EMDR therapy‚ which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy, was invented in the late 1980s by a psychologist named Francine Shapiro who was looking for a new way to treat traumatic memories and their associated symptoms. Since its creation, EMDR therapy has gained a lot of attention among mental health professionals. It’s now being recommended by organizations like the American Psychiatric Association, the World Health Organization, the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, and the Departments of Defense and of Veterans Affairs.
EMDR therapy was originally designed to help reduce PTSD symptoms and severe distress associated with traumatic events. But as more studies are conducted, the uses of EMDR keep growing. Who can benefit most from EMDR therapy? Anyone with PTSD, anxiety, addictions, phobias, grief, depression, obesity tied to adverse experiences, or a history of traumatic events may find relief with the help of EMDR therapy. (1) This can include victims of abuse, soldiers returning from combat, veterans, refugees, burn victims, and those struggling with substance abuse disorders.
What Is EMDR Therapy?
What exactly is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR), and how does it work?
Another name for EMDR therapy is “rapid eye movement therapy.” While they’re not the same thing, EMDR therapy works in similar ways to hypnosis. It also has elements in common with mindfulness and meditation practices.
To practice EMDR therapy, the patient being treated does two things at the same time: they allow negative thoughts, troubling images or anxiety-provoking memories to come and go, while at the same time moving their eyes back and forth. This means that they have both an internal and external focus during sessions; they notice any emotionally disturbing thoughts coming to mind (the internal focus), while simultaneously focusing on an external stimulus (the sensations they experience while they keep moving their eyes). (2)
- During an EMDR session, the patient’s eyes may be following a therapist’s fingers as they move side to side, or an object that the therapist is holding in their hand (such as a “waving wand”). While this is going on, the patient is instructed to “let go” of trying to control their thoughts and to just “notice” them instead (much like during meditation). They may feel like their mind is “going blank” and like they are distancing themselves from disturbing thought patterns. They may also practice replacing negative thoughts with more positive and hopeful ones.
- The idea is to allow your mind to settle during EMDR so thoughts can pass without being followed. Instead of focusing on your breath, which is the focus of attention in many types of meditation, your attention remains on your eye movements/eye sensations. (3)
- It’s been found that the eye movements used in EMDR help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, causing a calming response. While this hasn’t been proven, some also feel that EMDR also helps to “stimulate the left and ride sides (hemispheres) of your brain,” which is helpful for finding new ways to cope with disturbing memories/thoughts.
EMDR is done in phases, usually over about six to eight sessions. The specific phases that most therapists follow include:
- History taking
- Desensitization (incorporating eye movements that allow the spontaneous emergence of insights, emotions, physical sensations, and other memories)
- Instillation (which involves increasing connections to positive cognitive networks)
What type of therapy is EMDR? Is EMDR a cognitive behavioral therapy?
EMDR therapy is a form of psychotherapy that is practiced by trained medical professionals who treat patients with psychological trauma and a history of other negative life experiences.
Psychotherapy usually refers to various types of “talk therapy”— however, there’s little emphasis on talking during EMDR sessions and more on following physical sensations. In some ways, EMDR is similar to other types of conventional psychotherapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), because it involves a patient working through past experiences and anxiety-provoking thoughts with their therapist. However, the focus on eye movements and “adaptive strategies” makes EMDR unique.
CBT and EMDR differ from one another in several ways. CBT has a focus on addressing underlying thought patterns/beliefs, while EMDR therapy aims to reduce distress and strengthen adaptive strategies related to past traumatic events. EMDR is also different from CBT because it doesn’t involve detailed descriptions of the negative event, challenging of beliefs, extended exposure to feared thoughts/behaviors, or homework for the patient to complete on their own between sessions. Some feel this makes EMDR more “accessible” and “gentle” since it doesn’t require patients to discuss past events at length.
Some therapists may choose to combine different forms of therapy when meeting with their patients — such as by incorporating EMDR into an exposure therapy, CBT, or dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) session. Other types of “external stimuli” can also be used instead of eye movements. For example, external stimuli can include hand-tapping, visualization or audio stimulation.
