Seasonal Affective Disorder, Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Complex Relational Trauma

I wrote this article for another site, CPTSD Foundation, that focuses primarily on CPTSD, but I thought it appropriate to share it here on my site as well. We who have dissociative identity disorder often also suffer from seasonal affective disorder as a result of the complex relational trauma we experienced as kids. I’ll be posting all four pieces from this series in the hope that I can ease someone’s suffering this holiday season.


Seasonal Affective Disorder, Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Complex Relational Trauma

Everyone experiences some version of the winter blues when they are caught inside and unable to move about as much as they would like because of the cold and snow. But some people experience a type of major depression that affects them in the fall and winter called seasonal affective disorder which is highly impairing and disruptive to their lives.

What is this strange form of depression and how does it relate to other forms of mental health problems?

This article will focus on answering these questions about the relationships between seasonal affective disorder (SAD), complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD), and complex relational trauma.

What is SAD?



To be clear from the start, many who suffer from SAD have not experienced complex relational trauma, so it is unwise to say that SAD is a trauma-related disorder. Indeed, SAD is thought to have physical causes, not traumatic ones.

Seasonal affective disorder is a form of major depression that affects about 10 million Americans, with another 10-20% having a milder form. SAD is four times more common in women than men.

SAD occurs not only in winter, as it can also form in the summer, but that is much rarer.

The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder in winter are:

  • Tendency to oversleep
  • Weight gain
  • A drop in energy levels
  • Feelings of hopelessness and sadness
  • Decreased physical activity
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Avoidance of social situations
  • Suicidal thoughts or actions

The symptoms of SAD in summer are slightly different:

  • Weight loss
  • Insomnia
  • Poor appetite
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety

No matter when people are affected by SAD, they are critically ill and should take their condition seriously.

What is Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?



Complex post-traumatic stress disorder forms in response to chronic traumatization through long-term emotional, physical, and sexual abuses, domestic violence, being held captive, living in a war zone, and more negative experiences.

While there are exceptions, it is children who are most likely to form CPTSD because they are more vulnerable and totally reliant on their caregivers to meet their most basic needs for life. When these needs are not met and there is no foreseeable escape in sight, the psyche can break down and the survivor’s sense of self and safety is affected deeply.

Because these children’s brains are still developing, severe trauma interrupts the course of their psychological development.

CPTSD differs from PTSD in several ways, including the fact that it forms because of repeated incidences of trauma and its symptoms, which include the following.

  • Losing memories of trauma or reliving them
  • Difficulty regulating emotions that often manifest as rage
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts or actions
  • Sudden mood swings
  • Feeling detached from oneself
  • Feeling different from others
  • Feeling ashamed
  • Feeling guilty
  • Difficulty maintaining relationships
  • Difficulty trusting others
  • Seeking or becoming a rescuer
  • Feeling afraid for no obvious reason
  • Having a feeling of being always on the alert
  • Becoming obsessed with revenge on the perpetrator
  • Feeling a loss of spiritual attachment and either ignoring or depending upon religion for self-worth

As with the symptoms of SAD, these symptoms are severe and will need professional treatment.

What is Complex Relational Trauma?



Complex relational trauma is not found currently in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th edition (DSM-5), so it is not an official diagnosable problem. Complex relational trauma is often interchanged with the terms complex post-traumatic stress disorder and developmental trauma.

CPTSD and complex relational trauma overlap so much as to be almost the same thing.

Complex relational trauma is trauma that occurs in primary relationships with parents, caregivers, guardians, and anyone who is in power over us. There is always a level of someone having power over the other for this type of abuse to occur. Complex relational trauma occurs more than once and is usually over an extended length of time.

In fact, complex relational trauma need not end in childhood but can continue on into adulthood through different perpetrators, such as leaving an abusive father’s home only to marry and live with an abusive husband.

To make it simple, complex relational trauma is any treatment from someone you look up to that is demeaning, erodes your dignity, destroys your feeling of safety, and hampers your developing a sense of well-being.

What is the Connection Between the Three?



The connections between the three conditions, SAD, CPTSD, and complex relational trauma are hazy even for mental health professionals and researchers. However, let us examine the three together and see what we come up with.

The term complex post-traumatic stress disorder is often translated as complex relational trauma and vice versa.

Seasonal affective disorder, a form of major depression, is caused and exacerbated by complex relational trauma.

Remembering that not everyone who suffers from SAD has experienced complex trauma in their lives, it is fairly clear, to this author at least, that people who experience seasonal affective disorder have experienced child abuse in their past that has altered their brain and psychological developments.

It is important to note that neither seasonal affective disorder nor complex relational disorder is in the DSM-5, but they change the lives of millions in the United States every year.

Pulling It All Together


Seasonal affective disorder is not an unusual illness, with millions suffering from its effects every year. SAD is disruptive and, sometimes, disabling.

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder is a disorder formed from repeated and severe abuse with entrapment where the child feels there is no escape.

Complex relational trauma involves someone of higher power abusing someone of lesser power as in a parent/child relationship, but is not confined to that relationship alone.

This article’s primary focus was to inform its readers about the connections between SAD, CPTSD, and complex relational trauma. In future posts, we shall examine together with other causes of seasonal affective disorder and why so many of us feel so lousy during the holidays.

Try to love and live the question itself. Don’t search for the answer. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

When you follow your bliss… doors will open where you would not have thought there would be doors; and where there wouldn’t be a door for anyone else.

~ Joseph Campbell

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