How Complex PTSD is Adversely Affecting Your Financial Well-Being

Nov 30, 2023
A young girl cowering on a couch with her knees against her chest

 You may not want to read this — and I understand. 

You may be thrilled to read this — and I understand.

You may have mixed feelings about reading this — and I understand.


Reading about and working through childhood trauma is not easy, but it can be incredibly powerful and liberating in the long run. 


I invite you to stop and check in with yourself as you prepare to read this blog post. What do you notice happening in your mind and body? What is it like for you to draw attention to these parts of your personhood?


I can feel a dizzying spin in my head and discomfort rise in my stomach as I reflect on the role of trauma and its impact on my life. 


The uncomfortable truth is that our childhood traumas are often linked to our financial lives. These wounds can manifest themselves in seemingly unrelated ways, which can be confusing to experience and difficult to correct without further context. 


By exploring the connection between our experiences, minds, and bodies, we can discover that many of our interpersonal and financial issues have a common source. Healing the underlying trauma can enhance multiple elements of our lives and relationships. 


So let’s unravel how our childhood experiences are connected to our financial wellness.


What is Complex PTSD?

Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) is the accumulated experience of multiple different types of trauma throughout childhood and into adulthood. These traumas range from emotional abuse and neglect to childhood sexual abuse. One of the most famous studies on this topic is the Adverse Childhood Experiences study which initially identified 10 types of childhood trauma. There are more types of childhood trauma not identified in this study, but this is a good starting point. 


The language we use to describe what is happening to us matters. Over my years of studying mental health and working with my clients on relational and financial well-being, I have come to appreciate how validating having a term for C-PTSD can be. It shifts the perspective from what’s wrong with you to what happened to you.


It would be wonderful if all our mental and relational health conditions had simple and straightforward explanations, but few do. 


The science and philosophy supporting my understanding of C-PTSD is based in the field of interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB). The wisdom of IPNC helps us acknowledge that what happens to us in childhood has a profound impact on many areas of major human growth and development, including the organization and regulation of our minds, the anatomical structure of our brains, the regulation of major body organs and systems, and the ability to engage in and feel secure in relationships. 


Experiences of C-PTSD starve and interrupt our abilities to grow up in the developmental (childhood) environments we need to become wise, reflective, relational adults who can experience flourishing mental and relational well-being. 

How C-PTSD Impacts Our Minds, Brains, Bodies, and Relationships

There are many different psychological processes happening inside us. The better we get at naming these different parts of our mind, the more we come to appreciate how each can become injured or impaired, and the more we can find ways to move toward restoration. 


Let’s keep it simple for this blog post and say our minds give rise to our sense of self, thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and sense of time. As children experience trauma, each area of the mind makes adjustments and appraisals of what is happening. The child does not realize that their mind is doing this on their behalf, but it is. 


To complicate things further, the brain has different anatomical structures that coordinate with the different functions of the mind. The brain grows and develops to adjust to its specific environment. The connections between the two hemispheres of the brain can be impaired through childhood trauma, as can the different vertical sections of the brain. To put it another way, trauma affects how the brain grows.


Our bodies are where we live our lives. As we are all aware, we have many internal organs and a skeletal system that are adapted to help us navigate our environment. Although we can’t see these elements, it is through these parts of our internal physical body that we experience the environment. The same holds true for the different parts of our minds.


The relationships we have in childhood have a profound effect on our development. The memories of those experiences, whether consciously or unconsciously remembered, lay integrated into the neural networks of our brains and the reactions of our nervous systems. 


So while we differentiate the many parts of being human, remember that each part is connected to the others — sometimes in obvious ways, and sometimes in ways science is still trying to explain. 

What Happens When Adults with C-PTSD Look at Their Finances

As a Therapy-Informed Financial Planner, I get the privilege of working with adults who have C-PTSD in their background. Some of these adults know this and are actively working on it. Others are just becoming aware that childhood trauma is impacting their financial lives. 


There are common themes and patterns I see among adults with C-PTSD and their financial lives:


  1. Emotional dysregulation — under- or overreaction to the situation (also referred to as hyperarousal or hypoarousal) 
  2. Stress responses to problems or conflicts about money — fight, flight, freeze, or fawn
  3. Mistrust of intimate partners — extending to financial mistrust
  4. Glossing over important parts of their financial lives
  5. Becoming fixated on certain elements of their personal finances


The process of looking at our finances can be very activating or numbing when we live with C-PTSD. Recent research shows a strong relationship between adverse childhood experiences and financial security. Our financial situation is seldom experienced as neutral, but rather as full of information about our sense of self, safety, security, and connectedness. It remains difficult to reflect on our financial reality; rather, we become reactive. 

Why Healing From Complex PTSD is Essential to Your Financial Well-Being

As adults, we have more agency over our development and environment than we do as children. The challenge is that we may not feel like we have much choice about our lives or the ways our bodies respond to our environments when we bring forward C-PTSD from childhood. 


There are many levels and layers to healing from C-PTSD. Most people who have been working at this for years recognize there are no magical cures, no one-size-fits-all path to wellness. Rather, there are themes and seasons of mending. The focus on healing expands and deepens as people go on and stay on their healing journey from C-PTSD. 


Some of the major areas of work tie back to our sense of self, thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and relationships. When we work on healing one part of our humanity, another part can start to show that it needs healing as well. In time, we come to appreciate the complexity and subtlety of the restorative journey. It can become its own self-perpetuating process in that the healing promotes more healing as we peel back subsequent layers. 


We have to practice and integrate our new abilities to extend the healing into our financial lives. That might look like being able to log into your bank account and see the financial information while maintaining a positive sense of self, clear thinking, and perspective. Or perhaps it is reflecting on your net worth statement and what that information means for your financial life now and in the future. 


Your healing can influence the way you approach investing, insurance, taxes, and estate planning. Each of these major areas of your financial life is touched by your experiences of C-PTSD. 

How You Can Navigate Complex PTSD and Financial Well-Being As a Couple

If you are in an intimate relationship, it’s even more important to become informed about your own C-PTSD experiences and those of your partner. It’s unlikely that one of you had C-PTSD experiences but the other did not. 


Getting curious and compassionate towards your childhoods and the ways they have shaped you is part of your healing journey as a couple. It is not an easy road ahead, but there will be opportunities to grow and reinvent yourselves, leading to a deeper and more meaningful relationship in the long run. 


Let’s find a time to talk about how Therapy-Informed Financial Planning can help you. You can schedule a time slot here


With Regards,

Ed Coambs - 



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