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Dangers of EMDR Therapy: Side Effects, Myths, & Misconceptions

Jul 26, 2023 | 0 comments

DISCLAIMER:

The information provided here is not intended to be a substitute for professional health and mental health care or consultation. Individuals who believe they may require or benefit from treatment should seek the advice of a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional.

Very Good Counseling is a private practice of licensed mental health therapists who specialize in EMDR.  We provide online mental health services to individuals throughout the State of Florida,  and in-person at our office in Fort Myers, FL. For more information, contact us.

by: <a href="https://vg-counseling.com/robert-g-engle-fort-myers/" target="_blank">Robert Engle, EMDRIA-Approved EMDR Therapist</a>

by: Robert Engle, EMDRIA-Approved EMDR Therapist

Because We Believe You Matter

Robert joined the practice full time in 2022 to help neurodivergent individuals with ADHD, anxiety, and depression find freedom and enjoy life through counseling. He is currently working towards becoming a Certified ADHD Professional (ADHD-CCSP). Trained in EMDR therapy, he excels at understanding the intricacies of ADHD and Trauma.

IS THIS REAL? 

EMDR is a bizarre and wondrous treatment, and anybody who first hears about it, myself included, thinks this is pretty hokey and strange.

– Bessel van der Kolk

 

In the realm of psychotherapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) shines as a beacon of hope for many grappling with PTSD, anxiety, and depression. But, like any therapy, it’s crucial to comprehend its potential side effects, pitfalls, and misconceptions. Join us in this comprehensive voyage through the landscape of EMDR therapy.

Overview and History of EMDR Therapy

Developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro, EMDR is a form of psychotherapy devised to mitigate distress associated with traumatic memories [1]. It employs bilateral stimulation—like eye movements or tapping—to assist clients in processing and integrating traumatic experiences, lessening their distress over time [2].

PROCESS AND PHASES OF EMDR THERAPY

The process of EMDR therapy typically navigates eight phases: history-taking, preparation, assessment, desensitization, installation, body scan, closure, and reevaluation [3]. These stages enable therapists to gauge a client’s readiness, pinpoint specific traumatic incidents to address, and support the client as they process these experiences.

EMDR THERAPY: A CASE STUDY

To provide a more detailed glimpse into the process, let’s consider the journey of John, a 35-year-old veteran who struggled with PTSD for years after returning from deployment. During the first stage of EMDR therapy, his therapist took a thorough history, which involved discussing John’s trauma and identifying potential targets for EMDR processing.

John’s therapist also equipped him with self-soothing strategies to cope with the emotional upheaval expected in the subsequent stages [4]. As John progressed through his EMDR journey, he experienced temporary increases in distress, flashbacks, and nightmares [5]. However, he reported significant reductions in his symptoms with time.

Potential Side Effects and Dangers of EMDR Therapy

As with John’s journey, potential dangers and side effects do exist. EMDR can stir up intense emotional responses as traumatic memories are processed. Clients may experience heightened distress or intrusive thoughts during or after sessions [5]. However, an experienced therapist, certified through an EMDRIA-approved training program [6], can help manage these reactions.

A common myth about EMDR is that it is a quick fix. While EMDR can yield swift results for some, it’s not instantaneous. The therapy’s effectiveness and timeframe depend on several factors, including the nature and number of traumatic events, the client’s readiness, and the presence of co-occurring mental health conditions [7].

EMDR therapy can be a transformative approach to addressing trauma and distressing experiences, but like any effective therapy, it is essential to recognize that there can be potential side effects. By understanding and acknowledging these risks, both therapists and clients can work together to ensure the success and safety of therapy.

Below are some possible side effects to be aware of:

NAVIGATING DISCOMFORT: THE INITIAL AWKWARDNESS

It is common for any type of therapy to feel uncomfortable, especially at the beginning. Initiating conversations with someone you may not know well can lead to feelings of awkwardness, and opening up about private thoughts and emotions can be challenging, potentially hindering progress in therapy.

For individuals with trauma, therapy can be even more demanding. Survivors of trauma may find it difficult to trust others and may experience an activation of their survival response during treatment. It is crucial for therapists to create a safe and supportive environment to help clients feel more at ease as therapy progresses.

NAVIGATING INTENSE EMOTIONS: RIDING THE EMOTIONAL WAVES

During EMDR therapy sessions, clients may experience strong and intense emotions that can persist for hours or even days after the session. It is not uncommon to feel upset, agitated, or on edge during this time.

