What is CPTSD?

CPTSD and Complex Trauma describe the psychological impact of repeated traumatic experiences over an extended period of time.

Complex PTSD is like regular Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, except…complex. Regular PTSD typically arises in response to one or a small number of distinct traumas. But in CPTSD the adult or, more frequently, child, is exposed to trauma over such a duration of time that they adapt and adjust to the experience of trauma.

For children this exposure to trauma coincides with key developmental milestones, the formation of attachment to caregivers (who may also be perpetrators or enablers of trauma and abuse), and the normal trajectory of becoming an independent person with a sense of self and healthy boundaries.

If a healthy adult were subject to an extended period of imprisonment, abuse, and torture, we would not be surprised to find them “a changed man” by the end of their ordeal. Likewise, children raised in dysfunctional, abusive, and unsafe environments are profoundly changed by their experience.

For a nuanced and in-depth introduction to CPTSD, click here.

being at the complete control of another person (often unable to meet their most basic needs without them), coupled with no foreseeable end in sight, can break down the psyche, the survivor’s sense of self, and affect them on this deeper level. For those who go through this as children, because the brain is still developing and they’re just beginning to learn who they are as an individual, understand the world around them, and build their first relationships – severe trauma interrupts the entire course of their psychologic and neurologic development.

CPTSD is a powerful and important paradigm for sufferers of long-term trauma, and it deserves to be more widely known and understood.

Body image and verbal abuse

One of the biggest obstacles to losing weight is a negative body image. Thinking – and feeling – badly about your own body discourages exercise and encourages escapist eating. It blocks the kinds of positive body images and ideals that inspire us to live differently and appreciate our physical form and enjoy healthy activities.

As a kid I had no thoughts about body weight or body image until about the age of ten.

At that point my father started mocking and ridiculing me, using body image as a theme of attack. I phrase it that way because I don’t know if I was in fact overweight at the time, but more importantly because verbal abuse is about power and control regardless of the theme.

Usually people say they were bullied or harassed “for being overweight” or “about my body”, but this gives too much credit to the perpetrator and implicitly blames the victim. Abusers don’t need any real or significant reason to attack others. The cause of the abuse is entirely in the perpetrator, not the victim.

Abuse is not “about” or “because of” the victim.

Why verbal abuse hurts

I’ve spent every day of my life since then feeling self-conscious of my body-image and how I might appear to others.

Why? Because my father’s ridicule and mockery taught me that my appearance was worthy of ridicule and mockery; and if he could see it, surely everyone else could see it too?

His words were couched as an over-the-top reaction to what he was seeing. I couldn’t see it, but his reaction was so extreme that I began to doubt my own perception and to worry what others might be thinking.

Worse still, expressing himself in such gleeful ridicule implied that these aspects of my appearance overshadowed any other qualities or value I might have. Even if someone does appear ridiculous to you, your reaction is naturally tempered by other factors: Love and care, respect, appreciation for their other qualities, natural human decency, or at the very least a concern that you yourself might look bad for indulging in mockery of another human being.

That’s why verbal abuse is potentially so hurtful. Shaming, humiliating, or degrading another human being in private or in public is an expression of power, worthiness, and standing within the relationship and beyond it.

For children this kind of abuse can be formative. It can set expectations for how others will treat them into the future, and how they can expect to be treated by the abuser going forward.

Abuse is not a reaction

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. In theory that may be true. But words are how we communicate our perceptions to others and to ourselves. It is very difficult for children to critically examine the words of a parent and loved-one who consistently uses words to undermine, sow doubt, intimidate and bully.

If words will never hurt me, why does our society have criminal and civil laws against hate-speech, defamation, and threats of violence? Words can cause harm, and the harm can last well after broken bones have healed.

To heal from formative experiences of verbal abuse it is important to recognise that abuse is not a reaction, even if it is presented as a reaction.

Verbal abuse comes from the abuser, and is designed to intimidate, undermine, and destabilise others. Whether fully conscious of it or not, the abuser is motivated by an inner need to feel in control, and one way of feeling in control is to elicit negative reactions from others.

