EMDR Therapy: Separating Fact from Fiction

woman with dogs walking in woodsIn my 13 years or so of being an EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) clinician, I have often found myself having to debunk myths about EMDR or reframe and educate therapists and consumers about what EMDR is and isn’t. Unfortunately, many perceptions and beliefs about what EMDR is and isn’t have come from well-meaning, referring therapists who may not be trained in EMDR but value it as a therapeutic modality.

With this in mind, let’s debunk some “myths” about EMDR.

Myth No. 1: EMDR is a new therapy.

Not true. In fact, in 2014 EMDR celebrates its 25th anniversary. We have come a long way since 1987, when Dr. Francine Shapiro was walking in a park and realized that her eyes moved back and forth when she was having a disturbing thought and that in doing so, it became less distressing. The first research studies began not long after that in 1989, whereby it became clear EMDR (then called EMD) was an up-and-coming treatment for posttraumatic stress.

Myth No. 2: EMDR is not research-based.

Of all EMDR myths, this is probably the biggest one and the most often stated. Since the first studies in 1989, EMDR has become one of the most well-researched therapeutic modalities and, in fact, has been identified as a treatment of choice for trauma. In 2013, the World Health Organization recommended EMDR as a treatment for PTSD. In 2004, the American Psychiatric Association identified EMDR as effective trauma treatment. In 2004 and 2010, the Veterans Administration recommended EMDR. EMDR has also been included in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration national registry of evidence-based programs and practices. Other local and international organizations have identified EMDR as a research-based and effective treatment for trauma.

EMDR studies such as the groundbreaking research by leading trauma expert Bessel A. van der Kolk and colleagues studying EMDR vs. psychopharmacology in the treatment of PTSD also support EMDR an effective trauma treatment. If you are a therapist or consumer who is interested in EMDR or considering treatment for PTSD, please read this.

Myth No. 3: EMDR is just “wagging your fingers back and forth in front of a client.”

Nope. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have written about the eight phases of EMDR in previous GoodTherapy.org articles, so it is not necessary to go into great detail about them. Just know that it is imperative that people researching EMDR or considering an EMDR therapist know that there are eight distinct phases, and that a clinician who “dives into the eye movements” is missing many significantand necessary steps to doing this therapy. Trauma therapy, in and of itself, is recommended to occur in a staged approach, whether EMDR or not. Nevertheless, the EMDR stages are distinct and established in a specific order to ensure that a person is prepared and resourced to be able to move through trauma in a way that helps to support his or her safety and recovery.

Myth No. 4: EMDR is a one- to five-session therapy approach.

Well, yes and no—this is not a complete myth. But there is an important caveat that all EMDR therapists should share with you. Yes, in some cases EMDR can be a fast treatment. Yes, I have seen one- to five-session recovery from a traumatic incident. But the people in therapy had few other traumas, it was a one-time event, and there were no other factors that would contribute to blocking EMDR treatment effects. That said, in my practice, such cases are the minority. Most of my clients are dealing with layers of trauma as well as other challenges.

Consider this: EMDR is a powerful therapy and can move traumatic material efficiently, asking the nervous system to rewire itself and “reorganize” the material in a more adaptive way, a way that helps memories shift out of a “state-dependent” form. There may be other factors, though. Is this a one-time accident or trauma with no other traumas “stacked” on top of it? Does the person experience complex PTSD which includes multiple and varied types of traumas? Is substance abuse or dissociation present? Does the person have any resources and positive-feeling states that can be accessed? These and myriad other factors can come into play. These factors may make for a more extensive and lengthy process.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Sarah Jenkins, MC, LPC, CPsychol, therapist in Tempe, Arizona

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Clayton

    Clayton

    May 6th, 2014 at 3:34 PM

    This has to be beneficial that EMDR can work so quickly in some patients?

  • Ben

    Ben

    May 6th, 2014 at 7:35 PM

    What would you argue for those that believe that EMDR’s effectiveness is solely due to similar properties to cognitive behavioral therapies, such as desensitization and exposure?

  • Vance

    Vance

    May 7th, 2014 at 3:23 AM

    Pretty interesting how the whole theory came into being, how working with one or two patients can send research onto a whole new level and help you discover something that could be beneficial to so many.

  • stressmom

    stressmom

    May 13th, 2014 at 4:00 AM

    Probably because this is so specialized is why you don’t see that many therapists who even offer this kind of treatment. It does sound very interesting but to be honest with you, even though I have had a lot of friends go through some form of therapy I have never heard any of them talk about this as something that was used for them. Do you think that eventually there will be more interest and that it will catch on the same way that other treatments have?

  • Sarah Jenkins

    Sarah Jenkins

    May 13th, 2014 at 8:45 PM

    Just back from an EMDR Canada Conference and am so excited to see so many folks asking questions and diving in on this topic. Brilliant!

    Hi Clayton – yes it can work quickly for some patients – it depends on a variety of issues including if there is complex trauma, dissociation, substance-abuse etc.

    Vance – For sure – I am always interested and fascinated by how research unfolds from smaller observations – eye movements while walking in the park for example. Who would have thought!

    Ben – great question. From a research perspective, there are multiple studies on EMDR compared to Cognitive Therapies including Exposure. Studies have found that EMDR and CBT are equally viable – yet EMDR requires less sessions – it also doesn’t depend on homework in between sessions such as with Exposure and is often found with CBT.

    From having a trauma focused clinical practice, and from that perspective, I do think this homework issue makes a huge difference especially as clients w/ trauma who are often so triggered by the intrusive symptoms of PTSD that they may not feel/ really be safe or grounded enough to be able to do that homework in between or on their own. For complex trauma clients, in my experience, that may be a terrifying prospect and could be a barrier to treatment.

