Guideline-based programs in the treatment of complex PTSD


The term “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD) is a relatively new diagnostic label, being formally recognized in 1980 in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual for Psychiatric Illness – Third Edition (DSM-III) of the American Psychiatric Association (APA, 1980). Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CP) is a more recently discussed, and newly-classified, phenomenon, initially discussed in the early 1990s (Herman, 1992a). Thus, as research into effective treatments for CP is sparse, the treatment of CP is the topic of this study, in which a guideline-based treatment program developed by the researcher for the treatment of CP is implemented and evaluated. Ten individuals participated in this study, undertaking individualized, guideline-based treatment programs spanning a period of six months. In providing background information relevant to this study, an explanation is provided regarding the nature of CP, and the reasons for its consideration as a separate phenomenon to PTSD. The adequacy of the PTSD formulation in enabling effective assessment and treatment of CP is also explored, with endorsement of previous researchers’ conclusions that the CP construct is more useful than the PTSD construct for assessing and treating survivors of long-term and multiple forms of abuse. The PTSD classification is restrictive, and not necessarily appropriate for certain forms of trauma (such as prolonged trauma, or multiple forms of trauma), as such trauma experiences may lead to specific effects that lay outside those formerly associated with PTSD. Such effects include alterations in affect regulation, consciousness, self-perception, interpersonal relationships, and in systems of meaning. Following discussion regarding the PTSD/CP classification, an examination of treatment methods currently used in the treatment of PTSD, and a review of treatment outcome studies, takes place. The adequacy of primary treatment methods in treating CP symptoms is then examined, with the conclusion that a range of treatment methods could potentially be useful in the treatment of CP symptoms. Individuals with a diagnosis of CP may benefit from the adoption of an eclectic approach, drawing on different treatment options for different symptoms, and constantly evaluating client progress and re-evaluating interventions. This review of treatment approaches is followed by details of an initial study undertaken to obtain feedback from individuals who had suffered long-term/multiple trauma and who had received treatment. Participants in this initial study were asked open-ended questions regarding the treatment approach they had experienced, the most useful aspect of the treatment, the least useful aspect, and other strategies/treatment approaches that may have been useful – but which were not used. The feedback obtained from these individuals was used to inform the development of treatment guidelines for use in the main study, as were recommendations made by Chu (1998). The predominant focus of the treatment guidelines was “ego strengthening”, a term coined by Chu (1998) to describe the “initial (sometimes lengthy) period of developing fundamental skills in maintaining supportive relationships, developing self-care strategies, coping with symptomatology, improving functioning, and establishing a positive self identity” (p.75). Using a case study approach, data are then presented relating to each of the ten individuals involved in the treatment program: details of his/her trauma experience(s)and the impact of the trauma (as perceived by each individual); details of each individual’s treatment program (as planned, and as implemented); post-treatment evaluation of the positive and negative aspects of the treatment program (from the therapist’s perspective); and details of the symptoms reported by the individual post-treatment, via psychometric assessment and also during interview. Analysis and discussion of the data relating to the ten participants in the study are the focal point of this study. The evaluation of the effectiveness of each individual’s treatment has been based predominantly on qualitative data, obtained from an analysis of language (discourse analysis) used by participants to describe their symptoms pre- and post-treatment. Both blatant and subtle changes in the language used by participants to describe themselves, their behaviour, and their relationships pre- and post-treatment have provided an insight into the possible changes that occurred as a result of the treatment program. The language used by participants has been a rich source of data, one that has enabled the researcher to obtain information that could not be obtained using psychometric assessment methods. Most of the participants in this study portrayed notable changes in many of the CP symptoms, including being more stable and having improved capacity to explore their early abuse. Although no direct cause-effect relationship between the participants’ treatment program and the improvements described can be established from this study, the participants’ perception that the program assisted them with their symptoms, and reported many aspects of “ego strengthening”, is of major importance. Such self-perception of strength and empowerment is important if an individual is going to be able to deal with past trauma experiences. In fact, abreactive work may have a greater chance of succeeding if those who have experienced long-term or multiple trauma are feeling more empowered, and more stable, as were the participants in this study (post-intervention). In concluding this study, recommendations have been made in regard to the use of guideline-based treatment programs in the responsible treatment of CP. Strengths and limitations of this study have also been highlighted, and recommendations have been made regarding possibilities for future research related to CP treatment. On the whole, this study has supported strongly other research that highlights the importance of focusing on “ego strengthening” in assisting those who have suffered long-term/multiple trauma experiences. Thus, a guideline-based program focusing on assisting sufferers of long-term trauma with some, or all, of the symptoms of CP, is recommended as an important first stage of any treatment of individuals who have experienced long-term/multiple trauma, allowing them to develop the emotional and psychological strength required to deal with past traumatic events. Clinicians who are treating patients whose history depicts long-term or multiple trauma experiences (either from their childhood, or at some stage in their adult life) need, therefore, to be mindful of assessing individuals for symptoms of CP – so that they can treat these symptoms prior to engaging in any work associated directly with the past traumatic experiences.






Pamela K. Connor

Original Work Citation

Connor, P. K. (2005). Guideline-based programs in the treatment of complex PTSD. (Master's Thesis, Deakin University)



“Guideline-based programs in the treatment of complex PTSD,” Francine Shapiro Library, accessed November 28, 2020,

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