Light Body School, the premier energy medicine program founded by Alberto Villoldo. Kelley has also been a student of Dr. Joe Dispenza since 2009. She is a member of the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology and the Institute for Holistic Addiction Studies. She is a frequent lecturer at seminars and conferences throughout the United States.
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