It is essential to remember that these feelings are a natural part of the therapeutic process and are typically temporary. As therapy progresses, clients often find that their ability to process and manage emotions improves, leading to a greater sense of emotional balance.

PHYSICAL SENSATIONS: THE MIND-BODY CONNECTION

In the course of EMDR therapy, clients may encounter physical sensations, such as muscle tension and crying. These physical responses can be a manifestation of the mind-body connection during emotional processing.

If you experience physical discomfort or overwhelming sensations during a session, therapists are there to support them. Clients are always in control and can request a break or adjust the pace of the therapy as needed. It’s crucial to recognize that these sensations are likely to subside relatively quickly.

VIVID DREAMS: PROCESSING IN THE DREAM REALM

After attending an EMDR session, it is not unusual to notice new or intense dreams, which may include shifts in recurring dreams. These dreams are often a sign that the brain is actively reprocessing the material addressed in therapy.

Clients are encouraged to pay attention to their dreams and discuss them with their therapist, as they can offer valuable insights into the therapeutic process. We specialize in incorporating Jungian Psychology (Dreams) into EMDR therapy to help you move past and discover the meaning of these dreams with the power of EMDR.

EMOTIONAL SENSITIVITY: NAVIGATING VULNERABILITY

During EMDR sessions, you may find yourself feeling more emotionally sensitive than usual. Delving into traumatic memories and experiences can be emotionally draining, leading to heightened emotional sensitivity.

Clients are encouraged to take care of themselves during this time, ensuring they get enough rest and engage in self-care practices to support their emotional well-being. Therapists are there to provide guidance and support throughout this journey.

SURFACING OF NEW MEMORIES: UNSETTLING DISCOVERIES

As people focus on past memories during EMDR therapy, it is possible for other memories to emerge unexpectedly, which can be unsettling. These new memories may bring up additional emotional distress, requiring careful exploration and processing.

Therapists should work collaboratively with clients to determine how to address and manage these new memories, ensuring that they are contained and appropriately processed to minimize distress.

By being aware of these potential side effects and actively addressing them in therapy, clients can navigate the EMDR process with greater understanding and resilience. The therapeutic relationship and effective communication between the therapist and client are vital in ensuring a positive and transformative experience with EMDR therapy.

9 Misconceptions or Myths about EMDR Therapy

EMDR therapy has proven to be a powerful and effective approach for various mental health conditions, yet there are still some myths and misconceptions surrounding its application. By dispelling these misunderstandings, individuals can gain a clearer understanding of EMDR therapy’s capabilities and benefits.

MYTH 1: EMDR MERELY INVOLVES MOVING YOUR EYES BACK AND FORTH.

While eye movements are part of the process, EMDR is a multifaceted therapy incorporating elements of cognitive-behavioral, interpersonal, and body-centered therapies [8]. Unlike cognitive-behavioral therapy, which involves changing dysfunctional thinking patterns, EMDR therapy focuses on allowing the brain to resume its natural healing process [9].

MYTH 2: EMDR IS ONLY FOR THOSE WITH PTSD

One common misconception is that EMDR therapy is exclusively for individuals diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While it was initially developed to address trauma-related symptoms, EMDR has demonstrated effectiveness in treating other conditions, including anxiety, depression, panic disorders, and dissociation.

The adaptive nature of EMDR allows it to be applied to a wide range of mental health concerns, making it a versatile therapeutic approach.

MYTH 3: IMMEDIATE REPROCESSING OF TRAUMATIC MEMORIES

Some individuals may believe that they can immediately begin reprocessing their traumatic memories upon starting EMDR therapy. However, the therapeutic process requires a well-structured and thorough preparation stage.

During this stage, the therapist takes the client’s history, assesses their readiness for bilateral stimulation, and helps establish coping strategies.

EMDR therapists ensure that clients are emotionally and mentally equipped to handle the reprocessing stage before proceeding. Typically, reprocessing begins after several sessions of adequate preparation, ensuring a more productive and effective therapeutic journey.

MYTH 4: EMDR IS A FORM OF HYPNOSIS

The use of bilateral stimulation, such as eye movements, during EMDR sessions can lead some individuals to associate the therapy with hypnosis. However, it is crucial to clarify that EMDR is not hypnosis.

Unlike hypnosis, where individuals are in a trance-like state, EMDR maintains full client awareness and consciousness throughout the session. The bilateral stimulation utilized in EMDR serves as a mechanism to facilitate the reprocessing of distressing memories, enhancing the therapeutic process.

