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Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other conditions including grief, depression, and anxiety.
During EMDR therapy, you focus on traumatic memories while executing side-to-side eye movements. The intention is to change how memories are stored in your mind, which reduces or eliminates symptoms caused by recalling them.
While research on EMDR typically involves small numbers of people and sometimes poor methods, there is evidence that it can alleviate or eradicate PTSD triggers and other stresses––including phobias and addictions.
What is EMDR therapy?
This type of therapy involves moving your eyes in sync with a back-and-forth movement or sound––perhaps a therapist’s finger or beeps in a headphone. At the same time, you think about a bad memory (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs n.d.).
The therapy was conceived in 1987 by Francine Shapiro, who is said to have had an epiphany that eye movements seemed to decrease bad thoughts, perhaps by somehow desensitizing the mind to distressing memories.
Shapiro figured such a technique might help with treating PTSD. She subsequently founded the EMDR Institute, giving definition to the therapy and conducting its early studies (EMDR Institute, n.d.).
PTSD can develop in people who experience great shock, danger, or other trauma. An example is soldiers in the military or having a traumatic experience like losing a loved one.
Lingering bad memories can cause one to feel frightened or threatened via flashbacks or bad dreams––even when there’s no longer any immediate threat. People with PTSD often avoid places, experiences, and thoughts that remind them of the trauma.
A diagnosis can be made if symptoms persist for more than a month and are severe enough to interfere with relationships or work (National Institute of Mental Health, 2017).
EMDR therapy has been used to complement other treatments for conditions beyond PTSD including excessive grief, depression, anxiety, addiction, and phobias (EMDR Institute, n.d.). Some therapists have used the technique for sexual dysfunction, schizophrenia, and eating disorders (Arkowitz, 2012).
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How does EMDR therapy work?
Proponents of EMDR say it heals the mind from psychological trauma, like how the body heals a physical wound.
EMDR is said to remove a mental block related to an emotional wound rather than letting it fester, promoting the mind’s natural tendency to heal.
Various psychological hypotheses have been put forth about how the eye movements might create a diversion from bad memories or somehow make threats seem benign, but none have been proved (EMDR Institute, n.d.).
If you seek treatment, an EMDR therapist will first discuss your trauma and how you react emotionally and physically to it. Here’s an overview of the rest of the process (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs n.d.; EMDR Institute, n.d.):
- You’ll identify the upsetting memory or negative feelings you want to target, as well as a positive belief.
- Your therapist will teach you some stress coping skills to use during and between sessions.
- You’ll focus on that memory or feeling while also shifting your eyes to follow an object or sound that moves back and forth.
- After 30 seconds, you’ll discuss how you feel and then repeat the process.
- Once the memory is no longer distressing, your therapist will ask you to think about your positive belief.
- You’ll be asked to keep a log between sessions to jot down any thoughts related to the therapy.
Treatments are done on an individual basis and typically run for 50-90 minutes. Typically you take the therapy once or twice a week for up to a dozen sessions. Positive results are often seen after initial sessions (American Psychological Association, 2017; U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs n.d.).
Is EMDR effective?
You can find scientific arguments for and against the effectiveness of EDMR therapy.
Regardless of what underlying mechanism EDMR triggers, it’s been shown to have positive effects in multiple studies (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs n.d.).
The American Psychological Association lists four strongly recommended methods of psychotherapy to treat PTSD––all variations of cognitive behavioral therapy. EMDR is included in a list of “conditionally recommended” psychotherapies, meaning evidence isn’t strong and additional research is needed (American Psychological Association, 2021).
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With that caveat in mind, here is some of the supporting evidence for EMDR.
Most reviews say it’s an effective treatment for PTSD. A review of 40 studies involving 4,761 participants found EMDR and cognitive behavioral therapy to be more effective than other PTSD therapies. However, it’s important to keep in mind these studies were of low quality or involved small numbers of participants (Bisson, 2013).
Other researchers concluded that treating acute stress disorders early with EMDR might reduce the odds of a person developing PTSD later on (Buydens, 2014).
The case studies below suggest EMDR can rid people of PTSD triggers and help others move past traumatic events that created short-term stress and anxiety:
- A 28-year-old man had a scuba-diving accident and thought he was going to die. He was in and out of consciousness when other divers pulled him from the water and got him to an emergency department. Disturbing memories and nightmares triggered by the experience haunted him after that, leading to increased marijuana use and a PTSD diagnosis. Though he could not return to scuba diving for medical reasons, in follow-ups after EMDR treatment he reported spending weekends surfing without experiencing triggers. He said he was, “free from all PTSD symptoms” (Kullack, 2017).
- An 18-year-old woman who experienced childhood sexual abuse was diagnosed with PTSD and major depressive disorder. She underwent 11 weekly 90-minute EMDR therapy sessions. Afterwards, she showed no signs of PTSD and a substantial decrease in depressive symptoms (Estrada, 2015).
Are there side effects or dangers related to EMDR therapy?
There are no known serious side effects associated with the therapy, but expect to feel uncomfortable while recalling traumatic memories. Those negative feelings are usually brief and tend to fade as the therapy kicks in (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs n.d.).
If you suffer with PTSD, depression, anxiety, or any other condition that you think might be helped by EMDR, the first step is to consult a healthcare professional. They can help you evaluate the range of potential therapies and medications available to you.
The good news about EMDR is there are no notable dangers or risks like the ones that come with taking medication. But given the evidence, it’s probably not a treatment you want to rush into without solid and informed professional advice geared to your specific needs.
- American Psychological Association. (2017). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/treatments/eye-movement-reprocessing
- American Psychological Association. (2021). PTSD Treatments. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/treatments/index
- Arkowitz, H & Lilienfeld, S. (2012). Scientific American. EMDR: Taking a Closer Look. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/emdr-taking-a-closer-look/
- Bisson, J., Roberts, N.P., Andrew, M., Cooper, R. & Lewis, C. (2013). Psychological therapies for chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in adults (Review). Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD003388.pub4. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24338345/
- Buydens, S., Wilensky, M., & Hensley, B.J. (2014). Effects of the EMDR Protocol for Recent Traumatic Events on Acute Stress Disorder: A Case Series. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 8, 12-2. Retrieved from https://connect.springerpub.com/content/sgremdr/8/1/2
- EMDR Institute, Inc. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.emdr.com/
- Estrada, Benito & Molina, Natalia & Navarro, María. (2015). Neuropsychological and Physiological Outcomes Pre- and Post-EMDR Therapy for a Woman With PTSD: A Case Study. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 9, 174-187. doi: 10.1891/1933-3126.96.36.199. Retrieved from https://connect.springerpub.com/content/sgremdr/9/4/174
- Kullack, C., & Laugharne, J. (2017). Standard EMDR protocol for alcohol and substance dependence comorbid with posttraumatic stress disorder: Four cases with 12-month follow-up. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 11(2), E45-E60. doi: 10.1891/1933-3196.11.2.E45. Retrieved from https://connect.springerpub.com/content/sgremdr/10/1/33
- National Institute of Mental Health. (2019). Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) for PTSD. Retrieved from https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand_tx/emdr.asp
Felix Gussone is a physician, health journalist and a Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.