EMDR therapy has gained popularity in the mental health world because it helps clients process, cope with, and overcome trauma and other mental health symptoms. Many clients who struggled to make progress in traditional talk therapy sessions found that they were able to move past traumatic memories, sensations, and emotions with EMDR and learn new adaptive behaviors.
Despite its proven efficacy, there is still a good bit of misinformation about EMDR. We’re cutting through the myths, setting the record straight, and sharing why we use EMDR to help our clients work through traumatic blocks in a safe, supportive environment.
What Is EMDR?
Our brains do whatever they can to help us feel safe and comfortable – this is especially true for people who have experienced trauma. Trauma survivors will often develop mental “blocks” to make us feel protected from emotional and physical pain. These blocks are a natural coping mechanism that keeps us safe in a traumatic environment.
The problem is that over time, our mental blocks can keep us from processing trauma, even in a safe environment. We have to be able to remove the blocks in order to fully process trauma, find healing, and move on.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is a type of trauma therapy that combines traditional talk therapy approaches with specific techniques that can help people view their experiences in a different light. This technique helps the brain process trauma in a safe environment with clinician guidance to achieve a peaceful resolution.
EMDR not only removes mental barriers, but also helps the brain learn how to self-soothe. Clients are able to recover from past trauma, develop resilience, and learn how to cope with triggers, sometimes years sooner than they could with traditional therapy methods.
How Does EMDR Work?
EMDR therapy uses a technique called bilateral stimulation to engage both sides of the brain. An EMDR therapist will ask you to recall a traumatic memory while silmultaneously drawing your focus back and forth across your body.
There are a few ways to do this: your therapist might ask you to move your eyes side to side, listen to audio cues using headphones, or they can tap your hands, alternating between left and right. All of these techniques trigger bilateral stimulation, which helps calm the brain so that it feels safe bypassing those mental blocks.
From there, the logic and reasoning (left) side of the brain is able to soothe the emotional (right) side of the brain. Bilateral stimulation can help us process difficult memories while remaining calm and not dissociating or causing further trauma.
EMDR is a highly structured therapy that follows eight distinct stages:
- Treatment planning and history taking
- Assessment of the target memory
- Body scanning
- Evaluating the results of treatment
Each phase works to help people overcome the symptoms of post-traumatic stress and unpack any unhelpful beliefs stemming from earlier experiences.
EMDR Therapy Myths
Misinformation and mental health stigma often stand in the way of people getting the help they need to overcome serious mental health challenges. There is plenty of research that proves that EMDR is a reputable, evidence-based therapeutic modality, effective in treating trauma-associated symptoms.
Unfortunately, EMDR is not immune from misinformation, and many people believe that this treatment is ineffective, harmful, or not appropriate for their specific needs. That’s why we’re sharing some of the most common EMDR therapy myths, their origins, and how they misrepresented the science behind this technique..
Myth 1: EMDR Is Hypnosis
EMDR therapy is not the same as hypnosis, though we understand the confusion; certain physical cues used in EMDR are similar to those that gained notoriety as hypnosis techniques.
In EMDR, a therapist uses bilateral stimulation to draw your focus from one side of your body to the other. They can do this in a few different ways, using:
- A pulsing light that goes from right to left
- Handheld devices that give small vibrations in alternating hands
- A therapist tapping on your knees
- Headphones that provide auditory stimuli in alternating ears
While these techniques may sound like they could be found in a hypnotist’s office, EMDR therapy is not a hypnotic technique. Instead, bilateral stimulation is used to activate both sides of the brain, which can provide a calming and relaxing effect.
At no point in EMDR therapy are you under any kind of hypnotic influence from your therapist. You are completely in control and don’t need to share anything with your therapist that you don’t want to.
Myth 2: EMDR Forces You to Relive Trauma
For many trauma survivors, the thought of reliving their trauma in therapy is enough to make them swear off treatment forever. The myth that EMDR (or therapy in general) forces people into reliving their trauma can lead people to neglect to get the care they need.
