How EMDR Addresses Complicated Trauma


Quite often, the general perception of trauma involves a single incident. In many cases, this can be accurate. But complicated or complex trauma is a reality, too. Some people go through a relentless barrage of traumas. These ongoing abuses may, for example, be related to trafficking, living in a war zone, childhood abuse, being in a cult, and more. Those who have endured such experiences frequently struggle with Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD).

For typical PTSD, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) has proven to be a very effective treatment. Fortunately, EMDR has also garnered excellent results when aimed toward C-PTSD. Let’s find out more.

How EMDR Works For Trauma

Since traumatic memories are stored as unprocessed fragments, the person is often left susceptible to intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, nightmares, etc. EMDR uses finger movements or tapping from the therapist and eye movements from the client to create bilateral stimulation, a key element of EMDR. Other therapists may use buzzers or a light bar to create the bilateral effect. EMDR therapy induces a state very similar to that of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. In this state, your mind is better able to resolve negative memories and replace them with positive prompts and thoughts.

This short-term (six to 12 sessions) treatment takes place over eight phases:

History taking





Body scan



The same eight phases remain in place for complex trauma but, as you’re about to see, with some critical adjustments.

How EMDR Addresses Complicated Trauma

Due to the prolonged characteristic of complex trauma, a person may experience:

Emotional Dysregulation: An inability to manage your emotional responses. This includes what looks like an inappropriate reaction and a disproportionate reaction.

Dissociation: A disconnect between the sensations you are experiencing and how you perceive them. You are physically present but emotionally detached.

Such a combination can create blockages when the person is attempting to resolve trauma through a treatment like EMDR. Simple, single-event incidences of trauma adapt more quickly to EMDR’s prompts. The brain flows naturally toward resolution.

With something like C-PTSD, more time must be spent on the above-mentioned first three phases. History taking, preparation, and assessment are absolutely crucial to the treatment’s success. Your therapist will slowly introduce the desensitization to ensure that the client is best positioned in terms of personal tolerance and ability to process.

To put things as simply as possible, it only makes sense that an immense amount of trauma will take more work and more time to resolve than a single-event scenario. Complicated trauma can result from abuses that lasted for many, many years. EMDR is an effective choice for addressing such pain, but your therapist will have to shift the pace from person to person. This frequently involves teaching tools and skills like grounding, self-soothing, and dual attention.

Dual Attention

EMDR is designed to revisit traumatic memories while in a different, detached state of mind. If the client is subject to dissociative episodes, this is tricky. You want the person to be safely grounded in the present while witnessing the past. This is the heart of dual attention. Without proper adaptations to the first three EMDR phases, the client is at risk of only reliving the pain—rather than exploring and resolving it.

People with C-PTSD are urged to only connect with an EMDR therapist with the expertise and experience to identify and implement the needed adjustments. This blend of mindfulness and resolution is powerful and effective with the right support.

Reach Out for Support

You certainly can recover from the pain of complicated trauma, and EMDR is an excellent option. To learn more about this choice, reach out to our office today with questions. Let’s discuss your situation during a free and confidential consultation, and get you booked with an EMDR therapist.