Complex PTSD treatment comes with specific challenges compared to those who have PTSD. PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can develop after a person experiences a traumatic event, while complex PTSD occurs after a series of traumatic events. This post will go over how we use EMDR for complex PTSD treatment.

What is Complex PTSD?

PTSD is usually related to a single event, while complex PTSD is related to a series of events or prolonged events. Some examples of complex PTSD are:

People with complex PTSD may experience difficulties with relationships. They tend to avoid others and may feel a lack of connection to others. 


Symptoms of Complex PTSD

A person with complex PTSD may experience symptoms related to their condition that are similar to PTSD. These symptoms include:

  • Relationship issues
  • Flashbacks and nightmares
  • Hyperarousal, or being in a state of high alert
  • Loss of trust in oneself or others
  • Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
  • Being startled by loud noises
  • Issues with emotional regulation
  • Detachment from the trauma

Aside from these symptoms, people with complex PTSD might also engage in behaviors related to their trauma. Examples of these behaviors include:

  • Abusing alcohol or drugs
  • Becoming “people-pleasers”
  • Lashing out at minor criticisms
  • Self-Harm

Engaging in these behaviors develops as a way to cope with the trauma and emotional pain. Once the trauma has passed, a person may rely on these behaviors whenever they feel emotional distress. A person with complex PTSD can learn to replace these behaviors with more positive and constructive ones.

EMDR for Complex PTSD

Treatment for complex PTSD can vary, and not every method will work for every person. The therapist will focus on stabilizing the person so they can address their feelings surrounding the trauma. The most common option is a combination of talk therapy and medication. Another method that is being used more often in therapy is EMDR

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. EMDR helps people with complex PTSD process traumatic memories. When effective, this process helps to desensitize the person to the trauma to recall the memory without strong adverse reactions to it eventually. The therapy was developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro in 1989 when she noted that tracking eye movements reduced distress levels. Over time, she discovered that it was not the eye movements themselves that were important, but the effect that the moment had on the brain.

This effect is known as bilateral stimulation, where each lobe of the brain is stimulated in a rhythmic pattern. The same result can be achieved with hand tapping or auditory cues in headphones. The therapy is used to treat Post Traumatic Stress disorder by helping the client process a traumatic event. The current theory is that the eye moments imitate what occurs during REM sleep – a time in which we process information and consolidate memory.

EMDR Therapy Process

An EMDR for complex PTSD session involves entering a calm space with a therapist. The therapist will ask you to focus on one memory you have previously agreed to process. Then the therapist will have you track their hand with your eyes while the rest of your body stays still. There isn’t much talking, and all the processing happens inside your head. Many of our clients have had transformative experiences during EMDR sessions. They report:

  • Less anxiety related to the traumatic event
  • Reduced stress response when thinking about the traumatic event
  • A new prospected on the traumatic event
  • Positive feelings associated with having processed the traumatic event


Complex PTSD treatment starts with understanding how it is different than PTSD. Complex PTSD is the result of a series of trauma rather than one event. Symptoms of complex PTSD can range from flashbacks or nightmares to difficulty sleeping, and emotional regulation issues. People with complex PTSD might choose to try out talk therapy, medication, or EMDR as a way to process the trauma and heal.

Family Strategies Counseling & Mediation is a therapy office serving the Chicagoland Area. We offer couples counseling and mental health services. Our therapists are skilled at working with those who have suffered traumatic experiences. Give our office a call at (708) 798-5433 or email us at for appointment details.