Some people may work toward a reintegration of their trauma by recounting the events during EMDR therapy, but this is always attempted on a case-by-case basis, and clients have the right to communicate their needs if the discomfort starts to feel unsafe. There is no standard that forces people to relive traumatic events without their consent, in EDMDR therapy or in any other therapeutic modality.
When you start EMDR therapy, you and your therapist will have detailed discussions about what to expect, what your limits are, and what you’re comfortable sharing. You can get the treatment you need without being forced to explore or recount memories you’re not ready to address. Over time, you may notice that you’re ready to dive deeper into your trauma, but you can change your mind at any time.
Myth 3: EMDR Is Only for Severe Trauma and PTSD
The idea that EMDR is only for people with severe trauma or PTSD is one of the most pervasive EMDR myths. Even though it’s not true, the origin of this myth makes sense: EMDR has a long history of helping people who have experienced severe trauma or live with PTSD. In reality, trauma is relative, and everyone is worthy of support. Even those struggling with secondary trauma can benefit from EMDR.
Just as treatments like cognitive-behavioral therapy can help people with major depressive disorder and those with brief depressive episodes, the techniques of EMDR help people with severe PTSD and less acute trauma.
The simple fact is you deserve support with any event that leads to impairments in functioning, lowered quality of life, or a weight on your mind. EMDR is just one tool, and it can be really helpful to have various options to choose from.
EMDR therapy can be used to treat a host of different mental health symptoms, including:
- Gender dysphoria
- Personality disorders
- Chronic pain
So, while EMDR was originally developed to treat trauma, it has expanded its reach to include applications for several other mental health conditions.
Myth 4: EMDR Isn’t Backed by Research
The origins of this myth are hard to understand. Decades of research across hundreds of studies have proven that EMDR is an effective method of helping people reduce post-traumatic stress symptoms, depression, and various other mental health symptoms.
In a recent review, 494 different EMDR studies concluded that it was an effective treatment for post-traumatic stress symptoms. The researchers concluded that it would take 474 new studies finding no results to nullify their conclusions.
To put this another way: EMDR is clearly an evidence-based approach to helping people with trauma, and the idea that EMDR isn’t backed by research is just another myth.
Myth 5: EMDR Is Brand-New
EMDR may seem like a brand-new treatment to the public, but in reality, EMDR has been around since the 1980s. Dr. Francine Shapiro first recognized bilateral stimulation’s efficacy as a therapeutic treatment in 1987 and began testing EMDR in clinical trials as early as 1989.
The treatment was successful for a range of clients, and since then, researchers have compiled over thirty years of data affirming EMDR’s place as an evidence-based practice.
Myth 6: EMDR Is a Quick Fix
As much as we would love for this myth to be true, unfortunately, it’s not. While some people may see initial results from EMDR therapy within the first few sessions, there is no quick-fix method for treating PTSD and other mental health conditions. Every form of therapy takes time to see results, and EMDR is no exception.
Most people who go to therapy once or twice a week start to see results within six to twelve EMDR sessions, meaning it can be more than a month before you see true improvement in your mental health.
Like all other types of therapy, EMDR takes consistency. Stay the course, continue to seek help for your condition, and work diligently with your therapist. If it helps, you can think of EMDR therapy like like physical therapy: it takes time and sustained effort to heal, and for a lot of us, healing is a lifelong journey. But your well-being is worth it.
How to Start EMDR Therapy
If you’d like to learn more about how we incorporate EMDR therapy into our mental health and addiction treatment programs, reach out to our team. Our mental health experts would be happy to walk you through our treatment options and can guide you into making the right choice in therapy.
We can assess your to specific needs and let you know if EMDR therapy may be a good fit for in-person treatment or via telehealth programming. Call 855.235.9792 or complete our contact form to get started today.
- Lewey, Jennifer H et al. “Comparing the Effectiveness of EMDR and TF-CBT for Children and Adolescents: a Meta-Analysis.” Journal of child & adolescent trauma vol. 11,4 457-472. 11 Jun. 2018, doi:10.1007/s40653-018-0212-1
- “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy.” American Psychological Association, May 2017, https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/treatments/eye-movement-reprocessing.