Does EMDR Work?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapeutic intervention developed for people struggling with trauma. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health describes trauma as: the lasting emotional response that often results from living through a distressing event. Experiencing a traumatic event can harm a person’s sense of safety, sense of self, and ability to regulate emotions and navigate relationships. Long after the traumatic event occurs, people with trauma can often feel shame, helplessness, powerlessness and intense fear.

Some of my clients have wondered whether what they experienced is really considered a trauma.  Personally I consider anything that overwhelms us and impacts our ability to cope as something worthy of the label.  Some examples of traumatic experiences include: childhood abuse (physical, mental, sexual), neglect, bullying, sexual assault, partner abuse, physical assault, a motor vehicle accident, a natural distater, losing a loved one, birth trauma, infedelity, etc.  This list is not exhaustive of course. Realistically it is not about whether the experience meets certain criteria that would be considered traumatic, but how the individual stores the experience in their mind and body.

Having a traumatic experience or experiences can cause the following:

  • Triggers
  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Intrusive thoughts

The human brain is naturally built to process and learn from different experiences, even difficult ones, however there are times when certain events are so overwhelming they get compartmentalized in the right hemisphere of the brain. EMDR works to strengthen positive memories and neural networks and then connect the traumatic memory to these positive neural networks while also desensitizing the individual to the memory. A unique component of EMDR is that it uses bilateral stimulation to help process the difficult memories.

Does EMDR Work?

Now that we’ve done a brief overview of WHAT EMDR is, we can get to the original question posed: Does EMDR really work? There has been a lot of research on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and trauma, and many studies on whether EMDR is an effective treatment.  I will do my best to give a brief overview of the research, however you would like to look at the studies yourself, you can check out: emdr.com/research-overview

The Research in (very brief) Summary

  • EMDR has been found to be an effective treatment for trauma – there have been multiple meta-analyses that have come to this conclusion (Chen et al., 2014; Lee & Cuijpers, 2013; Maxfield & Hyer, 2002; Khan et al., 2018).
  • Studies have found that for single incident traumas, EMDR can eliminate the symptoms of PTSD for 90-100% of individuals in three to six sessions (Rauthbaum, 1997; Ribchester, Yule, & Duncan,2010;  Konuk, 2006; Marcus, Marquis, & Sakai, 1997)
  • EMDR has been found to have equal effectiveness to CBT when it comes to treating trauma ((Bisson et al., 2013; Bradley et al., 2005; Seidler & Wagner, 2006; Watts et al, 2013) but with the added bonus of having no homework between sessions (Davidson and Parker, 2001; Ho and Lee, 2012; Power et al., 2002) and less prolonged exposure to the memory.
  • When treating trauma, EMDR was found to be more effective than CBT when it came to depressive symptoms (Ho and Lee, 2012; Power et al., 2002)
  • Neurobiological studies have shown that there are changes in the brain after participants receive EMDR treatment.  The results of these studies have found changes  in cortical, and limbic activation patterns, and increase in hippocampal volume (emdr.com/research-overview). This would suggest that there are changes to how the memory is stored in the brain after EMDR treatment.  

Overall the evidence shows that EMDR therapy is an effective treatment for trauma. However the evidence can only show us a very limited aspect of EMDR. I have found in my personal experience, as well as utilizing EMDR with clients, that there can be some very powerful healing that takes place.  EMDR helps individuals connect with the mind, body and emotions to support a deep and integrative healing experience.

References

Bisson, J., Roberts, N.P., Andrew, M., Cooper, R. & Lewis, C. (2013).  Psychological therapies for chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in adults (Review). Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2013, DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003388.pub4

Chen, Y. R., Hung, K. W., Tsai, J. C., Chu, H., Chung, M. H., Chen, S. R., … & Chou, K. R. (2014). Efficacy of eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing for patients with posttraumatic-stress disorder: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. PloS one, 9(8), e103676.

Davidson, P.R., & Parker, K.C.H. (2001). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): A meta-analysis. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 69, 305-316.

EMDR Institute Inc. (June 11, 2021) Research Overview. www.emdr.com/research-overview

Ho, M. S. K., & Lee, C. W. (2012). Cognitive behaviour therapy versus eye movement desensitization and reprocessing for post-traumatic disorder–is it all in the homework then?. Revue Européenne de Psychologie Appliquée/European Review of Applied Psychology, 62(4), 253-260.

Khan, A. M., Dar, S., Ahmed, R., Bachu, R., Adnan, M., & Kotapati, V. P. (2018). Cognitive Behavioral Therapy versus Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing in Patients with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials. Cureus, 10(9), e3250. https://doi.org/10.7759/cureus.3250

Konuk, E., Knipe, J., Eke, I., Yuksek, H., Yurtsever, A., & Ostep, S. (2006). The effects of EMDR therapy on post-traumatic stress disorder in survivors of the 1999 Marmara, Turkey, earthquake. International Journal of Stress Management, 13, 291-308.

Lee, C.W., & Cuijpers, P. (2013).  A meta-analysis of the contribution of eye movements in processing emotional memories. Journal of Behavior Therapy & Experimental Psychiatry, 44, 231-239.

Marcus, S., Marquis, P. & Sakai, C. (1997). Controlled study of treatment of PTSD using EMDR in an HMO setting.  Psychotherapy, 34, 307-315

Maxfield, L., & Hyer, L.A. (2002). The relationship between efficacy and methodology in studies investigating EMDR treatment of PTSD. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58, 23-41

Ribchester, T., Yule, W., & Duncan, A. (2010). EMDR for childhood PTSD after road traffic accidents: Attentional, memory, and attributional processes. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research,4(4), 138-147.

Rothbaum, B. (1997). A controlled study of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disordered sexual assault victims. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 61, 317-334.

Schwartz, A. (October 10, 2017) How does EMDR Therapy Work? Arielle Schwartz. https://drarielleschwartz.com/how-does-emdr-therapy-work-dr-arielle-schwartz/

Seidler, G.H., & Wagner, F.E. (2006). Comparing the efficacy of EMDR and trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy in the treatment of PTSD: a meta-analytic study. Psychological Medicine, 36,1515-1522.

Shapiro, F. (2001). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing: Basic principals, protocols and procedures. The Guilford Press

Watts, B.V. et al. (2013).  Meta-analysis of the efficacy of treatments for posttraumatic stress disorder. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 74, e541-550. doi: 10.4088/JCP.12r08225

Clare Pentelow, MSW, RSW, RP is a counsellor in the Kitchener Waterloo area. She has over 10 years experience working in the field of mental health, and has been using EMDR to support clients in processing trauma and reaching their healing goals for over 5 years.