Complex PTSD Dissociation & How to Start Your Recovery Now

Emotion, concerning Complex PTSD dissociation, is layered. We default to those we feel the safest with or those that didn't have any direct repercussion from our environment.

If there have been different people involved that contributed to separate traumas, it will make it more complicated, because the positions of what is one's core emotion and what is one's coping emotion could be interchangeable. For instance, with Complex PTSD and the dissociation that follows.

Core Emotions and Complex PTSD Dissociation

A core emotion is an emotion most closely related to what made you feel overwhelmed and helpless.

Emotion, concerning trauma, is layered. We default to those we feel the safest with or those that didn't have any direct repercussion from our environment.

Concerning incidental traumas, the core emotion is more accessible to identify. A car accident, surgery, or attack that contributed to Post-Traumatic Stress often has a fear of getting injured or losing one’s life as a core emotion. With a sudden loss, the core emotion would be grief and sadness.

With child neglect and abuse, it gets messier because there will be various layers of trauma in place. These mechanisms of core and coping emotion still apply, but there will be more than one present, and hence we talk about Complex PTSD dissociation.

Child Neglect and Abuse and the Layers of Complex PTSD Dissociation

With child neglect and abuse, on a very primary level, there is a lack of healthy attachment bonding.

It is this lack of bonding that gives rise in later life to loneliness, depression, self-doubt, issues around self-esteem, self-hatred, negative self-image, problems with sexuality, relationship attachment difficulties, and possibly addiction.

Complex PTSD Dissociation

At the root of it is this lack of love, bonding, validation and acceptance and one’s core overwhelming emotion related to that is sorrow and grief (sadness). It might be conscious or not, but it is there.

It often doesn’t stay with neglect only when addressing childhood trauma. Traumatic periods continued with verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. At those times of abuse, as a child, you most likely weren’t in a position to fight back and show your anger as it would be met by more abuse or neglect.

So we get a secondary trauma of abuse where one’s core emotion is anger on top of the pain of neglect and its profound grief and sadness.

From here on it could potentially keep spiraling into further complexity. As an adult you might get involved, due to one’s emotional and nervous system patterning, in a relationship with a narcissist, have severe medical or addiction issues, and so on and so forth. Each incident might further compound a particular trauma pattern that is already in place or creates a new set of trauma patterning.

Why You Create Coping Emotions and How They are Part of a Complex PTSD Dissociation Response

The above reasoning is examples of how things can flow in life but there are many other variations possible. These are meant to sketch an idea while looking at complex trauma that there often will be several core emotions related to different traumas in place.

The difficulties, unfortunately, don’t just stop there. Core emotions are one thing. As mentioned in the very beginning we develop coping emotions that we default to when core emotions are too overwhelming, and they often are.

Coping emotions are emotions that feel safer to be with or express, and they channel the energy of the core emotion though they are fueled by the core emotion.


Over time the core emotions will become unconscious, and you’ll be focused on the coping emotion and attempting to overcome them.

For example; suppressed anger that relates to abuse in early life gets diverted into anxiety. Anxiety is the coping or default emotion here, and anger is its core emotion. Primary grief and sadness--due to neglect--might be channeled into anger or anxiety in order to cope. How you cope will depend on your circumstances and your particular character.

The Interplay of Complex PTSD Dissociation, Core Emotions, and Coping Emotions

You see how incredibly tangled all of this can become.

There will be central themes in your life though that are repeating themselves over and over again.

From what I have seen, even regarding complex trauma, there are often no more than two or three sets of core and coping emotion. So that’s the good news.

Once those themes are identified, it gives you handles on constructively working through Complex PTSD dissociation. Furthermore, this means that you aren’t just dealing with the addiction patterns or the coping emotions only.

Can you identify a core emotion and a coping emotion as a pattern that you tend to repeat? Leave your comment below.