    Also – another key point that I consider is that with trauma survivors – what can be expressed verbally, their narrative, can be impacted by a shut down of Broca’s area. Specifically, as they get in touch with the traumatic content, the part of the brain responsible for verbal expression shuts down. EMDR enables us to do what I call an “emotional detox” while considering the body and allowing the narrative to often unfold sometimes after the processing of the trauma through the rest of the client’s system and getting to the limbic system.

    Stress Mom – There are actually quite a few therapists trained in EMDR and over 25 years that has evolved. When I first got trained 13 years ago – even then it was unusual, but now, not so much. In fact, long gone are the days when I was the only EMDR therapist in an entire agency! The reality is that EMDR has, as have all therapies, had to prove itself in the research and also had to obtain some face validity i.e. regarding the aspects of it that once were thought “strange” such as the Bi Lateral Stimulation – Phase 4. But, remember, organizations such as the World Health Organization and SAMSHA have approved it and it takes a ton of work and research to get approved. By the way, and with that in mind, SAMSHA indicates that since 1989 there have been about 100,000 therapists trained EMDR.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking questions!

  • Sarah Jenkins

    Sarah Jenkins

    May 29th, 2014 at 10:02 AM

    Thought I would also add a brief video link to this blog. It’s a video I made answering the question of “What Is EMDR.” It may also be a great supplement to this blog article and folks’ questions about EMDR and Trauma Therapy overall. Thanks! youtube.com/watch?v=QlyxsTPei1g

  • Caitlin

    Caitlin

    September 23rd, 2014 at 11:49 PM

    I’m currently doing my own research on the subject to decide whether or not EMDR would be beneficial and if I would be a good candidate. I recently had to find a new therapist who has worked out very well thus far and believes I would really do well with it, but last one who knew me much better and knew my whole history did not think so. I believe the reasoning she gave wasn’t fully the truth, I just don’t think she thought I’d be stable enough to handle it.
    My fear is that it’s my job to access that traumatic memory and keep it there, but anytime I go to that place I usually just go into a shut down mode. Maybe the way the sessions work then I wouldn’t, but I don’t know. My apologies that’s a bit personal but some feedback on the ACTUAL process, the memories I’m accessing, for how long, and to what end. Is she prompting me in anyway?
    Just thinking about it makes me rather anxious.

  • Jeanne Mitchell

    Jeanne Mitchell

    September 30th, 2014 at 7:54 AM

    I am seeking information on your therapy.I am a university student. I would like to do an interview with some one in your office.

    Jeanne Mitchell

  • John J

    John J

    December 28th, 2016 at 1:14 AM

    I suffer long term PTSD and had EMDR treatment a few months ago. One treatment compleately knocked me out for 24 hours. I deeply regret having it as I had one of the worse night terrors in 25 years and have continual flashbacks to this day.

  • screaming sunset

    screaming sunset

    February 9th, 2017 at 12:01 PM

    John,
    I’m SO sorry to hear you had such a traumatic experience with this therapy. I suffer from Complex PTSD, BiPolar II, and ADHD. Although, I wonder which are correct diagnosises because each have so many overlapping symptoms. I wonder if this therapy works, because when my kids were younger, people always commented on my eye movements. I had a habit of quickly moving my eyes back and forth if I was stopped from moving physically. I was accused of being OCD, due to my “over cleaning”, and need for environmental perfection. Now that I have Fibromyalgia and cannot move the way I used to, I have terrible panic attacks and I’m desperate to find a solution. I thought this might be it. Your reaction was powerful, so it obviously affects one’s brain function. However, I don’t know that it’s worth it to have the trauma multiplied, as in your case.
    Sorry for the personal letter, I just wanted to explain where I’m coming from, let you know you’re not alone in your struggle, and offer my sincerest condolences for your situation. I hope you find relief and peace of mind.

  • Mr John J

    Mr John J

    February 10th, 2017 at 1:43 AM

    Thank you for your kind remarks. EMDR works for some people but not in my case. After my last session the therapist said to me “There all gone”. But the reality is I’m not in the least better and nightmares and flashbacks continue. I had one of my worst nightmares AFTER having EMDR, and get flashbacks often about the incident.
    I take most of the blame as I did not do any research on it. I would never have it again! Even the name Shapiio makes me feel very angry. It reminds me of ECT that I had many years ago. Every ECT went ok until I had my 11th one. I woke up with a massive right lobe headache and I still get them to this day. Trouble is, I find that your not allowed to complain of sessions going wrong, and this seems the case with EMDR too. I happened to get hold of certain medical reports lately and i’m still in shock re some of the content. Over many decades TRUST is a big thing with me especially as I’m a Christian. I’ve kept silent about these latest setbacks but feel I have more deep wounds now. I only wish I could transfer my head and place it on some of these so-called professionals for just 24 hours and see how they would cope. I welcome death but my Christian faith prevents me from harming myself. It’s a daily battle.
    Thank you again for your comments and may the Lord Jesus bless you greatly.

  • tameka

    tameka

    November 24th, 2017 at 4:55 AM

    Great article, I enjoyed reading your post on EMDR Therapy. Not many people know about this form of treatment or that it can even benefit addicts. Your experience with EMDR therapy has helped you and that is wonderful too see. As a recovering addict, I was able to witness the positive effects this treatment has on individuals. I’ve been doing research on EMDR treatments, how it helps and exactly what the pros and cons are.
    Hopefully, this information can assist someone (friends and families) in choosing the best treatment for someone they love.

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