It might be hard to imagine, but certain types of abuser will completely feign their emotional response. They want it to seem as if your appearance or behaviour has caused them to react. They want you to feel that their overreaction is proportional to a defect in you. They want to shame and humiliate you, and leave you focused on your own supposed defects and faults.

Reclaiming your self-image

Honestly it’s a little saddening to realise that my self-image was so significantly distorted by something that was never about me in the first place.

Even when I have been squarely in my healthy BMI range there’s just been something “off” about my appearance that I couldn’t put my finger on.

Now I know why. There was never anything wrong with my appearance to begin with, I just assumed there was some truth to the mockery and ridicule heaped on me by my father as a child.

Ever since, I’ve been looking for something that wasn’t there, keeping an eye out for whatever it was that elicited such a humiliating reaction in the first place.

And while I did gain (and lose) weight through my teenage years, by that stage my negative body image was entrenched with accompanying reluctance to exercise and escapism in overeating.

The good news is that attributing the blame where it belongs – squarely on the abuser – frees us to start afresh and consider the kind of body image and ideal that feels good to us, without the shadow of a nebulous fault or defect that we can’t seem to shake.

What we intrinsically want is a body that feels open, strong, relaxed, and free. That’s what a good physique communicates to us: an open posture, a relaxed and easy attitude, strength and freedom of movement and an overarching self-confidence.

What many of us seek through physical goals are the underlying feelings and attitudes and qualities of spirit that those pleasing body images embody and proclaim.

How hungry is your ideal body?

I’ve been doing a lot of work on body image and beliefs about food and exercise lately.

What I find most empowering is to focus on thoughts and beliefs and how they shape my reality.

For example, my motivation to follow my past approach to diet has been a bit lacking because back then I was inspired and curious to find out what it was like to be in my normal weight range.

Been there, done that. It was good but it didn’t resolve other body issues I had, it just showed they weren’t about weight but about perception and feeling and posture.

How I carry myself, how I feel in my body, how I perceive my body, and my beliefs about myself are all interrelated.

What I’ve noticed just recently is that I can now picture how I want my body to look. It’s a satisfying image that matches feelings of relief, openness, and self-confidence. It’s how I think I would look if I wasn’t weighed down by past experiences and inner critical thoughts.

Reaching for that image and feeling in my mind brings relief. It feels good. It’s like setting down a burden because I suddenly feel clear about who I am.

And surprisingly (or maybe not…) when I feel good as I imagine how my ideal body feels, I no longer have the impulse to eat.

Hence the title. I’m noticing that when I imagine being my ideal self, I feel good. And when I feel good like that, I don’t feel like snacking or overeating.

When I feel good like that I want to carry myself differently. My shoulders relax and drop, my chest opens up, my back engages, my abdomen relaxes and stretches. I feel more connected as various tensions leave my body.

The pleasure and relief of these feelings imply that when I usually snack and overeat I am trying to make up for the tension and displeasure of feeling uncomfortable and burdened in my own body.

Finding your innate happiness

We don’t experience reality directly. We translate it through the medium of our thoughts, beliefs, and expectations.

That’s why it’s so powerful to make peace with where we are – not in resignation, but in acceptance that this is our own temporary and malleable creation.

Pushing or pulling against aspects of our experience is futile. Giving attention to unwanted conditions keeps them active.

But if we accept how we feel within the reality we’ve created, we change how we relate to our own creative process. We become conscious of reality as an act of creative attention.

And since reality is an act of creative attention, the moment we think about changing it we give our attention to thoughts of dissatisfaction and need and pushing against our own creation.

The trick is to accept it as it is in the moment: an act of creative attention; and in that acceptance we let go of struggle and resistance to our own creation, and become aware of our intrinsic power.

In the absence of struggle and resistance, our deeper desires and preferences will naturally emerge. It’s like falling asleep. You can’t fall asleep by trying, all you can do is relax and put yourself in the best conditions for sleep to come.

Happiness is innate in all of us, and it is only obscured by our attention to unwanted thoughts and conditions, which mount and increase by our efforts to push against them.

Accepting this whole creative reality as it is right now allows our innate happiness to rise to the surface.

