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April 2016: From here forward, the most current articles on workplace bullying are posted on our facebook page. CLICK HERE to access the central depository of relevant articles._________________________________________



Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD)

Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) is a condition that results from chronic or long-term exposure to emotional trauma over which a victim has little or no control and from which there is little or no hope of escape, such as in cases of:

  • domestic emotional, physical or sexual abuse
  • childhood emotional, physical or sexual abuse
  • entrapment or kidnapping.
  • slavery or enforced labor.
  • long term imprisonment and torture
  • repeated violations of personal boundaries.
  • long-term objectification.
  • exposure to gaslighting & false accusations
  • long-term exposure to inconsistent, push-pull,splitting or alternating raging & hooveringbehaviors.
  • long-term taking care of mentally ill or chronically sick family members.
  • long term exposure to crisis conditions.

When people have been trapped in a situation over which they had little or no control at the beginning, middle or end, they can carry an intense sense of dread even after that situation is removed. This is because they know how bad things can possibly be. And they know that it could possibly happen again. And they know that if it ever does happen again, it might be worse than before.

The degree of C-PTSD trauma cannot be defined purely in terms of the trauma that a person has experienced. It is important to understand that each person is different and has a different tolerance level to trauma. Therefore, what one person may be able to shake off, another person may not. Therefore more or less exposure to trauma does not necessarily make the C-PTSD any more or less severe.

C-PTSD sufferers may "stuff" or suppress their emotional reaction to traumatic events without resolution either because they believe each event by itself doesn't seem like such a big deal or because they see no satisfactory resolution opportunity available to them. This suppression of "emotional baggage" can continue for a long time either until a "last straw" event occurs, or a safer emotional environment emerges and the damn begins to break.

The "Complex" in Complex Post Traumatic Disorder describes how one layer after another of trauma can interact with one another. Sometimes, it is mistakenly assumed that the most recent traumatic event in a person's life is the one that brought them to their knees. However, just addressing that single most-recent event may possibly be an invalidating experience for the C-PTSD sufferer. Therefore, it is important to recognize that those who suffer from C-PTSD may be experiencing feelings from all their traumatic exposure, even as they try to address the most recent traumatic event.

This is what differentiates C-PTSD from the classic PTSD diagnosis - which typically describes an emotional response to a single or to a discrete number of traumatic events.

Difference between C-PTSD & PTSD

Although similar, Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) differs slightly from the more commonly understood & diagnosed condition Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in causes and symptoms.

C-PTSD results more from chronic repetitive stress from which there is little chance of escape. PTSD can result from single events, or short term exposure to extreme stress or trauma.

Therefore a soldier returning from intense battle may be likely to show PTSD symptoms, but a kidnapped prisoner of war who was held for several years may show additional symptoms of C-PTSD.

Similarly, a child who witnesses a friend's death in an accident may exhibit some symptoms of PTSD but a child who grows up in an abusive home may exhibit the additional C-PTSD characteristics shown below:

C-PTSD - What it Feels Like:

People who suffer from C-PTSD may feel un-centered and shaky, as if they are likely to have an embarrassing emotional breakdown or burst into tears at any moment. They may feel unloved - or that nothing they can accomplish is ever going to be "good enough" for others.

People who suffer from C-PTSD may feel compelled to get away from others and be by themselves, so that no-one will witness what may come next. They may feel afraid to form close friendships to prevent possible loss should another catastrophe strike.

People who suffer from C-PTSD may feel that everything is just about to go "out the window" and that they will not be able to handle even the simplest task. They may be too distracted by what is going on at home to focus on being successful at school or in the workplace.

C-PTSD Characteristics

How it can manifest in the victim(s) over time:

Rage turned inward: Eating disorders. Depression. Substance Abuse / Alcoholism. Truancy. Dropping out. Promiscuity. Co-dependence. Doormat syndrome (choosing poor partners, trying to please someone who can never be pleased, trying to resolve the primal relationship)

Rage turned outward: Theft. Destruction of property. Violence. Becoming a control freak.

Other: Learned hyper vigilance. Clouded perception or blinders about others (especially romantic partners) Seeks positions of power and / or control: choosing occupations or recreational outlets which may put oneself in physical danger. Or choosing to become a "fixer" - Therapist, Mediator, etc.

Avoidance - The practice of withdrawing from relationships with other people as a defensive measure to reduce the risk of rejection, accountability, criticism or exposure.

Blaming - The practice of identifying a person or people responsible for creating a problem, rather than identifying ways of dealing with the problem.

Catastrophizing - The habit of automatically assuming a "worst case scenario" and inappropriately characterizing minor or moderate problems or issues as catastrophic events.

"Control-Me" Syndrome - This describes a tendency which some people have to foster relationships with people who have a controlling narcissistic, antisocial or "acting-out" nature.

Denial - Believing or imagining that some painful or traumatic circumstance, event or memory does not exist or did not happen.

