8 Treatment Options for College Students With CPTSD
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8 Treatment Options for College Students With CPTSD

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Living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) can feel like navigating through a storm that never seems to pass. As many as 8% of people deal with CPTSD. Unlike PTSD, which typically arises from a single traumatic event, CPTSD is often associated with prolonged trauma or adversity, for example, adverse childhood experiences like neglect or chronic abuse, being a long-term caregiver for a sick family member, or having extended periods of feeling powerless. 

Treatment options for CPTSD in college students

Treatment approaches for complex PTSD can be similar to PTSD; however, as it is a different condition that is more complex, a person experiencing CPTSD may need more intensive support. Treatments that can help manage CPTSD in college students usually involve a combination of psychotherapy, medication and self-care strategies. Some common approaches to helping college students manage and address their CPTSD can include:

  • Psychotherapy — Therapy is a key component of treating CPTSD. If you’re a college student with CPTSD, it’s important to regularly attend your therapy sessions, as it can help you stay on track with your treatment and better manage your CPTSD symptoms. 

Therapy to help college students with CPTSD can use different approaches to effectively help them process traumatic experiences, develop coping skills and improve emotional regulation. Common therapy approaches used to help CPTSD include:

  • Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT)
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Medication — Medication isn’t a primary treatment for CPTSD. However, it can be used to help manage symptoms like depression, anxiety and sleep disturbances. A psychiatrist or health care provider can prescribe medications and provide medication management to monitor their effectiveness. 
  • Support groups — Joining a support group for college students with CPTSD can give you a sense of community, validation and support. Many colleges and universities offer support groups or counseling services that can meet their students’ needs. 
  • Self-care practices — Taking time to prioritize self-care if you’re struggling with CPTSD is essential. Good self-care habits to adopt include:
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Eating a balanced diet
  • Exercising regularly
  • Doing activities that can help promote relaxation and stress reduction.
  • Academic accommodations — If you’re struggling with CPTSD, you may benefit from academic accommodations. These accommodations can help reduce your stress and allow you to focus on your academic goals. Accommodations may include:
  • Extended deadlines
  • Flexible attendance policies
  • Ability to take breaks during exams
  • Leave of absence — If you’re struggling with CPTSD, you may consider taking a leave of absence from your studies. This leave of absence can give you time to focus solely on your mental health and well-being. Taking time away from college can be a difficult decision, but it’s an important step toward making your mental health a priority. It can also give you the time and space you need to:
  • Seek treatment
  • Develop coping skills
  • Work toward your recovery
  • Building a support system — Building a support network of friends, family and mental health professionals can provide you with the support you need to more effectively manage CPTSD.
  • Educational resources — Finding educational resources about CPTSD and its symptoms may help you to better understand your condition. You can also learn how to seek appropriate treatment. 

By combining these approaches, you can learn how to effectively manage your symptoms. Once you begin learning how to manage your symptoms, you can thrive in both your academic and personal life.

How therapy can help college students cope with CPTSD

The intricate nature of CPTSD needs a delicate and unique treatment approach. The holistic and personalized therapeutic approach of process-based therapy (PBT) can allow a trauma-informed therapist to identify the underlying processes and patterns that are contributing to a person’s psychological distress instead of focusing on treating the diagnosis. PBT is incredibly flexible and adaptable in the way it can meet the unique needs of each individual, treating the whole person physically, emotionally and psychologically. Therapists can draw from a diverse range of evidence-based, data-driven therapeutic approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). PBT pulls in the best aspects of these techniques to address specific issues and goals of the person. 