A brutally honest diet post

You can’t keep doing the same things and expect a different outcome.

You can’t eat the same amount of food, do the same amount of exercise, and expect to lose weight.

Why do I prefer milk in my coffee rather than black? Because of the taste.

I prefer the taste but I don’t prefer the byproduct of being overweight.

Everything I eat at the moment is about enjoyment. I’m eating food for the enjoyment of it. And while that sounds okay, I don’t like the byproduct of being overweight.

But the thought of eating less right now is terrifying. It feels like hard work and sacrifice, and for what? To be a few kilos lighter?

Am I really willing to sacrifice all that pleasure and enjoyment for the sake of such a minor aesthetic goal?

Of course not. Why the hell would I?

Not for minor weight loss, but for something more meaningful and more daunting: the realisation that the pleasure and enjoyment means so much to me.

I’m not against pleasure and enjoyment; I think life should be enjoyed. But honestly I’m disturbed by how much food means to me right now, and how fiercely I resisted the thought of going without.

Have I no other pleasure or happiness in life? Does food overshadow all other sources of enjoyment? Will my inner landscape be so bleak if I stop eating for pleasure?

Yeah, maybe.

There are other sources of enjoyment but I haven’t practiced enjoying them. That’s why food is so prominent for me. I’m a good cook, I buy good ingredients, I make sure it tastes great. And it’s so easy to enjoy what I’ve created.

I’m very good at making food that my family and I enjoy. So why not turn some of that skill, focus, and attention to other aspects of life?

Why not get good at enjoying other things? Why not practice finding pleasure and enjoyment elsewhere? I can make a tasty dinner out of random leftovers and ingredients in my fridge; can’t I make enjoyment out of the vast resources of my daily life?

It’s terrifying and daunting to think of cutting back on my enjoyment of food, but for that very reason it’s a clarifying moment and an opportunity to start finding enjoyment elsewhere, to start becoming someone who feels great being alive, regardless of how much I’m eating.

Relish the more subtle flavours and tastes of everyday life. Start choosing fresh, good quality ingredients. Blend them in new and interesting ways and give them time to cook to perfection.

Explore these underdeveloped senses of taste and smell. Appreciate the savour and the sweetness in each moment as if sampling a new cuisine.

I believe I can do it. I can turn my creativity and my appetite to new aspects of life. I can find the wanted aspects of every day and draw happiness and pleasure from them.

Eating less is not a sacrifice of pleasure. Abstaining from food gives space and time, an opportunity to truly appreciate the fullness of my experience.

Feeling good amidst the pandemic

An unexpected benefit of having been a depressed, anxiety-ridden person is that I’ve spent a lot of time learning how the human mind works and how (and why) to manage my own emotional state.

I’ve delved into various resources from religion and spirituality to philosophy and psychology searching for things that would help me find answers and feel better.

And while I can’t claim to be an enlightened Stoic master or a wizened Eastern sage, my familiarity with these various theories and traditions makes it a lot easier to deal with challenging circumstances such as the ongoing global pandemic.

For example, I get that people are afraid. But the worst thing that can happen to you is that you die, and that’s always been on the cards. In fact death is one of the few things in life we are all guaranteed to experience.

That’s why it’s been such a focal point of religious, spiritual and philosophical thought throughout human history.

People have always feared it, but they have also sought to understand it, make peace with it, and even use it to keep things in perspective, with a touch of memento mori.

If you accept that death is the worst thing that could happen, and yet it was always going to happen anyway, doesn’t that take some of the stress out of current circumstances?

If death is unavoidable should we even consider it such a bad thing? If death is going to happen anyway, I might as well not stress too much about it.

If death is inevitable, there’s no point succumbing to fear and anxiety about it. Not only is death inevitable, it’s clearly part of the plan.

Since death is inevitable the worst that can happen is I live in fear and anxiety over it. I can’t control death, but I can control how I feel about it.

I can control how I feel by choosing what I pay attention to, which trains of thought I encourage, and what information I contemplate.

In every moment I can choose what to think, and with practice I can change the overall tendency of my thoughts. The more you focus on thoughts that feel bad, the easier it will be to find bad-feeling thoughts.