Dependency - An inappropriate and chronic reliance by an adult individual on another individual for their health, subsistence, decision making or personal and emotional well-being.

Depression (Non-PD) -Depression is when you feel sadder than your circumstances dictate, for longer than your circumstances last, but still can't seem to break out of it.

Escape To Fantasy - Taking an imaginary excursion to a happier, more hopeful place.

Fear of Abandonment - An irrational belief that one is imminent danger of being personally rejected, discarded or replaced.

Relationship Hyper Vigilance - Maintaining an unhealthy level of interest in the behaviors, comments, thoughts and interests of others.

Identity Disturbance - A psychological term used to describe a distorted or inconsistent self-view

Learned Helplessness- Learned helplessness is when a person begins to believe that they have no control over a situation, even when they do.

Low Self-Esteem - A common name for a negatively-distorted self-view which is inconsistent with reality.

Panic Attacks - Short intense episodes of fear or anxiety, often accompanied by physical symptoms, such as hyperventilating, shaking, sweating and chills.

Perfectionism - The maladaptive practice of holding oneself or others to an unrealistic, unattainable or unsustainable standard of organization, order, or accomplishment in one particular area of living, while sometimes neglecting common standards of organization, order or accomplishment in other areas of living.

Selective Memory and Selective Amnesia - The use of memory, or a lack of memory, which is selective to the point of reinforcing a bias, belief or desired outcome.

Self-Loathing - An extreme hatred of one's own self, actions or one's ethnic or demographic background.

Tunnel Vision - The habit or tendency to only see or focus on a single priority while neglecting or ignoring other important priorities.

C-PTSD Causes

C-PTSD is caused by a prolonged or sustained exposure to emotional trauma or abuse from which no short-term means of escape is available or apparent to the victim.

The precise neurological damage that exists in C-PTSD victims is not well understood.

C-PTSD Treatment

Little has been done in clinical studies of treatment of C-PTSD. However, in general the following is recommended:

  • Removal of and protection from the source of the trauma and/or abuse.
  • Acknowledgement of the trauma as real, important and undeserved.
  • Acknowledge that the trauma came from something that was stronger than the victim and therefore could not be avoided.
  • Acknowledgement of the "complex" nature of C-PTSD - that responses to earlier traumas may have led to decisions that brought on additional, undeserved trauma.
  • Acknowledgement that recovery from the trauma is not trivial and will require significant time and effort.
  • Separation of residual problems into those that the victim can resolve (such as personal improvement goals) and those that the victim cannot resolve (such as the behavior of a disordered family member)
  • Mourning for what has been lost and cannot be recovered.
  • Identification of what has been lost and can be recovered.
  • Program of recovery with focus on what can be improved in an individual's life that is under their own control.
  • Placement in a supportive environment where the victim can discover they are not alone and can receive validation for their successes and support through their struggles.
  • As necessary, personal therapy to promote self-discovery.
  • As required, prescription of antidepressant medications.

What to do about C-PTSD if you've got it:

Remove yourself from the primary or situation or secondary situations stemming from the primary abuse. Seek therapy. Talk about it. Write about it. Meditation. Medication if needed. Physical Exercise. Rewrite the script of your life.

What not to do about it:

  • Stay. Hold it in. Bottle it up. Act out. Isolate. Self-abuse. Perpetuate the cycle.
  • What to do about it if you know somebody else who has C-PTSD:
  • Offer sympathy, support, a shoulder to cry on, lend an ear. Speak from experience. Assist with practical resolution when appropriate (guidance towards escape, therapy, etc.) Be patient.
  • What not to do about it if you know somebody else who has it:
  • Do not push your own agenda: proselytize, moralize, speak in absolutes, tell them to "get over it", or try to force reconciliation with the perpetrator or offer "sure fire" cures.

C-PTSD Support Groups & Links:



Endlessly complaining about her. “Losing” her important paperwork. Glaring at her from across the room.

These underhanded behaviors sound like the hijinks of sworn middle school enemies. But these hostile acts of sabotage were perpetrated not by preteens but by two office workers locked in a battle to undercut each other’s performance and reputation.

Ultimately, one employee sued, alleging a hostile work environment, said Coby Turner, managing associate for the labor and employment group in Seyfarth Shaw’s Sacramento office. The case, which was settled confidentially, might never have been filed if the employer had intervened early on to put an end to the bullying and taunting.

Since Jan. 1, 2015, California businesses have been mandated to train managers on how to identify “abusive conduct,” or workplace bullying behaviors, as part of their instruction on preventing sexual harassment. But the law, an amendment to the Fair Employment and Housing Act, was scant on details. Now, however, a set of regulations that take effect April 1 will provide HR professionals with needed guidance by spelling out in greater detail what the training should entail.