Additionally, there is an abundance of research and evidence supporting the efficacy of EMDR with bilateral stimulation as a potent treatment for trauma-related symptoms, further solidifying its legitimacy as a reputable therapeutic approach.

MYTH 5: CAN EMDR CAUSE DISSOCIATION?

Dissociation is characterized by a disconnection between a person’s thoughts, sensory experience, memory, and/or sense of identity. Since dissociation can arise as a result of experiencing trauma, individuals with dissociative tendencies may also seek EMDR therapy to address their distress.

While EMDR may not be the primary therapy for individuals with dissociative disorders, it can still be beneficial in improving their condition. The risks associated with EMDR for those with dissociation are similar to those for individuals with PTSD, and there is no evidence to suggest that EMDR therapy causes dissociation.

However, it is essential for therapists to approach EMDR treatment with caution, especially for clients with dissociative tendencies. Breaching dissociative boundaries too early in treatment can be risky and may result in an increase in suicidal ideation or destabilization.

Therefore, it is crucial for a skilled therapist to thoroughly assess each stage of EMDR and refrain from progressing to the reprocessing stage until the client is adequately prepared and ready to address their trauma in a safe and supportive environment.

MYTH 6: REVISITING TRAUMA IN DETAIL

One potential deterrent to seeking therapy can be the fear of delving into traumatic memories and recounting painful details. However, EMDR therapy does not require clients to share every intricate detail of their trauma. Therapists only need a few key details to facilitate the reprocessing of memories.

This client-centered approach ensures that individuals have control over how much they wish to share and still experience positive outcomes from the therapy. EMDR therapy emphasizes empowering clients to manage their emotional experiences while providing a safe and supportive space for healing.

MYTH 7: EMDR IS CREATING FALSE MEMORIES

The nature of EMDR therapy, centered around memory reprocessing, may raise concerns about the potential creation of false memories. However, it is essential to clarify that EMDR does not generate memories that did not previously exist in the individual’s experience.

EMDR works solely with existing memories, aiming to reprocess and integrate these memories in a healthier manner. Through this process, clients gain a more adaptive perspective, reducing the distress associated with traumatic events and experiences.

MYTH 8: LOSS OF CONTROL DURING EMDR

It is natural for individuals to wonder if engaging in EMDR therapy can cause them to become overwhelmed and lose control of their emotions. While any form of therapy can evoke emotions, becoming so emotionally overwhelmed that clients lose control is highly unlikely and has not been reported with EMDR therapy.

Therapists prioritize thorough preparation with their clients, equipping them with coping skills and tools to manage any emotional discomfort during the therapeutic process. Clients also have control over the therapy sessions and can request breaks if they need time to process their feelings.

MYTH 9: CAN EMDR MAKE THINGS WORSE?

For individuals whose primary coping mechanism is avoidance and minimizing distress, it may initially feel easier to ignore their traumatic experiences rather than confront them in EMDR therapy. Reflecting on past trauma during EMDR can be uncomfortable, especially when addressing long-suppressed memories.

In the early stages of therapy, it may seem like EMDR is exacerbating emotional pain, leading to the belief that things are getting worse before they get better.

It is important to remember that such discomfort is a natural part of the healing process. EMDR encourages the processing of distressing memories and emotions to promote long-term healing.

Although the initial stages of therapy may be challenging, this temporary discomfort often gives way to meaningful progress and emotional growth.

Therapists play a crucial role in guiding clients through these difficult moments, providing support and coping strategies to navigate the healing process. With the right therapeutic guidance and support, individuals can gradually work through their trauma and experience lasting positive changes in their well-being.

By debunking these myths and misconceptions, individuals can approach EMDR therapy with a clearer understanding of its potential benefits and applications. EMDR’s evidence-based approach offers hope and healing for those seeking to address trauma, life transitions, and distressing life events.

Understanding the potential side effects and misconceptions surrounding EMDR therapy is essential for both therapists and clients embarking on this transformative journey. While EMDR can be highly effective in alleviating the distress associated with trauma, life transitions, and distressing life events, it is essential to approach therapy with a balanced perspective and proper preparation.

EMDR therapy, under the guidance of a skilled and trained therapist, can empower individuals to process and integrate traumatic memories, resulting in positive and lasting changes in their emotional well-being.