The more you look for thoughts that feel good, the easier it is to find them.

It’s not as simple as looking at “the facts” either. Because we are the ones who determine what facts are relevant and admissible; and on a subconscious level we even filter and interpret our reality, “the facts”, according to our prior expectations.

That’s why it’s not enough to wait for things to improve before letting go of anxiety and fear. The choice to feel better needs to come first.

Have you ever had the experience of sharing good news with someone only to have them stubbornly persist in feeling bad?

In my city there are people who think they are living in a news report, who assume every person they meet has the virus, and that they might catch it by eating takeaway.

And it’s not possible to prove them wrong or convince them to feel better.

But it is possible for them to feel better, if they practice talking themselves into a better-feeling place.

What it takes is a commitment to feeling good, regardless of what “the facts” might be. It takes a degree of faith that there will always be reasons to feel good about life no matter what is going on. It takes a clarity of knowing that no matter where we stand, it is always better to feel good than to feel bad.

I decided for myself that I would feel good even if there was no evidence to support my feeling good. And once I made that decision, I began to find evidence that did support my optimism.

At the same time I stopped giving attention to news and media that I felt would encourage fear and pessimism. I don’t watch TV news. I don’t read articles saying how bad things are or how much worse they’ll get or how worried I should be.

Don’t agree when people make dire predictions or tell you how bad things seem to them. Also don’t try to convince them otherwise.

When you make a commitment to feeling good regardless of what the facts say, you allow yourself peace of mind and clarity, and then you are in the best position to find and interpret evidence that supports feeling good.

While feeling good I stumbled across information about mortality rates that showed the figures in some countries were likely to be drastically exaggerated.

Out of curiosity rather than fear, I started looking at the statistics in my own state and found that here in South Australia we had amongst the highest levels of testing per capita in the world, but with very low positive test results. These results strongly suggested that the virus was not being transmitted in the community, and that the authorities were doing a good job of capturing and containing any outbreaks.

I was discussing these statistics with friends back on the 28th March, and subsequent reports from SA Health have affirmed my conclusions, with one further cluster of cases quickly brought under control, numbers of new cases steadily declining, and zero new cases over the past three days despite a testing blitz targeting anyone with cold or flu symptoms.

But even so I’m not relying on this information to make me feel better. I’m choosing to feel better, and noticing facts and details that affirm the direction I’ve already chosen.

People are now catching on that the situation is not as bad as they feared in Australia and SA in particular. But some are still fearful and anxious, going beyond the necessary safeguards and firmly believing they’re surrounded by contagion.

And that fear and stress is unnecessary. We don’t have to feel anxious and fearful. We don’t have to feel bad. It’s just a matter of what we choose to focus on, and how we practice.

And you know what? It’s even okay that people are scared unnecessarily. Being afraid helps some people do the right thing. Some people need fear and calamity before they take their social obligations seriously. There’s good to be found even in instances of people refusing to find the good where they are.

Diet and exercise – the anxiety connection

The relationship between body weight and diet is physically simple yet psychologically complex.

What I mean by “physically simple” is that when we overeat regularly our bodies store excess energy as fat, and if we stop overeating our weight returns to normal.

But this simple relationship becomes complex because many of us eat for the rich and varied pleasures and distractions eating brings. What typically drives this search for pleasure and distraction is our underlying negative emotion.

So although we might wish we could lose weight, our actions are driven by a deeper desire to avoid and escape unpleasant feelings and the thoughts that prompt them.

When we try to modify our eating habits without acknowledging our underlying motivation to keep overeating, we experience inner conflict and struggle.

Where does exercise fit into this?

Once again it is physically simple – at least on paper. Exercise uses energy and the more energy we use the sooner we return to a normal weight (assuming we also stop overeating).

Parallel to weight loss is an improved physique. Most of us wanting to lose weight also want improvements in how we look and feel, and in our health and fitness. Weight loss through diet alone doesn’t necessarily improve these other facets of health and aesthetics.

So we are encouraged to hit the gym, go running or cycling, “get moving” to enhance our weight loss and also build our health and improve our appearance.