The amended regulations by the Fair Employment and Housing Council include instructions for employers to:

  • Define “abusive conduct” as malicious behaviors that can include the repeated use of derogatory remarks, insults, and verbal or physical conduct that a “reasonable person” would consider “threatening, intimidating or humiliating,” as well as the deliberate sabotaging or undermining of a worker’s performance on the job.
  • Explain that a single episode or incident of this behavior shouldn’t be considered abusive conduct, unless it is “especially severe or egregious.”
  • Explain the negative effects of bullying on victims and co-workers, and on productivity and morale.
  • Cover the subject “in a meaningful manner,” though there’s no further direction on how to do that.

The additional guidance is welcome, Turner said, but the definitions of what behaviors are considered abusive conduct and who is a “reasonable person” remain frustratingly vague. The complaints she receives about abusive behavior usually fall into two categories: supervisors who yell at workers and those who use profanity. Yet some workers in the identical environment may remain unruffled by big-mouthed, foul-mouthed bosses. “One person’s insult is another person’s constructive criticism,” Turner said.

Necessary Ambiguity

The new regulations must by necessity remain somewhat ambiguous, said Alison Alpert, partner and chair of the labor and employment practice group for Best Best & Krieger of San Diego. “The fear—and I think it’s legitimate—is that [a more specific definition of abusive conduct] would just increase litigation against employers in an unfair way,” said Alpert, who educates supervisors about harassment law and investigates claims of harassment and retaliation.

Complicating matters is the fact that while behaviors that constitute abusive conduct may be offensive and a clear indicator of a toxic work environment, they are not unlawful. “People dislike each another all the time,” Turner said, “but that’s not illegal.”

Heightened media coverage of bullying in schools, on college campuses and in the workplace has led many people to believe that bullying violates the law. That misunderstanding may actually help curb abusive behavior and prompt workers or supervisors to call out language or actions that are intimidating or malicious because they believe it’s prohibited.

California law bars abusive conduct in the workplace that targets someone in a category protected from discrimination under categories such as gender, age, disability or ethnic origin. Denying a job or a promotion to someone because he or she uses a wheelchair is illegal; calling his or her presentation “a piece of junk” may be evidence of poor management skills, but it’s not barred by law. As Alpert puts it: “Is it a harasser or a jerk boss?”

Abusive behavior can create a hostile work environment yet not meet the legal standard of actionable, harassing conduct, said Alpert, who has probed allegations of workplace harassment that were, upon review, more accurately defined as bullying.

Determining If It’s Harassment or ‘Meanness’

Turner recalled a racial discrimination case brought by an employee who claimed he was verbally abused because he was Hispanic. An investigation into the allegations revealed that the manager who bellowed at his staff wasn’t choosing his targets based on their ethnicity. Rather, he yelled indiscriminately at his workforce, which happened to be predominately Hispanic. Nothing in his behavior suggested any racial bias, she said, but the fact that he managed by intimidation indicated shoddy leadership skills.

When HR professionals meet with an aggrieved employee, they would be wise to drill down on the list of problematic behaviors detailed by the worker. “When employees come forward,” Alpert said, “they may not be certain what complaint they are making if they don’t really understand the harassment laws. People use the term ‘harassment’ a lot … and they don’t necessary mean it in terms of the Fair Employment and Housing Act and that legal way. They just mean ‘My boss is being mean to me.’ ”

While California law doesn’t bar “meanness,” per se, that type of behavior is toxic to morale and productivity, and its persistence can lead to workers’ compensation claims, extended leave situations or, potentially, claims tied to a protected category. If HR professionals or managers don’t intervene, resentment can simmer and entire departments or groups can take sides, creating deep rifts in the workplace, Turner said. Even if the allegations of bullying are found to be groundless, a company must still invest time and resources into an investigation and defense in a lawsuit.

Getting HR Involved

When HR professionals receive complaints about workplace bullying, they shouldn’t assume the conflict is a tiff that will quickly blow over or peter out. Labor and employment attorneys suggest that HR or a supervisor meet with the perpetrator, review company regulations governing workplace conduct, and remind him or her about the company’s expectations for appropriate behavior. If employees are engaged in bullying behavior, separating them so they no longer work in the same department or division can quash the conflict.

Instituting performance coaching can be useful as well, helping problem workers realize that their threatening, intimidating and humiliating language or behavior erodes, not inspires, others’ motivation. If an abusive supervisor or employee is unable or unwilling to mend his or her ways, the company is justified in firing the individual.

On the flip side, HR professionals may field complaints about supervisors’ abusive behavior from workers who are so quick to take offense at even appropriate and justifiable criticism that their supervisors are unable to effectively manage them. Again, a closer look into the personality dynamics at play may give the HR team insight into the conflict and help them resolve the issue. “If you tell someone their work is bad, might that be insulting and humiliating?” Turner asked. “Yes. But it’s not bullying. It’s a hard line to walk.”

June D. Bell is a San Francisco Bay Area reporter who regularly covers California labor and employment issues for SHRM.

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