Process-based therapy can help CPTSD in several ways, including:

  • Emotional regulation — Coping with the tumultuous emotions that are associated with CPTSD can be overwhelming. PBT can equip college students with tools and strategies that can help them navigate their emotional landscape more easily. 
  • Cognitive restructuring – CPTSD can plague college students with negative self-beliefs and distorted thinking patterns. They can struggle with their self-worth and resilience. PBT can gently guide students through the challenges of overcoming these thought patterns and replace them with more compassionate and empowering ones. This can help them develop a renewed sense of self-confidence and optimism. 
  • Skill building — PBT can help college students living with complex PTSD learn to bulk up the coping skills they can use in times of need. These skills can help them with boundary setting and navigating relationship dynamics and stressors with improved confidence. 
  • Trauma processing — CPTSD stems from long-term traumatic exposure. Processing these traumatic memories is at the heart of the PBT healing journey. A therapist will carefully guide and explore past traumatic events in a safe and supportive environment. By slowly unpacking these experiences, individuals can learn to rewrite the narrative of their lives.
  • Meaningful changes — PBT is intended to empower clients to create meaningful and lasting changes in their lives. By working with a therapist to address the underlying issues fueling their CPTSD, they can pave the way to transformative growth and healing, reclaiming their lives from the shadows of their trauma. 

Symptoms of CPTSD

Complex PTSD (CPTSD) is recognized as a subtype of PTSD by the International Classification of Diseases, 11th revision (ICD-11). According to the ICD-11, CPTSD has the same diagnostic criteria as PTSD. However, it has additional continuing issues in:

  • Regulating emotions
  • Negative self-beliefs
  • Difficulties in keeping relationships

While CPTSD is not a formal diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, mental health professionals still recognize and treat it as a distinct condition.

Complex PTSD can look similar to PTSD with symptoms like:

  • Intrusive symptoms like flashbacks and nightmares
  • Avoidance and emotional numbing
  • Hyperarousal like hypervigilance
  • Negative changes in thoughts and emotions
  • Changes in arousal and reactivity, such as irritability and reckless behavior

Additional symptoms associated with CPTSD include:

  • Disturbances in self-organization which can include affect dysregulation
  • Feelings of worthlessness, shame and guilt
  • Difficulties in keeping relations or feeling close to others

Impacts of CPTSD

Complex PTSD can have a significant impact on college students, affecting various aspects of their academic, social and emotional well-being:

  • Academic and work challenges — CPTSD can lead to difficulties in focusing and completing tasks, making academic and work responsibilities feel daunting for students. They may struggle to stay organized and meet deadlines, impacting their performance and overall success. 
  • Interpersonal struggles Trust issues and communication barriers can make it hard for students with CPTSD to form and maintain relationships. They may feel guarded and find it challenging to express their emotions or connect with others, leading to feelings of isolation. 
  • Physical health impact — The chronic stress associated with CPTSD can have a negative impact on students’ physical health. It may weaken the immune system, increase the risk of cardiovascular problems, and contribute to the development of chronic conditions like diabetes or gastrointestinal issues. 
  • Unhealthy coping mechanisms — When faced with overwhelming emotions, students with CPTSD may turn to harmful coping strategies such as substance use or self-harm. While these behaviors may provide temporary relief, they can lead to further complications and hinder long-term healing and recovery.

Factors associated with CPTSD

Complex PTSD can be characterized by experiencing recurring or long-term traumatic events like:

  • Childhood abuse or neglect
  • Domestic violence
  • Repeatedly witnessing violence or abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Divorce
  • Generational trauma
  • Racial trauma, racial discrimination and social exclusion
  • Having a parent incarcerated
  • Food or housing insecurity

You may be more likely to develop CPTSD if:

  • You experienced trauma at a very young age
  • Your trauma lasted for a long time
  • You have experienced multiple traumas
  • You were harmed by someone close to you
  • You weren’t able to escape the trauma

Traumatic stress can permanently change areas of your brain and its chemistry. The areas affected are involved in processing emotions, learning, memory and executive function. 

Don’t struggle alone with CPTSD. Lightfully U can help

At Lightfully U, we recognize the challenges that students with complex PTSD may be facing. We are committed to providing compassionate, holistic and personalized care to help students address the grip CPTSD has on their lives and achieve their academic and personal goals. We offer a supportive environment where students can thrive and overcome the challenges CPTSD presents.

Change is possible. When you’re ready to take the first step, reach out to our Admissions Concierge Team. We’ll take the next steps together, toward the fullest, brightest version of you.

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