The therapy’s evidence-based approach has been extensively researched and proven to be effective, making it a viable option for those seeking healing and recovery.

If you or someone you know is struggling with the aftermath of trauma or distressing life events, consider seeking EMDR therapy from a qualified and experienced therapist. EMDR’s unique approach to addressing traumatic memories while preserving their underlying lessons can help you reclaim control of your life and find renewed hope and resilience.

9 Ways EMDR is Effective: What Does the Research Say?

The benefits of EMDR are well documented in research. Studies, like the meta-analysis by Cuijpers et al. (2016), have demonstrated EMDR’s effectiveness in treating PTSD [10]. EMDR has been recognized as an effective treatment for trauma by organizations like the World Health Organization and the American Psychiatric Association [11].

EMDR therapy offers a wide range of benefits that extend beyond its original application for PTSD. As the field of psychology continues to explore the intricate workings of the human mind, EMDR has emerged as a valuable therapeutic approach for various mental health conditions. Let’s delve into some of the reasons why individuals may consider EMDR therapy and the cognitive benefits it provides:

1. ALTERNATIVE TREATMENT FOR VARIOUS DISORDERS

While EMDR’s initial development was focused on addressing PTSD, its efficacy has been extensively studied and proven effective for a broader spectrum of psychological conditions. Dissociative disorders, depression, and anxiety are among the many disorders where EMDR has shown positive outcomes, particularly when there are connections to childhood trauma.

The adaptive nature of EMDR allows it to be skillfully integrated with other therapeutic modalities, enhancing treatment outcomes for conditions beyond PTSD. As therapists tailor their approach to each individual’s unique needs, the versatility of EMDR therapy shines through, offering hope and healing to those facing a diverse array of challenges.

2. CHALLENGING UNHELPFUL THOUGHTS AND BELIEFS

At the core of EMDR therapy lies a profound ability to identify and challenge unhelpful thoughts associated with traumatic memories. Individuals who have experienced distressing events may carry self-blame, guilt, or negative self-perceptions as a result. EMDR facilitates a process where these cognitive distortions can be addressed, reevaluated, and ultimately reprocessed.

For example, a survivor of childhood trauma may harbor deep-seated beliefs of worthlessness or vulnerability. EMDR empowers them to confront these unhelpful thoughts and replace them with healthier, more constructive perspectives. Through guided sessions, the therapist gently guides the individual towards reframing their self-perception and cultivating a more compassionate and realistic view of themselves.

3. ENHANCING COGNITIVE FLEXIBILITY

EMDR therapy also enhances cognitive flexibility, which refers to the mind’s ability to adapt and shift between different thoughts, perspectives, or mental strategies. By processing traumatic memories, EMDR helps individuals untangle themselves from the rigid thought patterns that once kept them trapped in distress.

This newfound cognitive flexibility empowers individuals to approach challenges with greater adaptability and resilience. As they navigate life’s transitions and stressors, they can draw upon their improved cognitive flexibility, enabling them to respond to situations with clarity, creativity, and emotional balance.

4. BREAKING FREE FROM EMOTIONAL TRIGGERS

Traumatic memories can create powerful emotional triggers that hijack a person’s emotional equilibrium, causing intense distress and reactive behavior. EMDR therapy effectively desensitizes these emotional triggers, reducing their potency over time.

For example, an individual who experienced a car accident may find that certain sounds or sensations trigger intense anxiety or panic attacks. Through targeted EMDR sessions, the therapist guides the person to process the traumatic memory associated with the accident, diminishing the emotional charge attached to the triggers.

As a result, individuals become less prone to be emotionally hijacked by their trauma-related triggers, empowering them to regain control over their emotional responses and embrace a renewed sense of emotional stability.

5. A JOURNEY OF EMPOWERMENT AND RESILIENCE

EMDR therapy is not a one-size-fits-all approach; instead, it honors the unique life experiences and individual strengths of each client. The therapeutic journey with EMDR is one of empowerment and resilience, guided by skilled professionals who prioritize their clients’ safety and well-being throughout the process.

EMDR’s ability to address a wide range of mental health conditions while fostering cognitive growth and emotional healing makes it a transformative therapeutic option for those seeking to reclaim their lives from the grip of trauma and distress.

6. EFFICIENT AND SWIFT RESULTS

The hallmark of EMDR therapy is its ability to yield fast results compared to other therapeutic modalities. By directly targeting the traumatic memory causing distress, EMDR focuses on processing and reprocessing the distressing experiences.

