Complex PTSD Diagnosis is No Joke for Actress Kathy Griffin

by Staff Writer
April 24, 2023 at 2:05 PM UTC

Actress KAthy Griffin goes public with her diagnosis of complex PTSD.

Clinical Relevance: Survivors of multiple or long-term trauma may develop complex PTSD

  • Actress Kathy Griffin announced on TikTok that she has been diagnosed with a condition known as complex PTSD (c-PTSD).
  • Complex PTSD has the same symptoms as PTSD with additional issues such as difficulty controlling emotions, a tendency to dissociate, and difficulty trusting others.
  • There are typically three steps involved in treatment: safety, stabilization, rebuilding.
  • c-PTSD is listed in the ICD-11, but not in the DSM-5.

Actress Kathy Griffin says she has been diagnosed with “complex PTSD.” 

She revealed her diagnosis, which she claimed was confirmed by MRI, on TikTok last week. 

“Let’s talk about PTSD. Never talked about it publicly,” her viral video began. “You can laugh or whatever, but I’ve been diagnosed with complex PTSD, and it’s called an extreme case.”

Complex PTSD Explained

Someone who is diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, has lived through a disturbing experience that triggers intense thoughts and feelings. They avoid similar upsetting situations. Ordinary occurrences like a loud noise or an accidental touch can trigger a flashback. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5 for short, clearly outlines all of these symptoms.

“Exposure to severe and repeated traumas of an horrific nature rather than one specific event without a prior exposure, makes it more likely for someone to be diagnosed with complex PTSD [c-PTSD],” clinical psychologist, Maria Espinola, told

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According to Espinola, c-PTSD is not included in the DSM. However, it is included in the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases, known as the ICD-11.

Griffin did not explicitly state what she believed caused her condition. However, she hinted that it began more than five years ago after she was slammed on social media for posting a violent image involving a former president. She has also recently undergone treatment for lung cancer.

Additional Symptoms

“The events that could potentially lead a person to develop complex PTSD include severe and prolonged childhood abuse, torture, slavery, genocide campaigns, and other forms of organized violence,” said Espinola, who is the CEO of the Institute of Health Equity and Innovation.

“Personally, as a psychologist, I see it often among people seeking asylum, and among survivors of childhood abuse, domestic violence and human trafficking.”

Espinola stressed that she has not examined Griffin. Therefore, she would not presume to diagnose her. She said the symptoms of c-PTSD include the main features of PTSD plus a constellation of other concerning thoughts and behaviors, such as difficulty controlling emotions (e.g. angry outbursts), negative self-image (e.g. feeling worthless), and persistent interpersonal difficulties (e.g. inability to trust others).

Griffin described having a panic attack one in another TikTok video . The ICD-11 does not include “panic attacks” under the list of c-PTSD symptoms. However, it is possible for someone who has the condition to also experience panic attacks. Griffin described one in another TikTok video.

“I had a freaking eight-hour attack yesterday. Eight hours of freaking writhing in pain in the bed. I felt like one might be coming on, so I started to feel a little iffy…”.

“It hits me in my chest first, like my chest starts to tingle. Then it goes right to my stomach,” she said in the video.

“Many of the people I see with c-PTSD describe feeling constantly on edge and unable to fully relax. Some of them have a history of emotional outbursts and self-destructive behavior,” Espinola explained. “They may have intrusive memories and try to avoid any reminders of their trauma.
Espinola added that survivors with c-PTSD commonly experience emotional numbness in response to continuing stress.”

“Trauma survivors who were unable to escape their abusers for long periods of time often develop symptoms of dissociation,” she added. “So children, for instance, since they are too small to escape or defend themselves from an attacker, they have to remain in that situation. Because they cannot escape physically, they escape mentally, they mentally disconnect from reality. Escaping mentally while the abuse is taking place is a coping mechanism. After the abuse ends, mentally disconnecting from reality becomes a symptom that can impair their ability to function at school, at work, and in relationships.”

c-PTSD Treatment

Clinicians treat c-PTSD in three phases, Espinola explained.

The first step focuses on increasing patient’s safety and helping the patient develop skills to manage symptoms.

“At the beginning of treatment, many survivors have suicidal ideation or behaviors that could be risky or dangerous,” she said. “You want to address those right away.” Dialectical behavior therapy is often recommended for this initial phase.

The second phase of treatment can involve trauma processing. This can be accomplished through prolonged exposure therapy. Other treatments for PTSD include cognitive processing therapy and trauma-focused CBT.

Espinola said that the final phase of treatment focuses on finding meaning. “Once you are able to manage the symptoms, you can address what you want to do moving forward. How do you find meaning in your life? That is what we work on,” she said.

She added that it is sometimes possible to skip right from phase one to phase three for some patients and researchers disagree on whether trauma-focused treatments developed for PTSD should be used for individuals who have c-PTSD.

According to Espinola, psychiatrist Judith Herman who introduced the concept of c-PTSD originally proposed the phase-based model for the treatment of Complex PTSD in 1992. The approach has been endorsed by a large number of researchers and clinicians since then. Phase-based models focus on increasing patient safety and improving patient ability to regulate emotions and social skills before exploring the patients’ trauma history.

Griffin has said she is in intensive therapy to work through her symptoms. Still, she asked followers for recommendations on how to cope with bouts of anxiety and depression. She said she planned to take up her followers advice to walk more, meditate, and “live in the moment.”


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