Treatment methods for complex trauma: EMDR 

In the 1980s, the American literary scholar and psychologist Dr. Francine Shapiro developed a method for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. The effectiveness of the method was initially controversial, but has since been proven in a large number of studies and is now also used to treat complex trauma. You can find out exactly what this looks like and what other treatment options are available here.


EDMR – what is it actually?

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing and can roughly be translated as desensitization and processing through eye movement. The method is one of the so-called evidence-based procedures and can be used with adults as well as children and adolescents. Even if EMDR has its origins in psycho-trauma therapy, the process is now also used in other areas of psychotherapy.

Everyone has an innate ability to process information, with which stressful experiences can also be processed. It is precisely this knowledge that forms the basis of EMDR, which aims to process the stressful memories in retrospect and to develop positive cognitive and emotional behavior patterns. Ideally, therapy can achieve greater autonomy for those affected and self-acceptance.

How does the treatment work?

In concrete terms, the EMDR method works with guided eye movements, which are also known as bilateral stimulation. In doing so, therapists indicate the direction with hand movements alternately to the right and to the left. The patients follow the movement with their eyes and thus come into a movement pattern similar to REM sleep.

The REM phase is a phase of sleep that is characterized by rapid eye movements and increased brain activity. In this sleep phase, most of the dreams also take place and the experiences of the day are processed. This artificial sleep simulation supports the brain in activating its own self-healing powers and in processing the traumatic experiences.

Some therapists: instead of the classic eye movement, rely on sounds or touches on the back of the hand. The exact details depend on the person providing treatment and should be discussed at the beginning of therapy.

Overview of EDMR

● treats post-traumatic stress disorder and complex trauma

● Treatment of children, adolescents and adults

● Eye movements simulate REM sleep phase

● Processing of traumatic experiences

Other methods of trauma therapy

A prerequisite for a successful trauma processing is a previous stabilization. This means that those affected are placed in a situation of security in which they are open to therapy in the first place. If there is currently a psychotic experience of reality or if the person concerned has suicidal thoughts, trauma cannot be dealt with.

As an alternative or in addition to the EMDR method, there are other techniques that are used to treat complex trauma. Trauma-specific psychotherapy uses various methods to treat complex trauma. First of all, there is the psychological debriefing, which is usually a one-off intervention. She addresses the experiences immediately after the stressful situation and tries to process them. This is to prevent trauma from occurring.

If trauma is already present, cognitive-behavioral therapy elements and psychodynamic-imaginative therapy methods can be used in addition to EMDR. The processing of the trauma through eye movements is thus supplemented by further elements. Specifically, these can be techniques of coping with fear and / or confronting stimuli that have been avoided so far (“triggers”), but also reliving the trauma in the imagination.

There are also various pharmacotherapeutic strategies that can be part of trauma therapy. For example, antidepressants, seretonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) or MAO inhibitors are used.


Roestel & Kersting: Simple and Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders. (2008).