5 Potential Benefits of EMDR Therapy
1. Helps Reduce Anxiety, Phobias & Distress
One of the reasons that EMDR therapy for anxiety may be effective is because it desensitizes people to stress associated with negative memories and irrational fears. EMDR can help you to gain new perspective and to become more aware of what you’re perceiving as a threat. Once you can pinpoint the types of things that are causing your anxiety, you can decide if these are actually real threats or not.
The definition of desensitization is “A behavior modification technique, used especially in treating phobias, in which panic or other undesirable emotional response to a given stimulus is reduced or extinguished, especially by repeated exposure to that stimulus.” (4) In other words, desensitization refers to having diminished emotional responsiveness to something negative after being repeatedly exposed to it.
During EMDR therapy sessions, the patient brings to mind troubling thoughts/memories from the past so they can become more comfortable facing them. The more they do this, the easier it becomes to deal with the emotions (such as anxiety) that are associated with the negative thoughts. Here’s how the EMDR Institute describes this:
EMDR therapy facilitates the accessing and processing of traumatic memories and other adverse life experience to bring these to an adaptive resolution. After successful treatment with EMDR therapy, affective distress is relieved, negative beliefs are reformulated, and physiological arousal is reduced. (5)
According to an article published in The Atlantic, “Some experts think the eye movements help re-shuffle memories so that when they are stored again, they lose some of their traumatic power.” Chris Lee, a psychologist and EMDR practitioner, explained to The Atlantic that “People describe that their memories become less vivid and more distant, that they seem further in the past and harder to focus on.” (6)
2. Used To Help Treat PTSD
An area where EMDR therapy has been widely studied is in the treatment of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). EMDR can help people who have experienced severe forms of trauma in both childhood and adulthood. Trauma comes in many forms, and can include everything from child abuse to severe anxiety associated with military service. (7)
A 2015 review found that EMDR therapy for PTSD patients was more beneficial compared to other types of therapy in 7 out of 10 studies that were included. (8) In the majority of the studies, PTSD sufferers had a more significant reduction in distress and stress related symptoms (such as having less sweat on their skin) following EMDR therapy compared to other therapy approaches like CBT. The same review found that 12 randomized studies involving rapid eye movement therapy found that patients experienced a rapid decrease in negative emotions and/or vividness of disturbing images, and a variety of other positive memory effects. The use of rapid eye movements for PTSD has also been shown to be more helpful than other external stimuli such as beeping noises.
Another randomized controlled trial, which included 42 patients suffering from PTSD following life-threatening cardiovascular events, compared eight sessions (four weeks) of EMDR therapy to imaginal exposure therapy (which involves “concentrating on the trauma memory and repeatedly describing it in detail”). The study found that EMDR therapy resulted in greater reductions in trauma-related symptoms, depression, and anxiety compared to imaginal exposure therapy. (9)
3. May Help Treat Obesity Tied to Traumatic Experiences
Emerging studies are showing that adults with obesity commonly deal with mental health issues that contribute to their excess weight, such as a history of childhood trauma, eating disorders or anxious-depressive disorders. This is why psychotherapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy, has been shown to be effective for helping to treat obesity and for ongoing weight management. Psychotherapeutic approaches that are now being used to help reverse obesity include hypnosis, mindfulness, family therapy and EMDR, especially when PTSD is involved. EMDR has been shown in certain studies to better support obesity treatment over other therapy approaches when there’s a history of traumatic stress. (10)
4. Can Be Used in Treatment of Eating Disorders
EMDR has been claimed to be effective in the treatment of a wide variety of psychiatric disorders, including eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. While EMDR is not often used alone to treat eating disorders, it seems beneficial when used in conjunction with other therapeutic and treatment approaches.
