What is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing?
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Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a recall-based therapy modality for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In other words, EMDR uses eye movements while recalling traumatic memories to help people with PTSD reduce the impact of traumatic memories on daily functioning. The EMDR therapy modality is based on the concept that PTSD is a fault in the way the brain stores and processes traumatic memories and that the brain can learn to do this in a less harmful way.
Psychologist Francine Shapiro developed the EMDR technique in 1987 and published the first study in 1989. It has become popular in both clinical and popular psychology. EMDR proponents say that it is as effective and faster than other therapy modalities for PTSD.
How EMDR Works
The adaptive information processing model hypothesizes that people develop PTSD because their brains do not effectively process traumatic memories. As a result, these memories interfere with normal functioning, as the brain keeps reliving the initial memories or stress response. EMDR techniques can change this brain pattern.
During EMDR therapy, the psychologist encourages the patient to recall the memory while following an object — the psychologist's finger, a metronome, or other moving object — with their eyes. This combination of memory and eye movement allows the brain to reprocess the memory without re-triggering the entire stress response.
This action requires the brain to process dissimilar things at once. Over repeated sessions, the brain's response to the memory no longer interferes with the patient's daily life and functions.
Does EMDR Work?
A summary of preliminary and small-scale studies show that EMDR is an effective therapy modality. (Please note: an EMDR organization funded this study.)
However, the question remains whether EMDR counseling is more effective than other interventions, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or imaginal exposure, the process of bringing up memories under a psychologist's guidance but without the eye movements.
Some psychologists conclude that EMDR counseling is potentially more effective than other approaches, while other studies of EMDR therapy contradict these findings. The American Psychological Association conditionally recommends EMDR as a therapy modality for PTSD.
While EMDR is primarily used for PTSD, some studies indicate possible effectiveness in treating phobias not induced by trauma, depression, anxiety, and even eating disorders. However, most studies have only asked the question, "Does EMDR work on PTSD?"
Overall, the majority of meta-analytic studies (studies of studies) show inconclusive evidence, given the small scale of existing trials and the level of potential bias in studies. As with many psychological interventions, researchers and psychologists do not understand the mechanisms behind EMDR the way that a physician can understand the mechanism of a drug or a surgical procedure.
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Can EMDR Cause Harm?
The debate continues about EMDR's effectiveness, but even skeptics generally agree that EMDR does not present any direct risks when properly conducted. The leading EMDR organizations do not recommend attempting to use EMDR techniques on yourself.
However, even a safe therapy modality like EMDR counseling can cause problems with the wrong practitioner. If a practitioner creates additional stress and reinforces PTSD during an EMDR therapy session, it can worsen the original problem. This is why it is so important to find a credentialed practitioner with adequate professional training in PTSD and safe EMDR techniques. If during an EMDR session, you feel as though it is making your condition worse, do not try to "work through it." Instead, tell the practitioner immediately.
Even if it doesn't cause harm, it can be frustrating and even counterproductive to spend time and energy on an ineffective therapy modality. Fortunately, you should be able to tell with one session whether EMDR techniques are likely to help you.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is EMDR, and how does it work?
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. EMDR is a psychotherapy technique that uses eye movements combined with recalling traumatic events to help reduce the effects of PTSD.
Can I use EMDR techniques on myself?
EMDR organizations do not recommend trying to use EMDR on yourself. While you can use eye movements during stress or a PTSD flashback, or even playing a game of Tetris, EMDR therapy is considered a professional therapy modality.
What does EMDR stand for?
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. A psychologist or other professional uses this therapy modality to help people with PTSD by reducing traumatic memories' impact on daily functioning. During EMDR, you will recall these memories under a professional's guidance, while moving your eyes in a natural motion.
What is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing?
EMDR is a therapy modality used mostly for PTSD. Studies show that EMDR works better than no psychological intervention, but it's not yet clear how effective it is compared to other therapies.
Is EMDR a Good Fit?
Is EMDR therapy a good fit for you? If you already have a mental health professional, such as a psychologist or therapist, ask them if they think EMDR might be valuable for you. In particular, ask about the pros and cons of EMDR techniques versus CBT, cognitive processing therapy (a subtype of CBT), imaginal or prolonged exposure, narrative exposure therapy, or medication.
You can also look for an EMDR practitioner who has experience with PTSD and a background in professional psychology. Ask about their experience using EMDR and whether they hold certification.
When seeking a therapist certified in EMDR, be mindful that all EMDR therapists should be trauma informed. Be wary of anyone promising perfect outcomes.
Does EMDR work in telehealth settings? Right now, the answer is unclear. A psychologist's physical office is designed as a safe space, and the psychologist is better able to observe your entire physical response in person. However, if telehealth is your only option, discuss your needs with your provider.
The EMDR International Association (EMDRIA) and the EMDR Institute, founded by Shapiro, both offer training and certification in EMDR. EMDRIA offers certification for mental health professionals who have an advanced degree, at least two years of experience as a mental health professional, and have completed training and consultation.
The EMDR Institute also offers certification training to professionals with advanced degrees but does not require experience. License-track interns can participate under professional supervision.
Rayelle Davis, M.Ed., LCPC, NCC, BC-TMH
Rayelle Davis is a nationally board-certified counselor, a licensed clinical professional counselor, and a board-certified telemental health provider. As a nontraditional student, she earned her associate degree in psychology at Allegany College of Maryland. She went on to earn her bachelor's degree in psychology online at the University of Maryland Global Campus. Davis earned her master's degree in counseling education with a concentration in marriage, couples, and family therapy from Duquesne University.
She has taught several undergraduate psychology courses. She is currently a doctoral candidate at Duquesne University where she has also worked as an adjunct instructor and clinical supervisor for master's students. She practices psychotherapy at her private practice in Maryland.
Rayelle Davis is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network.
Page last reviewed February 7, 2022