EMDR has gained much popularity over the past decade, but do you really know what it is?  Is it just a passing fad?  Does it really work?  Get answers to all of those questions and more in this article.

What is EMDR?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a treatment designed to treat the distress associated with traumatic memories (Shapiro, 1989a, 1989b). According to Shapiro’s (2001) Adaptive Information Processing model, EMDR therapy facilitates the accessing and processing of traumatic memories to integrate them and modify the beliefs associated with them. By recalling distressing events and diverting attention from their emotional consequences by focusing on an external stimulus, EMDR borrows basic concepts of prolonged exposure therapy, which has long been the gold standard behavioral psychotherapeutic treatment of PTSD.

EMDR is a painstakingly detailed process, but in summary… During EMDR treatments the client remembers a traumatic memory, identifies a negative belief about themselves related to the memory (eg. I am helpless.), and related emotions and physical sensations.  This is done in brief “doses” while simultaneously focusing on an external stimulus such as a light or the therapists finger that moves side to side. When the client can remember the event without distress, he or she is asked to think of the preferred positive belief  and begin to focus on that.

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What are the basic principles of EMDR?

There are three foundational beliefs in EMDR: (1) Past events have laid the groundwork for dysfunction need to be reprocessed to create new associations with adaptive information; (2) the current triggers for distress can be desensitized; (3) imagery of future events will assist the client in acquiring the skills needed for recovery.

How effective is EMDR for PTSD?

EMDR has been found to be equally as effective as exposure techniques and trauma focused cognitive behavioral therapy.  The first meta-analysis of the efficacy of EMDR was published by Davidson and Parker in 2001 and demonstrated that EMDR was equally effective as other exposure techniques. Seidler and Wagner (2006) and Bisson et. al. 2013 both conducted meta-analyses and concluded that trauma-centred EMDR and CBT tended to be equally effective in the treatment of PTSD.  Finally, a meta-analysis published in 2014 that included 26 controlled randomized trials found that EMDR therapy significantly reduces the symptoms of PTSD, depression and anxiety provided the sessions are more than 90- minutes in length and the therapist has extensive experience with treating PTSD with other modalities.

Is EMDR effective for anything else?

Although most research into EMDR has examined its use in people with PTSD, EMDR is sometimes used experimentally to treat many other psychological problems. They include:

  • Panic attacks
  • Eating disorders
  • Addictions
    • EMDR was found to be related to a decreased amount of craving, fear and depression and to an improvement of emotion regulation and management and self-esteem
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder
    • EMDR and CBT were evaluated for effectiveness in treating obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The study found no significant differences between the two treatments with 30% of participants demonstrating clinically significant improvement in symptoms.
  • Depression
    • Patients reported significant reductions in anxiety and depression after 6 sessions of EMDR
  • Anxiety, such as discomfort with public speaking or medical procedures
  • Chronic Pain