One randomized, experimental study compared the effects of EMDR therapy and standard residential eating disorder treatment (SRT) versus SRT alone among 43 women with negative body image/body dissatisfaction. They found that the women involved in SRT+EMDR reported less distress about negative body image memories and lower body dissatisfaction three months and 12 months after treatment compared to the women involved in only SRT. (11)
5. May Help Reduce Panic Attacks & Other Stress-Induced Disorders
EMDR can help treat a variety of physical symptoms that are believed to be caused by unprocessed memories of adverse experiences. There are many stress-induced physical symptoms and disorders that are “medically unexplained” but tied to negative past experiences. For example, people can deal with panic attacks, insomnia, chronic pain, muscle tension, tension headaches, and digestive issues all because of how chronic stress affects their bodies.
Studies have found that people dealing with symptoms of stress due to life events like losing a loved one or being the victim of an accident can find relief typically within three to nine EMDR therapy sessions. There’s also evidence suggesting that EMDR therapy might be useful in reducing chronic pain and comorbid symptoms like mood swings and depression when used as an add-on treatment. (12)
Where to Get EMDR Therapy
Because EMDR is a mental health intervention, you should visit a trained and licensed mental health clinician in order to begin. You can find a therapist in your area who offers EMDR therapy by visiting the EMDR Therapist Network website, The EMDR International Association website, or the Psychology Today website.
It can also be helpful to ask your primary care doctor for a recommendation/referral, or speak with your therapist about a recommendation if you currently visit one. Additionally, there are now many EMDR programs and videos available for free on the internet; however, the effectiveness of these has not been studied, so there is no guarantee that they will offer any lasting benefits. If you want to practice EMDR at home, it’s best to first visit a therapist and/or enroll in an online EMDR program such as the Virtual EMDR Program or the EMDR for Addiction Program.
To notice any lasting benefits from EMDR and other forms of therapy, most patients will need to visit a therapist at least several times (typically about six to eight times) for 50–90 minutes per session. Insurance does not always cover therapy, which can make affording it very challenging for those who need it most. One study conducted found that 100 percent of single-trauma victims and 77 percent of multiple-trauma victims no longer had PTSD symptoms after an average of six 50-minute EMDR therapy sessions. (13)
How much is EMDR treatment? This depends on your exact insurance plan and the therapist you see. While there’s mounds of evidence that EMDR and other conventional forms of psychotherapy offer real benefits to a patients dealing with a range of mental health issues, unfortunately, visiting a therapist can often be very expensive. It’s recommended that you call your insurance provider ahead of time to discuss your plan’s coverage. If you have to pay out-of-pocket, the cost of EMDR sessions can vary widely depending on your specific location and therapist. It can cost between $100–$200 per session (or possibly more) if your insurance does not cover any of the cost.
Are there any EMDR therapy side effects you should be aware of? Studies haven’t shown that EMDR therapy side effects are any different than those that might be experienced during other types of psychotherapy. For example, some patients may initially feel more upset or anxious when starting therapy, due to having to face painful and traumatic memories that have been pushed away and denied (sometimes for many years). But with practice these feelings usually improve and typically you start feeling calmer and clear-headed within several weeks or months.
That being said, if you’re suffering from severe anxiety or depression, it’s best to start EMDR under the guidance of a mental health professional. A therapist or social worker can help you work through grief, regret, fear and anger that may come to the surface when you first start EMDR.
Final Thoughts on EMDR Therapy
- EMDR therapy stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy. Another name for EMDR is Rapid Eye Movement therapy.
- EMDR therapy is a form of psychotherapy that is practiced by trained medical professionals who treat patients with psychological trauma and a history of other negative life experiences.
- During EMDR therapy sessions, the patient being treated allows negative thoughts, troubling images or anxiety-provoking memories to come and go, while at the same time moving their eyes back and forth. They try to let their mind go blank and distance themselves from troubling thoughts, while keeping their focus on the physical sensations of moving their eyes.
- Benefits of EMDR can include treating: anxiety and symptoms of distress, PTSD, obesity, eating disorders, panic attacks, depression and many other symptoms caused by chronic stress.
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