Does EMDR Really Work?

Mountainside
January 13, 2024

WHAT, EXACTLY, IS EMDR?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) was developed in the late 1980s by American psychologist and educator Francine Shapiro, after she noticed that eye movements reduced negative emotions tied to her own painful memories. Experimentation led her to conclude that the same held true for others, and with the addition of other treatment elements, she developed the Eye Movement Desensitization (EMD) procedure — later known as EMDR.

Shapiro found that a single EMDR session could “desensitize subjects’ traumatic memories, as well as dramatically alter their cognitive assessments.” In the space of a few years, EMDR was recognized as an effective treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Today, the application of EMDR has expanded to address a wide variety of concerns, including and beyond PTSD. The treatment involves specific eye movements while processing painful memories, with the goal of promoting healing from trauma and other upsetting life experiences.

Trauma can be defined as any past experience that negatively impacts your life and creates stress in your body and mind. This can include events that affect you physically, emotionally, or spiritually, as well as experiences that threaten your safety and witnessing a threat to someone else. Trauma can be big or small, and it can leave you in a state of distress that you are unable to process.

The impact of trauma can be long-lasting, with symptoms like difficulty concentrating, sleep disturbance, hypervigilance, irritability, flashbacks, and recurrent and intrusive thoughts. When you haven’t been able to fully process what happened to you, distress from the past can provoke upsetting thoughts and feelings that make you feel like you’re stuck in the past and are unable to move forward.

Rather than delving into detailed discussion of the painful memory, EMDR harnesses your brain’s natural healing abilities and helps change the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are tied to a particularly distressing event or experience.

EMDR can be applied to people of all ages, and it has been shown to bring lasting relief and effective healing, more quickly than many other approaches.

HOW DOES EMDR WORK?

A traumatic event can cause your brain to store the experience in a way that doesn’t allow for natural healthy processing and healing. This can happen both with conscious and suppressed memories.

Due to the way trauma and painful memories are stored in your nervous system, your body can internalize negative thoughts and feelings from the event — which can leave you feeling “stuck” long after the event has passed.

These feelings can be triggered in your present life — even by something as simple as a taste, smell, or sound — leading to intense anxiety or panic, or even causing you to re-experience the past trauma. This stuckness can adversely affect your relationships and influence how you regulate your emotions in the present.

EMDR works to connect the body and mind, so that you can process stuck memories and move forward in your life.

As with other forms of treatment, EMDR begins with talking with your therapist about the technique to determine if it’s a good fit for you and to answer any questions. Working within an environment in which you feel safe and secure is vital. Your therapist may also introduce you to new skills that can help you cope with any uneasy feelings that may arise during EMDR.

Once you and your therapist have chosen a traumatic memory to reprocess, your therapist will guide you through specific eye movements — for example, left to right and back again — that are similar to REM sleep. Sometimes a clicker or tapping is also used. At the same time, your therapist will instruct you in focusing on the feelings, thoughts, and physical sensations associated with the targeted memory.  

This process of bilateral stimulation (BLS) enhances communication between the left and right hemispheres of the brain and connects the logical with the emotional in order to reprocess these painful past experiences and promote healing.

Over the course of several sessions, your stress response associated with your traumatic memories should begin to fade. Working with your therapist, you can replace these painful thoughts and feelings with more conscious and constructive patterns, leaving you feeling stronger and more in control.

By reprocessing painful memories, EMDR helps you to release the past while also developing new skills and approaches so you can move forward into your best life.

WHAT KINDS OF ISSUES CAN EMDR TREAT?

While EMDR was initially developed for treating PTSD, this technique can also be applied to a wide range of mental health concerns, including anxiety disorders, panic attacks, phobias, depression, dissociative disorders, sleep disturbances, chronic illnesses, grief, pain, eating disorders, and relationship difficulties.

EMDR can also serve as an effective tool when traditional talk therapy doesn’t produce the results you desire.

Many times with trauma, you might experience past traumatic events as if they are current “breaking news.” With EMDR, these memories lose their power and no longer have as strong an impact on your daily life.

With the mind and body leading in the direction of healing, we believe EMDR can provide more effective and long-lasting results than traditional talk therapy. EMDR encourages a gentle, natural shift in your personal narrative and in the way you think, feel, and interact with the world.

IS EMDR EFFECTIVE?

The US Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense list EMDR as a “best practice” in addressing PTSD. EMDR also has been approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) and international agencies and governments in countries like Australia, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

In a 2012 study, EMDR was found to be beneficial for 77% of clients with PTSD and psychotic disorder. Additional studies conclude that the benefits of EMDR can be maintained long after therapy is complete. Many national and international organizations — including the American Psychological Association — recognize EMDR as an effective modality of therapy.

Other organizations that recognize EMDR as an effective treatment for PTSD include such august bodies as the American Psychiatric Association, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies.

And, as detailed above, EMDR can bring about profound change for people suffering with many other types of problems. More than 100,000 therapists across the globe use EMDR, and millions of people have found relief using this therapy over the past 25 years.

For many clients, EMDR therapy can be completed in fewer sessions than with other methods. A primary advantage of EMDR is that it doesn’t require you to engage in a detailed description of the inciting traumatic event, giving you a buffer of emotional remove and giving you more control.

People who have experienced EMDR report feelings of relief and liberation, as well as being about to take back control of their lives. They feel a sense of increased wisdom and strength, with past experiences no longer hampering them.

It’s important to seek out a trained and experienced professional when pursuing treatment through EMDR. Forming a solid and supportive connection with your therapist is fundamental to your progress.

Dr. Rebecca Hoffenberg is our expert in using EMDR to help clients overcome trauma and regain a sense of well-being. To help relieve clients’ trauma-related symptoms and allow them to feel whole again, Dr. Hoffenberg works with her clients to set goals and develop a comprehensive plan. She combines her expertise in EMDR with her education in Complex Trauma/Developmental Trauma and her training in hypnosis to assist her clients with resolving distressing life experiences and more intractable concerns, so they can once again feel like the person they were before the trauma.

For the relief of trauma and other “stuck” concerns, EMDR is a powerful and effective tool, opening the door to lasting healing and profound change.

Our trauma experts
January 13, 2024