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  • Rayna says:

    I’ve been experiencing these emotions coping emotions due to several traumatic experiences throughout my life I’m 38 years old I’ve raised 2 children and in the middle of raising another one and I find at many times I would rather be alone than be with somebody but then when I find somebody to be with I completely emerged myself in them and in the end of the day I have fixated or put too many expectations on a relationship that wasn’t even going to last as well as put myself in positions to be in relationships that are not healthy

  • Marina says:

    Thank you for an other simple and great blog. I appreciate how you make theses matters so understandable! My core emotions, I guess, are sadness and anger, coping emotions are anger sadness, anxiety and depression..

  • Rikko says:

    Outstanding as usual. Why don’t other mental health “professionals” know this stuff?

    Mr Bal…..You are simply a blessing to all of us who have so much trauma by no fault of our own.

  • Agata says:

    Great distinction between core and coping emotions! My core one is grief and terror covered up with anger – often the only one I am aware of in times of stress.
    I’d be interested to read more about complex layering of emotions and dissociation in trauma. Looking forward to another entry :-). Thank you and good luck!

  • Donna says:

    I appreciate your posts b/c they are in-depth. I had suffered w/ developmental trauma for decades w/ the effects of CPTSD. My core emotions were hurt, sadness, anger, a feeling of being trapped, etc. My default was crying, lying down, feeling hurt & trapped. I really wasn’t aware that I was angry for decades…it was so deeply hidden. I am now healed due to much prayer, work, counseling, reading, art, music…it’s a combination & much more. Moving out of a negative & dangerous neighborhood has topped off the healing so now I enjoy every day & I am so thankful that the Lord made a way for me to escape the former neighborhood into this beautiful area & apartment. Also, my family is so happy for me & can come & visit me more easily as well. The hardest part has always been loneliness & not having a friend…not having family interactions very much at all. The family & their hugs & happiness for me is healing in itself. I can’t say that I have a friend but I think that there is more on the horizon for me re: others. God knows & it is to Him that I am eternally grateful for His company & love thru it all.

  • Stacey says:

    Wow. Very detailed article. You explain the deeper layers well. I am a little surprised though, that anger is one that you would say was a core emotion. Perhaps it can be both? I personally see anger as the more ‘powerful’ and useful emotion that not just myself, but most people channel more easily than their core emotions. Why do people have heated arguments, explode in anger and lash out? Is it not that first they were hurt? Vulnerable? Violated? Demeaned? Invalidated? Those are powerless states. So…letting it turn to anger and fighting back is preferable. Perhaps I’m wrong.
    For me however…terror and fear is certainly one core…..that is where the severe anxiety (coping) comes from and hypervigilance. If fear gets strong enough I think the anger sometimes comes out…IF I’m in a position to be able to ‘fight’. If not I don’t bother w anger. Most of my terror isn’t even over what might happen now…it’s about feeling the sheer pain that I definitely will turn in to anything else at all to avoid.
    Another core emotion for me is shame I think. I can’t feel grief and sadness but…shame is inextinguishable. Therefore: Depression. I’d say depersonalization but that’s not an emotion for me. Coldness. Something like anger but…different. Self destruction in a bottle…or self injury. Erase erase erase. What emotion is core to wanting to be erased? All of them in a vortex I guess.
    Thanks for the article. Good to know someone gets this.

    • Roland says:

      Hi Stacey. It can work both ways. It really depends on your environment and how you internally dealt with your emotions. For some anger is suppressed and dangerous to come close to, for others it is the emotion to go to first. Thanks for sharing what your core-emotion and coping emotions are.

  • keely says:

    Anxiety and sadness are coping emotions for me. Maybe annoyance/irritation too. Beneath them is intense anger. I am angry about the ways I was failed as a child and the ways I was wronged as an adult, but it was not allowed for me to get angry at my parents when I was a child. I was punished harshly for “talking back”.

    • Roland says:

      Hi Keely. What you describe makes a lot of sense.

    • Donna says:

      It seems to me that the story is the same for all of us who have suffered abuses when we were growing up. We were not allowed to show any anger or express our feelings, yet the abuser sure could show his/her ANGER!

  • Tracey says:

    Thank you very interesting and informative- I can’t understand in this day and age why – there is still so little support and advice from professionals

  • Terry Wall says:

    Hello guys ready to fight this now. Just coming out of a sort of spiritual dissociation. Was in a cult like situation and been wasting so much energy on various rituals and spiritual practices which I realised was not Trauma work was just faith healing and all very dubious.

