In recent years, more Americans have become familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including its symptoms and treatment options. However, a lesser-known diagnosis of complex PTSD (or CPTSD) has received less attention from the media and the mental health community. The condition differs slightly from a traditional PTSD diagnosis, but emotional support animals and complex PTSD can be a good match. Read on for more information on ESAs and complex PTSD.
What is PTSD?
A straightforward diagnosis of PTSD comes about when a person has experienced a trauma (anything from a natural disaster to a car accident to war). These individuals develop a series of (sometimes debilitating) symptoms, including reliving the traumatic experience, having nightmares or flashbacks, avoiding certain situations that remind the person of the traumatic event, isolating or avoiding relationships, and hyperarousal (which can manifest as jitteriness or a feeling of being on constant alert). People with PTSD can also experience somatic symptoms, which are physical symptoms that aren’t based in an underlying medical condition. This can look like stomachaches, nausea, headaches, dizziness, etc. PTSD also often goes hand in hand with other co-diagnoses such as depression, anxiety disorders (such as obsessive-compulsive disorder [OCD] or panic attacks), and insomnia. ESAs and PTSD work well together because animals can provide a calming, grounding presence during episodes of distress.
What is complex PTSD?
CPTSD is a relatively new condition that medical professionals are just now beginning to research more thoroughly. It occurs when a person has been exposed to traumatic events over and over again over the course of months or years, rather than just one isolated incident of trauma. People often display symptoms of CPTSD from repeated events (such as that of sexual or physical abuse), living in an area of war, or long-term neglect. The diagnosis can also come about in adults who experienced extended trauma during their childhood. CPTSD symptoms generally include all of the ones that go along with traditional PTSD that have been listed above, as well as:
- Lack of emotional regulation – which tends to manifest as uncontrollable feelings, such as intense anger or sadness
- Changes in consciousness – can include forgetting the traumatic event or experiencing dissociation (feeling detached from their emotions or their physical body)
- Negative self-perception with feelings of guilt or shame regarding the traumatic event – some people can feel completely separate from other “normal” people
- Difficulties with relationships with a tendency to avoid social interactions
- Distorted perception of the abuser – this can happen when an individual has experiences of chronic abuse; they can become preoccupied with the relationship between themselves and the abuser, sometimes with thoughts of exacting revenge
- Loss of systems of meanings – can refer to changes in religious or general beliefs about the world, and can look like a loss of faith in long-held beliefs or a strong sense of despair regarding the outside world
These symptoms can vary from person to person and can change over time. They can be life-altering and can have a significant impact on the person’s ability to function (at work, at home, etc.).
What are the treatment options for CPTSD?
Individuals are diagnosed with CPTSD if they’ve experienced these types of symptoms for one month or longer. The diagnosis can be made by mental health professionals, including therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists. Treatment can include psychotherapy (or “talk therapy”) and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to help address negative thought patterns associated with the trauma and to develop healthy coping skills. Another option is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which is used to process through traumatic memories. Many CPTSD patients are prescribed medications (often antidepressants or anti-anxiety meds) to help reduce or alleviate symptoms.
Can ESAs help complex PTSD?
There are a number of ways that an ESA can help with CPTSD. Animals can provide a constant companion for someone who might be isolating, a calming presence for someone with heightened anxiety, and affection for someone who might feel closed off from others. Individuals with CPTSD often have the feeling that the world around them is unsafe; owning an ESA who can intuitively sense danger can be reassuring so that the person knows they’re not really in any peril realistically. Having a loving companion can also show the patient that there is some light and love in the world still.
Which ESAs would be best for CPTSD?
Dogs are typically the best ESA option for someone with CPTSD. Many breeds can intuit when their owners are stressed or overwhelmed, and they can just cuddle or sit with them to help lower their anxiety levels. Playing with them can also help release endorphins (which can be a huge benefit for someone experiencing depressive symptoms). Larger breeds (such as German Shepherds or Labradors) can also provide a greater sense of safety for people that feel unsafe or are easily scared. Cats and rabbits can also provide some relief for people with CPTSD; they’re low-energy, so they can be relaxing to be around, and they often don’t require the level of maintenance that some dog breeds do.
Living with CPTSD can be a lonely and hopeless experience (especially when the person’s symptoms are all-consuming). Pairing emotional support animals and complex PTSD can help provide the patient with the hope that the world might actually have some good in it (even if they see that just by petting their furry pal). Feeling a greater sense of safety and increased positivity can actually make a great deal of difference to a CPTSD patient’s difficult recovery process.