Physically simple. Psychologically, not so much. And here, at least for me, is the reason why:

Exercise is supposed to feel good. Moving your body is supposed to feel good.

But for as long as I can remember that hasn’t been the case for me.

Over the decades it’s gradually become clear that I am chronically tense as a result of anxiety and related problems. This tension causes fatigue as I attempt to go about my daily life while exerting unnecessary effort and internal resistance.

Tension arises from anxiety as part of the fight-or-flight response. Our muscles activate to prepare us to run away, or to stiffen up in response to physical attack.

Another layer of tension comes into play as we try to function normally despite this unpleasant fight-or-flight state. For example, anxiety may pull your body into a defensive, hunched posture. But feeling so defensive when there is no objective threat can make you self-conscious. And yet attempting to force a more “natural” posture only adds to the tension in your body.

Now imagine going for a walk or a run in that state. Imagine trying to lift weights in a crowded gym. Imagine trying to relax in a yoga class.

It’s not just about feeling tense and tired. It’s also about form. Good form is vital to effective exercise and physical activity that is sustainable and injury free.

But it can be very difficult to find and maintain correct form when various muscles in your body are activating in response to a state of anxiety and fear.

So what’s the answer?

As with dieting, the first step is to really accept that your mind and body are being pulled in different directions.

My ideal has been to find ways of achieving my goals without inner conflict. Inner conflict is inefficient, unpleasant, a waste of time and energy.

In my approach to dieting I essentially made peace with my conflicting desires and came to terms with the “hidden” motivations that turned dieting into a struggle.

I called my book “The Weight-Loss Paradox” because at the time making peace with my inner conflict meant that I stopped pushing against being overweight. I stopped trying. I stopped struggling.

But I did that with the deeper belief that there was a natural ideal that my body would align with, once I removed the sources of struggle and conflict.

When it comes to exercise the same dynamic is coming into focus. The fact that I don’t do “enough” exercise is not a problem to be solved or a failing to be overcome. Physical activity is meant to be enjoyable and natural. Pushing myself to exercise more doesn’t really make sense when, in an ideal world, I would naturally want to be active and I would find excuses to be more active.

And when we take into account my anxiety and physical tension it makes perfect sense why I do not spontaneously exercise more, or make good-feeling plans to be more physically active.

My body’s current state of being reflects a fight-or-flight response that overrides the natural enjoyment of physical activity. It’s an undiagnosed complaint of which physical inactivity is just a symptom. I’ve been told for years that my problem was not doing enough exercise; but that’s just a symptom or side-effect of the actual problem.

At rest I can actually feel the tension in my body, pulling me into a closed, defensive posture. Getting up to do exercise has no appeal because my body is preoccupied with this stressful and burdensome physical response.

I can’t immediately turn it off. I can’t simply relax right now. But I can at least stop adding to the pain and struggle by demanding I be physically active. I can stop beating myself up for not imitating other people’s lifestyles and exercise regimens and relaxed way of being.

And this is the path to de-escalating the fight-or-flight response and anxiety itself. Being okay with what’s going on in my body takes a whole lot of unnecessary stress out of the equation. Analogous to not beating yourself up for being overweight or for overeating…because whatever is going on within you did not happen overnight and is obviously not under your immediate conscious control.

Did rethinking dinner help?


In the previous post I questioned my habit of eating almost nothing until dinner, and accepted that there was an escapist motivation behind it.

Since then I’ve made a point of eating a bit more food earlier in the day, and taking some of the shine off the evening meal experience.

If dinner is just another mealtime and I’m not making a big deal of it, then I’m disrupting the habit of overeating and emotional dependence on food.

I can eat more in the morning and less at night, or less in the morning and more at night; it doesn’t really matter to me.

And in the end that’s what is really important to me: being able to eat what I genuinely want, when I want, and not out of escapism or compulsion.

The meaning of dinner

A big thank you to those who’ve bought a copy of my book recently. I wasn’t expecting it! I hope you find it helpful!


I didn’t want to do this, but it’s clear that my attitude to dinnertime is distorting my relationship with food.