    • d says:

      If you would like to check out some prayer healing for trauma, check out david tensen…that might help you…only mentioning that in reply to your comment & if you’re interested in genuine prayers.

    • Donna Giovanni says:

      My comment a minute ago was for Terry Wall…sorry I forgot to add your name.

  • Hele says:

    core emotion- overpowered feeling trapped or helpless
    coping emotion- anger sometimes

    this is one of a few.

  • Neil says:

    To all the commenters, thank you for putting yourself out there. By reading the comments of others and RB’s responses I get so much insight into how real people like me express their feelings about “what’s going on.” I’ve been kidnapped twice, once as a teen once as a 40-something. An abusive alcoholic father, who’s abandoned me and our relationship three times now. My core emotion is shock. I cope with anxiety and explosive anger, as well as a contemptuous cynicism that pushes most away, which is likely depression’s wake. Dissociation is like a lifestyle for me. Recovery seems like a myth.

    • Donna Giovanni says:

      Dear Neil,
      My heart really goes out to you… Yes, I think shock is a good word for your core emotion. In reading your comment I thought about how shock also was a large part of my life, but I was in too much shock to even call it by it’s proper name. I know one woman who was kidnapped as a child & raped…such a sad story & she wrote a book about it called Panic Child, but she is now healed enough to help others. Even tho it’s a hard trek after traumas, I hope you will somehow find some strength to be open & find some help. I have a couple of ideas & I only share them w/ you b/c they have helped me & b/c you may not have heard of them. One is called neurofeedback (our brains were so affected thru our traumas) & the other one is called EMDR. Of course you can check them online & on youtube. I remember feeling like I was hanging by a thread many times or unglued, so to speak. I am glad for the strength that was given to me to get up, even if I was crying & go on & make new discoveries for healing. I hope for you.

    • Donna Giovanni says:

      Neil, I wrote out a comment for you but I forgot to click on the reply button. If you want to view it, it is there underneath your comment.

  • Allie says:

    Thank you for this article. It’s really making me think… I think my core emotion is sadness and my coping emotion is anxiety??? Am I getting this right? Clearly I still have self doubt issues that are channeled into anxiety…

  • Theresa says:

    Hi. I am getting help for some severe trauma as a child. Not much memories. Started having severe anxiety at age 40 after stopping many of my coping mechanisms. I still cannot get out my emotions. Working through some trauma that recently has come out as it was blocked before. There is a lot of abuse and trauma. What do you say to someone who does not know what there core emotions are? Or maybe mine are anxiety. I am unable still to get to my emotions as I am afraid to feel. Any comments.

    • Donna says:

      Hello Theresa,
      I am glad that you are getting some help for your severe traumas. At least there are many good avenues for help these days compared to many years ago. It seems to me that most of us started to have issues or triggers later on in life…40’s, 50’s, 60′, etc. I can relate to you re: not being able to get my emotions out many years ago. But as time goes on & one is getting helped, emotions are released, each one in a different way & pace, so take heart & keep on, one day at a time. Besides counseling, there are other roads to take as you willing to take a look. My own opinion is that anxiety is the result of the traumas & the body is telling you by your anxiety that it can’t take too much more of what’s stuffed inside. This is only a small part of an answer for we are all complex, for sure. Blessings on you & your path of healing.

  • Terry Wall says:

    Feeling very sad right now. I suffer so much with relationships I swing between feeling ultra needy to ultra needless. Just discharged some anger on to someone I have felt rejected by and have slammed the door shut again. To be honest I am just going to let go of trying to make freinds with people and just do this work and hope healthy relationships comes as a result of it

    • Donna says:

      Hello Terry,
      I have an understanding of those emotions & I’m sorry for your recent experience but I’m thinking that maybe your decision is the best one for now. I think your priority is your healing & after that may come some friends…

  • Terry Wall says:

    Thank you yes your right I need all the energy I can get to fight this. and these situations take so much out of me. Looking for love outside of your self for validation is a losing game I have been playing for to long. It’s time to find the love inside my self.

