CPTSD Treatment Option: An Introduction to EMDR

CPTSD Foundation
6 min readNov 7, 2022

There is much interest mentioned lately on our platform of people wanting to know more about Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). This piece is devoted to exploring EMDR and how it can benefit someone living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD).

The Struggles of Someone Affected by Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder forms during repeated traumatic events such as childhood sexual or other abuse. The symptoms of CPTSD are life-altering and, if left untreated, can significantly limit the person who experiences it.

The symptoms of CPTSD include those of post-traumatic stress disorder plus others such as follows:

  • Feeling angry
  • Feeling distrustful of others and the world
  • Difficulty controlling emotions
  • Feeling empty
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Feeling damaged or worthless
  • Feeling different from other people
  • Avoiding friendships and other relationships
  • Finding, making, and maintaining relationships
  • Experiencing dissociative symptoms
  • Experiencing headaches, chest pain, dizziness, and tummy aches
  • Having suicidal ideations or actions

There are several psychotherapeutic approaches to the treatment of CPTSD, including EMDR.

What is EMDR?

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing is a form of psychotherapy enabling people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress that accompanies complex trauma.

Many therapists believe that EMDR actually shortens the length of time a person is in therapy. What once took years of intensive psychotherapy may take months.

EMDR goes on the premise that the mind can heal from psychological trauma like the body recovers from physical trauma. For example, when the body gets a foreign object in it, the wound festers and causes pain. Once the object is removed, the person’s wound heals.

Those practicing EMDR have found that a similar sequence occurs with wounds to the psyche. If the person’s mind is blocked or imbalanced by trauma, the emotional wound festers and causes emotional pain. Left untreated, the wound will not heal but remain open and bleeding. However, the wound begins to heal once the block is removed through EMDR treatment.

During a session, the therapist uses EMDR to help those with CPTSD to activate their mind’s natural healing processes.

Research Backing EMDR

Many research studies (more than 30) have been conducted to see if EMDR is an effective treatment for both single and multiple traumas. Some studies have shown that 85%-90% of single trauma victims heal and are no longer diagnosed with PTSD after three 90-minute EMDR sessions.

Yet another study completed by HMO Kaiser Permanente found that 100% of single-trauma survivors and 77% of multiple trauma victims were no longer diagnosed with PTSD after six 50-minute sessions (Shapiro, 2014).

There has been so much research on using EMDR treatment that it is now recognized by the American Psychiatric Association and the World Health Organization as an effective treatment for trauma.

It is easy to see that EMDR is recognized around the world as an effective treatment for memories that cause people to experience low self-esteem, feelings of powerlessness, and many other mental health problems related to relational trauma.

Millions of people have received EMDR treatment successfully over the past thirty years; it has been available and used by over 100,000 clinicians worldwide.

The Stages of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

Research reports that EMDR effectively treats CPTSD because the therapist employs treatment goals, procedures, and adaptations for each phase of treatment (Huss et al., 2015). The stages of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing treatment are stabilization, trauma processing, and reconnection/development of self-identity (Korn, 2009).

The therapist achieves these stages by employing eight different phases of treatment:

  • Phase 1: History-taking
  • Phase 2: Preparing the client
  • Phase 3: Assessing the target memory
  • Phases 4–7: Processing the memory to an adaptive resolution
  • Phase 8: Evaluating treatment results
  • (Shapiro, 2017)

Phase 1: History-taking. The therapist gets a complete history of their client and conducts an appropriate assessment so they can work together to identify targets for treatment, including targeting memories, triggers, and any future goals the client may have.

Phase 2. Preparing the client. The therapist explains the treatment and introduces the survivor to the procedures, practicing the eye movement component. The therapist helps their client to practice affect management, leading them through the safe/calm place exercise.

Phase 3: Assessing the target memory. This phase of EMDR treatment activates the memory that is being targeted by identifying and assessing each of the memory components: image, cognition, affect, and body sensations.

Phases 4–7: Processing the memory to an adaptive solution. In this phase, the client focuses on a memory while engaging in eye movements led by the therapist. The survivor reports if new thoughts have emerged. The therapist uses standardized procedures to determine the focus of each set of eye movement treatments. If necessary, the process is continued in more sessions until the client reports that the memory is no longer distressing.

Phase 8: Evaluating treatment results. If the targeted memory was not fully resolved in the session, instructions, and techniques to remain safe and to provide containment until the next session are discussed. Each session ends and begins with a reevaluation of how effective EMDR is for the survivor, what memories may have emerged since the last session, and what works for the client.

Processing a specific memory can be completed in one to three sessions. EMDR does not expose the person receiving treatment to distressing memories or detailed descriptions of the traumatic event.

Ending Our Time Together

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing have been used successfully for over thirty years to successfully treat those who have experienced both single and multiple traumatic events.

This form of psychotherapy is safe and effective when done by an adequately trained mental health professional. The client sits with their therapist and is led through an eye movement exercise while thinking about the traumatic event chosen for work at the beginning of the session. Afterward, the effectiveness of the process is evaluated to see if the therapist can do anything different in the next session.

Sometimes, EMDR is used in conjunction with regular psychotherapy to enhance the ability of the survivor to process the memories and bodily sensations they may have felt during the session.

One provider who offers EMDR is Annie Wright. In future posts, we shall examine Annie Wright and her important work treating clients who have survived multiple traumas and formed complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

“She could never go back and make some of the details pretty. All she could do was move forward and make the whole beautiful.” Terri St. Cloud


Hase, M., Balmaceda, U. M., Hase, A., Lehnung, M., Tumani, V., Huchzermeier, C., & Hofmann, A. (2015). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy in the treatment of depression: a matched pairs study in an inpatient setting. Brain and Behavior, 5(6), e00342.

Korn, D. L. (2009). EMDR and the treatment of complex PTSD: A review. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 3(4), 264–278.

Shapiro, F. (2014). The role of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy in medicine: addressing the psychological and physical symptoms stemming from adverse life experiences. The Permanente Journal, 18(1), 71.

Shapiro, F. (2017). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy: Basic principles, protocols, and procedures. Guilford Publications.

Originally published at https://cptsdfoundation.org.



CPTSD Foundation

Successfully equipping complex trauma survivors and practitioners with compassionate support, skills, and trauma-informed education since 2014.