What Is EMDR Therapy?

psychologist trying emdr therapy

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Originally developed in 1987 to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy—also called EMDR therapy or simply EMDR—is a specific type of therapy that helps reduce emotional distress associated with past traumas.

Who Should Try EMDR?

EMDR is a form of talk therapy that primarily helps treat PTSD. Research shows that EMDR therapy is particularly effective for war veterans and people who have experienced sexual assault. In addition, some studies suggest that EMDR may be useful in treating other mental health conditions, but more extensive research on the effectiveness of EMDR on other conditions remains ongoing.

Experts currently believe that EMDR can also be effective for treating the following conditions:

How Does EMDR Work?

EMDR is based on a theory called the adaptive information processing model (AIP model), which seeks to explain why thinking of certain memories can make you feel distressed. The AIP model theorizes that when something happens and we don’t process it fully, distressing emotions and thoughts are stored with. Then, when the memory comes back up, those same emotions and thoughts come to the surface as well.

The AIP model differs from other forms of psychotherapy. Most forms of psychotherapy generally focus on identifying and working through distressing thoughts and emotions. EMDR, on the other hand, seeks to reduce the vividness of the memory, thereby reducing the emotional response you feel when you remember the memory.

The way psychologists use EMDR methods is based on a concept called dual attention. The purpose of dual attention is to focus on a repetitive movement while recounting a traumatic event from your past. Researchers don't have an agreed-upon theory of why this works, but it seems to be the key to EMDR's effectiveness.

Your EMDR treatment will depend on your condition, symptoms, and trauma. Generally, processing one memory can take up to one to three sessions. While the length of treatment varies, an average treatment plan is usually six to twelve sessions, with sessions occurring once or twice per week.

What Can I Expect During an EMDR Session?

If you are seeking EMDR, you can expect that your treatment plan will follow this general structure:

  1. Client history: You meet with your therapist to go over your personal history and identify which memories to focus on during your treatment plan.
  2. Preparation: You practice the repetitive movement they recommend, which will be designed to stimulate both sides of your brain and body. Some common movements include following an object with your eyes, tapping certain body parts, and listening to specific tones in your ears with headphones on.
  3. Evaluation: Your therapist asks you to identify the memory and describe how you feel. You identify the most negative thought associated with the memory and come up with a positive one to replace it.
  4. Desensitization: You focus on the memory while performing the exercises and identify any new thoughts that come up. This process continues until you no longer feel distressed by the memory.
  5. Installation: You repeat the positive thought and think about how it connects to your memory. Repeat the exercises as many times as needed to connect the positive thought with the memory.
  6. Body scan: You spend time talking with your therapist about how your body feels and continue repeating the eye exercises if you still feel distressed.
  7. Debriefing: Your therapist works with you to close out the session, with a plan to ensure you feel safe if you didn’t finish processing during the current session.
  8. Re-evaluation: At the beginning of the next session, your therapist helps you identify if the treatment was effective and plan treatment for the next distressing memory you have.

How Effective is EMDR?

The majority of the research on EMDR's effectiveness focuses on PTSD. Several literature reviews, or research articles that assess and summarize large numbers of original studies, have identified that EMDR is effective for PTSD treatment. In fact, it may be even more effective than the much more commonly accepted cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for treating PTSD.

EMDR is shown to work for PTSD cross-culturally, as well as in both group and individual settings. However, other aspects of treatment, such as how long a therapist is practicing EMDR and how long the sessions are, can impact the effectiveness of the therapy.

More research is needed to assess how effective EMDR is for other mental health conditions. But, the evidence so far looks promising. One literature review from 2021 found that although there's limited research on the effectiveness of EMDR on anxiety and depression, it appears to be as effective as more established therapy models like CBT.

Another literature review from 2017 found that EMDR may be effective in treating trauma associated with other mental health conditions as well. Specifically, they analyzed whether EMDR could be effective in addressing trauma in people with psychosis, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, and chronic pain. They found that EMDR was effective in treating trauma-related symptoms specifically, and would theoretically be paired well with another kind of therapy that is commonly used to treat the underlying mental health condition.

Benefits of EMDR

EMDR is shown to provide a variety of benefits that may not be available through other means of therapy. The American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, National Institute for Care Excellence, and World Health Organization all recommend EMDR for PTSD treatment.

That said, some of the benefits associated with EMDR include:

  • Helps decrease or eliminate PTSD and trauma symptoms
  • May be quicker for treating PTSD than other types of treatment
  • Can be used in conjunction with other types of therapies
  • Doesn't require you to talk excessively about painful or distressing memories

Risks of EMDR

The main risk associated with EMDR is that it's a newer form of therapy and research on EMDR remains ongoing. Specifically, some researchers have pointed out issues with the research methods of how EMDR studies are conducted. These issues include high levels of bias, small sample sizes (or, the number of participants involved in the studies), and inconsistencies within the research.

Additionally, much of the evidence for EMDR in treating conditions other than PTSD is based on case studies, which only look at one person's experience. That said, more research is needed to understand how well EMDR works for other mental health conditions.

Finding the Right Therapist

Currently, therapists that provide EMDR are certified by several private organizations. EMDR therapists practice within the scope of their clinical license, such as a social work license (LCSW), psychology license (PhD or PsyD), or psychiatry license (MD).

The process for finding a therapist who does EMDR is similar to the typical process for finding a therapist. You can either ask for a referral from your primary care provider, search online databases for EMDR specialists near you, or use an online service that connects you to a licensed EMDR therapist.

A Quick Review

EMDR is a new but promising type of therapy for people with PTSD. Research on how effective the therapy is for other mental health conditions is ongoing.

EMDR uses the practice of repeating movements while recalling traumatic events. This process is known as dual attention and can help reduce the distress associated with certain memories. As with any emerging type of treatment, there are some controversies, and more research is needed, but this might be a particularly effective type of therapy for people with a history of trauma.

If you'd like to try EMDR, look for a practicing therapist near you by asking your primary care provider for a referral or using an online therapist database. Your therapist's credentials should be similar to those of other mental health professionals (e.g., psychologists, psychiatrists, or social workers) and should specify that they have an added certification and practice in EMDR specifically.

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11 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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