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4 min read

Does EMDR Therapy Really Work?

therapist taking notes and speaking with a patient

EMDR stands for "Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing." It's a form of therapy that many therapists may use to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and combines cognitive therapy with sensory stimulation.

Key Takeaways:

  • EMDR is an effective, evidence-based form of therapy involving a talk portion and a sensory portion
  • EMDR is controversial because of conflicting academic studies as well as some aspects of the theory behind it
  • It appears in studies to be more effective than some other forms of therapy for PTSD patients, and is indicated to at least be better than no treatment at all for other conditions.

There is some debate in the medical community about how effective EMDR truly is, especially when measured against other forms of therapy.

Some research indicates that EMDR is more effective than other treatments for patients with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Other studies, by contrast, indicate that it may be the traditional talk therapy and exposure portion of EMDR therapy that create the benefit and that the eye movement portion may be superfluous.

Let's break down this form of therapy and discover the truth about EMDR.

Read About EMDR On This Page:

What is EMDR therapy, and how does it work?

Why is EMDR controversial?

Trauma-Focused Talk Therapy in Austin: Williamsburg Therapy Group

What is EMDR therapy, and how does it work?

EMDR therapy is an evidence-backed therapeutic technique, developed in 1987 by Dr. Francine Shapiro, that consists of two combined methodologies: trauma talk therapy and sensory stimulation.

The Theory Behind EMDR

The theory behind EMDR therapy is that the brain stores traumatic memories differently than normal memories.

For a normal memory, your brain discards anything that is not important (for example, the color of the ceiling tile during lunch with a friend three years ago), but files the important details into your long-term memory (for example, your friend telling you during that lunch that they got engaged.)

This process of moving impactful events from your short-term working memory into your long-term memory is called consolidation.

According to Dr. Francine Shapiro, the creator of EMDR therapy, the consolidation process is interrupted during and after traumatic and disturbing events. This creates problems with processing these events, in some cases leading to post-traumatic stress disorder.

To oversimplify, the eye movement portion of EMDR may make it easier for the brain to access these traumatic memories, which can then be processed in a healthy way.

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The Eye Movement Portion of EMDR

To help you access the memory of a traumatic or disturbing event, your therapist will engage one or more of your senses throughout the session.

While the name of EMDR therapy refers specifically to eye movement, there are also auditory stimulation techniques and, assuming you give your therapist consent, touch sensation techniques that can be used as well.

There are a number of methods your therapist may use when engaging your senses, including:

  • Using their fingers to guide your eye movement
  • Using a series of tones or clicks to stimulate your hearing
  • Gently poking your arms or legs to engage your touch sense
  • Using a device to vibrate in your hands

Sometimes, these are used in combination with each other. By stimulating your brain in this manner, many therapists believe that your brain will have an easier time accessing your trauma so that it can be addressed.

The Desensitization and Reprocessing Portion of EMDR

EMDR also involves more traditional therapy in order to help you confront and process traumatic memories.

Usually, this process strongly resembles cognitive-behavioral therapy, which analyzes your thought processes and how they relate to your behaviors and then attempts to restructure them in a healthier way.

EMDR therapy combines this with eye movement or sensory stimulation to try to maximize the benefit and speed up the process.

Why is EMDR controversial?

EMDR is controversial because some studies seem to indicate that the eye movement or sensory stimulation portion of the therapy is unnecessary, particularly for non-PTSD patients.

On the other hand, different studies show that EMDR therapy, including the part where you move your eyes, is better than traditional talk therapy for treating PTSD.

Let's take a detailed look at the case for EMDR therapy as well as the case against it.

The Case For EMDR Therapy: Good Results for Patients with PTSD

There is some evidence to support the idea that the eye movement portion of EMDR may expedite the trauma healing process and that EMDR is more effective than only talk therapy for those who are struggling with processing trauma.

It's also worth noting here that EMDR is, according to many PTSD therapy studies, at least better than no treatment at all.

Why is EMDR therapy good for post-traumatic stress disorder?

EMDR therapy was developed as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and appears to be very effective in treating it in some patients.

The eye movement and sense stimulation aspects of EMDR therapy are designed to allow the brain easier access to traumatic memories, which allows them to be addressed both in terms of how they affect the patient's psyche as well as their behavior.

The Case Against EMDR Therapy: Potentially Unnecessary Eye Movement

In contrast to the points above, some studies have found that performing only the cognitive trauma therapy (desensitization and reprocessing) portion of the treatment has very similar rates of effectiveness as performing both the cognitive therapy and eye movement processes.

In general, medical professionals try to avoid issuing any treatment, or part of a treatment, that is not conclusively beneficial to the client. This is considered a professional best practice as well as an extension of the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm.

Is EMDR good for depression?

Yes, but likely not better than standard cognitive-behavioral therapy for most patients. It is generally believed that for depression, along with some other mental health concerns, the talk therapy side of EMDR is doing the "heavy lifting."

Your therapist may still suggest EMDR if their professional experience indicates to them that you may do well with it or that it may be worth exploring if you are not responding to a more traditional form of therapy, like CBT.

Trauma-Focused Talk Therapy in Austin: Williamsburg Therapy Group

While Williamsburg Therapy Group does not offer EMDR therapy, our team of world-class psychologists does specialize in trauma-focused talk therapy, which is very similar to the therapy portion of EMDR treatment.

Every member of our staff has a doctorate in psychology, making them the best in the industry for unpacking your trauma and providing you peace of mind. Schedule an appointment today or contact us to get matched with your ideal therapist.

Feeling better is closer than you may think.


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