It’s evident in my BMI that I’m still continuing to overeat. And if that wasn’t enough, my reluctance to examine my ritual of the evening meal indicates that there’s something going on.

Okay here goes.

As a parent and a husband I’ve poured my creative efforts into cooking delicious meals for my family. And both the preparation and especially the eating are a relief from daily burdens and boredoms.

There’s a kind of magic in setting out to cook. And there’s a delicious escape in sitting down to eat.

Last night I cooked pizza and switched off my brain to eat.

Tonight I’m cooking jiaozi dumplings, and my anticipation of their deliciousness is already taking me to a happier place in my mind.

The thought of depriving myself of that is painful. But using the principles developed in my book, that means I already feel pained and I’m relying on dinner to help me avoid facing it.

When I think of the food I’m going to cook tonight it gives me a sense of direction and purpose that is otherwise lacking. It’s a purpose and meaning firmly under my control, since I source the ingredients and do all the preparation. So it comes with a sense of efficacy too.

Purpose, direction, control, efficacy, and then enjoying the fruits of my labour.

The thought of cooking but not eating, or eating only what I need, brings feelings of resentment and discouragement to the surface.

I’ve imbued my evening meal with an equal and opposite emotional sway. I’ve practiced switching off once fork hits food. And so at dinner time I overeat, eating less throughout the day in anticipation of the nightly feast.

It’s not about the quantities per se, but the fact that I’m eating for reasons that override and distort my natural relationship with food. I’m letting the experience determine how much I eat and that makes it hard to stop when I’ve had enough.

Can I really cook those delicious jiaozi tonight and only eat as few as I need to keep going?

It’s not going to be easy, and I’ll probably not succeed this time around, but at least I’ll be mindful.

Mindful not just of how much I’m eating and why, but also of the negative emotion already there.

Because when I tune out of the negative emotion I’m feeling, I’m actually tuning out of myself and my life. I’m tuning out me, and that is the most disempowering thing I could do.

The answer lies instead in accepting how I feel, acknowledging that it’s okay to feel bad, if that’s how I feel (and I can’t stress this enough: get professional help for dealing with negative emotions and the experiences that caused them).

I’m learning to sit with negative emotions and not run away, not busy myself in efforts to escape them. I just breathe, feel, and remind myself it’s okay to feel this way and it won’t last forever.

As I learn to continue being myself in the midst of negative emotion, the emotional escapism tied to eating (or drinking, or any other compulsive/addictive behaviour) will soften and fade.

My jiaozi are delicious, but that’s not why I’ve been eating too many of them. My family dinners are delicious and rewarding, and in fact they will become more rewarding as I begin to enjoy them for what they are, and not use them as an escape from something else.

Tonight I will pay attention to how I feel as I cook and eat.

Changing your body

In my approach to diet I shift the focus from losing weight to repairing my relationship with food.

But there’s another factor that often goes unmentioned and that is changing our relationship with our bodies.

Part of my original motivation was to experience being lean, and being firmly within the normal BMI range.

I was very open-minded about what that could look and feel like. And I think this open-mindedness is often forgotten.

The way my body looks and feels right now is changeable. It’s not simply about losing fat by eating less, it’s about how I envisage myself in my embodied form.

Being overweight isn’t just about excess fat, it’s an aspect of my lived experience of my body.

Can I really imagine how it would feel for my body to change? Do I know what I’m aiming for? Do I recognise that I’m entering unknown territory that may change how I feel, how I carry myself, how I dress, and how I relate to others?

It’s a big deal. And it’s not just a matter for overweight people. Everyone carries a sense or multiple senses of how they live their embodied form, how others perceive them, and how they perceive themselves.

We are shaped by habits of thought and action that often proceed unconsciously. Most of us have never really imagined ourselves being shorter, taller, leaner, heavier, older or younger. To imagine it is to begin opening our mind to other ways of being.

And what is this diet about if not finding a way of being I enjoy more? I can’t be the same person but thinner. Likewise, I don’t want to live the same life but with less food. I want a change, and that has to start with an openness to possibilities and a conviction that something good awaits.