Complex Trauma

Complex trauma is often defined as an on-going stress that feels threatening to one's survival. As children we are psychologically and physically dependent on our parents. Adult children of alcoholics, addicts and/or mentally unstable parents, often struggle with feeling a sense of security in their primary relationships. They don't feel safe because their model for attachment was unpredictable, frightening or unreliable. For example, a narcissistic mother may have been unable to empathize with her child's needs. She may have rejected her child and criticized her/him for being overly dependent. Alcoholic and bipolar parents may have mood swings that threaten a child's need for consistency. Both examples leave one feeling deeply unworthy.

As adults, people with complex PTSD return to a crisis state. They sometimes create conflict because it feels familiar. Other times, they withdraw from love because the stakes of feeing disappointment are too intense. Ordinary love requires compromise and a mutual exchange of affection. This too, can feel like an impingement. 

A psychodynamic therapist recognizes the struggles of adults with complex trauma.  The therapist can provide valuable feedback on one's pattern of relating. She can validate the patient's desire to withdraw, or the patient's intense emotional reaction to present day relationships. In therapy, one can experience trust, safety and respect. It's a place to reflect and and heal from one's childhood. One may emerge capable of finding loving relationships, at last.

Fighting Holiday Stress


Holidays can bring feelings of joy, sharing of rituals and, unfortunately, great stress. Sometimes it’s the financial worry about affording gifts for others. Often it’s the break in routine which includes travel and family visits. A visit with your parents and siblings can trigger unresolved childhood issues. Some people numb their feelings of discomfort with drugs, alcohol and food. Others have painful confrontations with their loved ones. Finding a healthy path through the holiday madness is possible.

If you are part of a couple, tension around the holidays can lead to an increase in arguments. A common mistake that couples make during difficult times, is to scapegoat the other. It’s easier to blow-up at your partner than to direct anger or unmet needs at your parents or siblings. Clear communication and keeping a positive outlook can alleviate stress. One year, my husband and I decided before visiting his parents, that we’d be on each other’s sides. This meant taking little breaks from family functions so the two of us could talk and connect. By keeping a united front, we felt happier and more resilient.

Often the expectation to spend long blocks of time with relatives is draining. Women, especially, are typically socialized to meet peoples’ emotional and physical needs during the holidays. The list seems endless: decorating, gift buying, cooking and serving food. Even when you love these activities, care-taking can drain your energy. Mindfulness meditation is a useful tool to recharge and regain feelings of calm. Connecting with your breathe and experiencing your thoughts pass like clouds across the sky offers relief. 

Talk therapy also offers relief from holiday stress. Expressing your feelings with a therapist who you trust can help heal old family wounds. The holidays can become an opportunity to practice mindfulness and effective communication. In my work with couples and individuals, I help patients assert their boundaries, tolerate difficult emotions like sadness and anxiety and transform their relationships.

Mindful Moms Newsletter #1


Holding Too Much

by Daria Portillo, LMFT

Today I found myself carrying two sippy cups, a child’s backpack, a cup of coffee and my purse. How had I become my toddler’s sherpa? My two year-old daughter fussed and refused to climb into her carseat. But I didn’t want to lift her and strain my back yet again. In more ways than one, I was carrying more than I could hold. Even though nothing had been dropped I fought back the welling frustration of being overburdened.

Throughout the day there was a cost/benefit analysis of the quality of mothering I provided. I didn’t know if fathers made these mental calculations too. But they were exhausting!

As mothers, we hold most of the pieces together for our children. We buy them new clothes, enriching classes and pack them healthy snacks. If we have time, we schedule play dates to provide the optimal balance of socialization.

Could you imagine what life would feel like if we cared for ourselves as well as we cared for our children? What would you do: learn an instrument, sew a skirt, write a story? Imagine the food you would pack for lunch: a hearty curry, fresh berries, or a nourishing kale salad. Who would you call to talk to, just for the hell of it?

And how would you soothe yourself when you were depleted? Could you ask a friend or loved one for a hug? Meditation can provided nourishment when your mind is going a hundred miles an hour. You get to be still, breathe and open your heart to your experience. It’s an act of self care that may feel difficult. But with practice arises feelings of calm. Setting aside time to meditate will remind you that you deserve care and attention, too.


Self-Care Tips    

By Elizabeth Mack, MFTI


Often we know we should take better care of ourselves, yet it helps to have a reminder. Here are a few things that we can incorporate into daily life that help us rest, restore, and revive:

1Grant yourself a “time-out.” It may only be for two minutes, but anything helps. You don’t need to find the perfect moment when the baby is sleeping or the kids are playing quietly. It might be when dinner is on the stove and children are screaming bloody murder, but as long as there is no imminent danger, give yourself permission to lock yourself in the bedroom and catch your breath.

2. Talk to yourself gently; name the emotions you are feeling.  One of the ways we soothe our children when they’re hurting is listening to their woes with compassion, and reflecting back our understanding of their suffering. We may say: “That was a big fall, I can see it was really scary for you!” Being able to offer ourselves compassion when we experience big feelings can be just as powerful.

3. Remember to S.T.O.P.  When you are feeling really overwhelmed, remember these steps:                                

    Stop (whatever you are doing, put it down and walk away if necessary)  

    Take a breath  

    Observe (your emotions, breathing, and what is going on in your body) 

    Proceed (…with CAUTION)

4.  Pick a mantra. It may help to repeat a phrase you find comforting when things are tough. It could be something such as, “This too shall pass” or “May I be calm and peaceful” or “May I accept my life as it is” or…whatever you want. Make it personal!

5. Remember that you are not alone. Suffering is a part of life, and encountering it is part of the shared human experience. Text or call a friend.                                       


Another excellent way to connect with others is to find your community. In the Mindful Moms support group, you’ll begin each session with guided meditation, learn new skills and take ample time to share your struggles. Elizabeth Mack, MFTI and Daria Portillo, LMFT will guide us through the steps of finding self-compassion and practicing self-care. The new 8-week session begins Tuesdays, 7:30-9:00pm, September 13- November 1st, in Atwater Village. Call (313) 389-1808 or email: