Posttraumatic stress (PTSD) and complex posttraumatic stress (C-PTSD) are related but distinct from each other. C-PTSD is thought to be an enhanced version of PTSD. C-PTSD is, in turn, related to borderline personality (BPD).
Ongoing Interpersonal Trauma and C-PTSD
PTSD is usually caused by a single traumatic event (or a series of traumatic events) that result in a real or imagined threat to one’s life or bodily integrity. Events that could cause PTSD include exposure to war, a terrorist attack, physical or sexual assault, or even the threat of such attacks. C-PTSD is different in that it’s typically caused by ongoing trauma which is often interpersonal in nature. C-PTSD tends to be associated with continued trauma that occurs at a young age. Children who grow up in neglectful or abusive environments may go on to develop C-PTSD (Giourou et al., 2018).
Borderline Personality and Ongoing Interpersonal Trauma
Borderline personality is also connected to ongoing interpersonal trauma during childhood. Researchers have linked exposure to chronic fear and stress as a child, as well as suffering from physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse as a child, to the development of BPD. Growing up with a parent who had a serious mental health issue is also a risk factor for the development of BPD.
BPD and C-PTSD share an association with maltreatment in childhood, and up to 71% of individuals who experience BPD report severe abuse in childhood.
BPD is a serious issue characterized by a constellation of emotional, social, cognitive, and behavioral dysregulation. The most notable features of BPD are difficulty managing emotions, impulsivity, identity problems, and dysfunctional interpersonal relationships (Hecht, Cicchetti, Rogosch, & Crick, 2014).
Common Characteristics of C-PTSD and BPD
BPD and C-PTSD share an association with maltreatment in childhood, and up to 71% of individuals who experience BPD report severe abuse in childhood. BPD and C-PTSD also share symptoms. Overlapping symptoms relate to the areas of emotion processing and regulation, security in relationships, and self-concept (Ford & Courtois, 2014).
Some common symptoms of BPD and C-PTSD include:
Emotion processing and regulation difficulties
People with BPD and C-PTSD are known to have difficulties managing and regulating emotions. When experiencing uncomfortable emotions such as anger, fear, or sadness, the person may have difficulty controlling the intensity and duration of the emotion. It can be very hard to “let things go” and return to a neutral or uplifted mood once they’ve been thrown off balance.
Those with BPD and C-PTSD often have relationship issues. Relationships may be unstable, insecure, and can often be traumatic or stressful for one or both partners. We start learning how relationships work in childhood. If our caregivers in childhood were neglectful or abusive, we tend to carry these learned perceptions of ourselves, such as “I’m bad, worthless, or not worthy of support,” into our adult relationships, as well as lessons about relationships, such as “They are unpredictable, unreliable, and sometimes dangerous.”
Individuals with BPD may have an especially difficult time trusting and relating to others. It is thought that because they may not have experienced empathy from their primary caregivers during childhood, they have developed limited abilities to see past their own emotional responses and understand how others may be feeling.
Adults with C-PTSD may also have difficulty with empathy and relationships, although it depends on the nature of the trauma and whether they had access to at least one caring adult during their childhood. We are all unique, and how we develop and respond to early trauma is variable and can depend on many different factors within the environment and the individual.
BPD and C-PTSD are both associated with impulsive behaviors and dissociation. People may behave in ways that are self-destructive and reckless. Unsafe sex, abuse of drugs and alcohol, and disregard for one’s own safety can occur.
Dissociation is highly prevalent in BPD, and it’s known to occur in PTSD as well (Krause-Utz & Elzinga, 2018). Dissociation can result in a feeling of being disconnected from oneself and the world. Especially during times where stress levels are high, dissociation can act as a defense mechanism where the sufferer feels detached from themselves and what’s happening around them. In certain cases, amnesia may result, as well as a feeling of “lost time.” Identity confusion can also occur, and the person may feel as though they don’t have a strong sense of self or that their identity seems to shift depending on the circumstances and the environment they find themselves in.
High levels of worry, sadness, and shame
Borderline personality and C-PTSD are associated with high levels of general distress. Many feel isolated and empty, as a significant portion of their symptoms can affect their relationships and connection with others. They may have high levels of shame and sometimes experience a feeling that they have been permanently damaged. This can lead to the desire to withdraw from others, as relationships are often a source of stress, insecurity, and/or conflict.
What If You Have Symptoms of Both C-PTSD and BPD?
Complex posttraumatic stress and BPD require treatment and support. If you are experiencing symptoms of C-PTSD and BPD, it can help to first receive an accurate assessment and diagnosis. It is important to understand that nobody is permanently damaged, and there are treatment approaches that have demonstrated effectiveness for both C-PTSD and BPD.
Therapy can help you develop strategies and techniques that allow you to better cope with stress and manage difficult emotions. Ongoing support from a therapist who understands what you are experiencing and where your feelings and symptoms are coming from can be enormously helpful for your healing journey. Find a therapist near me.
If you are struggling, it is important to reach out and take advantage of the support and options available. With treatment, you can not only feel better, but also avoid the negative consequences of behavioral and emotional symptoms. Feeling better and coping with stress can improve other areas of your life as well, such as how you function in professional and personal relationships.
- Ford, J. D., & Courtois, C. A. (2014, July 9). Complex PTSD, affect dysregulation, and borderline personality disorder. Borderline Personality Disorder and Emotion Dysregulation, 1, 9. doi: 10.1186/2051-6673-1-9
- Giourou, E., Skokou, M., Andrew, S. P., Alexopoulou, K., Gourzis, P., & Jelastopulu, E. (2018, March 22). Complex posttraumatic stress disorder: The need to consolidate a distinct clinical syndrome or to reevaluate features of psychiatric disorders following interpersonal trauma? World Journal of Psychiatry, 8(1), 12-19. doi: 10.5498/wjp.v8.i1.12
- Hecht, K. F., Cicchetti, D., Rogosch, F. A., & Crick, N. R. (2014). Borderline personality features in childhood: The role of subtype, developmental timing, and chronicity of child maltreatment. Development and Psychopathology, 26(3), 805-815. doi: 10.1017/S0954579414000406
- Krause-Utz, A., & Elzinga, B. (2018). Current understanding of the neural mechanisms of dissociation in borderline personality disorder. Current Behavioral Neuroscience Reports, 5(1), 113-123. doi: 10.1007/s40473-018-0146-9
- Luyten, P., Campbell, C., & Fonagy, P. (2019, May 7). Borderline personality disorder, complex trauma, and problems with self and identity: A social‐communicative approach. Journal of Personality. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jopy.12483
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