  • Fredrik says:

    You just told the story of my life, summed up in a few sentences. Thank you.

  • Anette says:

    I grew up in a family where there was a lot of violence and drugs. I think my core emotions are sadness and I’ve recently discovered that deep down there is much anger. My coping emotions are anxiety, depression and loneliness.
    Thank you so much for your articles, they help me tremendously.

  • Penny says:

    To clarify, does defaulting to the coping emotion equate to an act of dissociation from the core emotion?

  • Carey says:

    Oh my goodness this is why I lose my temper so irretrievably but inside I feel terror, abandonment and huge grief. It’s not anger but something much deeper that’s triggered. Total fear of being ignored, negated, unloved. And I’m in the middle of a narcissistic discard which is why I’m so stressed and fearful of the future. I’m used to bending over backwards to appease but this isn’t working any more as my partner is having an affair. Thank you: the lights gone on…

  • Andrea says:

    Interesting, but I have a question, what about compounded complex PTSD? Non child related. Army related, work relating to serious violent crimes, murder cases not being debriefed, and finally the Crash at in za seems to be rising around 45/55 years, I’m following this for my husband and I am yet to find much info on his kind of PTSD. I’m desperate, near nil improving in almost a year. One day I had my hubby normal self, my kids a father, to the next morning bam.. Still a hubby but not the same in huge ways. We trying everything we can to help him.

  • E says:

    This speaks so much to me! It’s so precise and clear. Thank you. My core emotion is loneliness. Then anger that becomes repressed and has no where to go so I disassociate. As a child I used to hide myself in small places. I would curl in a ball and go under the bed, behind furniture, into a loft space in the roof. To get away from the chaos and make myself invisible. My experience of speaking out was to have reality denied, be mocked or sometimes hit or pushed. I am still, aged 44 in that
    hiding mindset and after breaking the pattern of abusive and narcissistic relationship that was formed out of having disordered parents. I live very much alone.
    I regularly fall into sadness, grief and hopelessness and desperately want to be loved by my family – who’ve in reality, been pretty awful! I’m in a constant bind with my mother of desperately wanting to be loved by her but feeling so profoundly unsafe and mistrusting that being around her makes me want to die. As this cycle has gone on it gets worse and worse and I’m constantly seeking resolution to free myself from the emotion. The resolution will never come.

    I have found female friendships have replicated versions of my mother time and time again. Always charismatic people who I then service and fawn after and offer far to much of myself. They’re often addicts/alcoholics or personality disordered and have some sort of need to be centre stage. I end up feeling like I’m not a person and disposable and worthless; just like I felt as a child. As a child I had to comfort my mother, had to give her massages on demand, listen to lots of her problems. When she was happy in her life I no longer felt visible or of any worth and she would brush me off and push me away. My dad would have violent outburst caused by massive stress where he would throw or smash things. My mum didn’t attend to our needs in any consistent way to the point I was neglected. I remember being able to see all my ribs and children at school asking if I was anorexic. I remember feeling woozy a lot.

    Intimate relationships I either end abruptly at the slightest sign of something not right as I’m scared, or they’ve been abusive. I’ve overcome the relationship patterns but the emotion is stuck forever it feels. I don’t experience life without feeling periods of overwhelming loneliness and anger and still want to resolve and be loved by my mother, who time and time again has proved herself to be unsafe.

    I don’t envisage myself ever having a long term intimate relationship. My home feels like the place I curl up in a ball and I don’t feel like I belong in the world during these relapse times.

    Understanding the root of these emotions is really helpful and will hopefully help me handle them better.

  • Jennifer L Nuwer says:

    Oh wow! I am so happy to find you. I just found a Counsler because I’ve been struggling, well all of my life. I grew up having anxiety and depression and didn’t come clear as to why until recently during a flashback and realized why i always find myself in abusive relationships. I’m pretty sure I have CPTSD. Both my parents were neglectful, dad very much so and i’m living with him after mom died and now I’m seeing so clearly. My first appointment with a counselor to deal with all this is another month away. I’m pretty sure i’m going to purchase your course, i’m interested in the meditations to help me recover

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