This targeted approach may contribute to the expedited progress often reported by those who have undergone EMDR treatment. While it is essential to approach therapy with realistic expectations and allow the necessary time for healing, many individuals experience positive changes within a relatively short period of time, sometimes within as few as three sessions.

The pace of progress may vary depending on the complexity of the trauma and the individual’s readiness to engage in the therapeutic process.

7. MINIMAL DISCLOSURE OF TRAUMA DETAILS

EMDR therapy offers a unique advantage to individuals who struggle with discussing traumatic experiences. Unlike traditional talk therapies that may require detailed disclosure of distressing events, EMDR can be effectively conducted with the therapist having only basic knowledge of the trauma.

For those who find it challenging to articulate their trauma in words, EMDR provides a safe and effective alternative. The therapy centers on processing the emotional impact of the trauma, rather than dwelling on recounting all the intricate details.

This feature makes EMDR particularly appealing and accessible to individuals who may have difficulty verbally expressing their distress.

8. NURTURING SELF-ESTEEM AND POSITIVE SELF-PERCEPTION

Traumatic experiences can erode a person’s self-esteem, leading to negative self-perceptions and feelings of powerlessness. EMDR addresses these negative thoughts and beliefs, offering a path towards profound shifts in self-perception.

By processing the trauma and revisiting the distressing memories, individuals begin to challenge the false and damaging self-statements that may have haunted them. As the therapy progresses, they gain a new perspective and a deeper understanding of their resilience and strengths.

This shift in self-perception can have a profound impact on their self-worth and overall well-being.

9. RIGOROUSLY SUPPORTED BY RESEARCH

EMDR therapy boasts a robust body of evidence supporting its efficacy and positive outcomes for various psychological conditions. Numerous clinical studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of EMDR in treating PTSD, particularly in individuals dealing with a single traumatic event.

Research has even shown that EMDR can be as effective as other evidence-based treatments, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), for addressing trauma-related symptoms. A comprehensive 2014 study reviewed 24 randomized controlled trials that confirmed the effectiveness of EMDR therapy in trauma treatment, with some findings suggesting EMDR’s superiority to CBT (Shapiro, 2014).

Remember, therapy is a personalized journey. What matters is finding a therapeutic approach that resonates with you and supports your healing process. At Very Good Counseling, we’re dedicated to providing information, debunking myths, and guiding you on your path to wellness.

If you’re considering EMDR therapy, we invite you to reach out to our team of experienced therapists. As Dr. Francine Shapiro explains, ‘Processing does not mean talking about it. Processing means setting up a learning state that will allow experiences that are causing problems to be digested and stored appropriately in your brain.'[12].

Here at Very Good Counseling, we are committed to staying updated on advances in EMDR Therapy. Recent research published in the Journal of EMDR Practice and Research has found that EMDR therapy can also be effective in treating symptoms of depression [13].

EMDR therapy is a financial investment in your wellbeing, with costs varying widely depending on factors such as the therapist’s level of experience and the region they practice in [14]. Insurance coverage also varies, so it’s crucial to check with your provider.

EMDR Therapy

Once your EMDR journey is underway, remember to consider follow-up care and support. After completing EMDR therapy, regular therapy sessions can help maintain mental health improvements [15]. Support groups may also be helpful. 

Lastly, it’s normal to feel nervous about beginning EMDR therapy, especially if discussing traumatic experiences. But a qualified therapist will guide you through the process, ensuring your comfort and safety.

Cultural considerations may also play a role—some cultures may see discussing personal trauma with a stranger as taboo. Skilled therapists adapt their approach accordingly, ensuring sensitivity and respect.

For those considering EMDR therapy or wanting to learn more, explore resources like ‘Getting Past Your Past’ by Dr. Francine Shapiro or visit the EMDR Institute’s website. To help you decide if EMDR therapy might be right for you, consider clicking the link to set up your first session 

 

References:
[1]: Shapiro, F. (1989). Efficacy of the eye movement desensitization procedure in the treatment of traumatic memories. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 2(2), 199–223. [Link]

[2]: Shapiro, F. (2014). The role of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy in medicine: Addressing the psychological and physical symptoms stemming from adverse life experiences. The Permanente Journal, 18(1), 71–77. [Link]

[3]: Shapiro, F. (2001). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): Basic Principles, Protocols, and Procedures (2nd ed.). Guilford Press. [Link]

[4]: Ibid.

[5]: Ironson, G., Freund, B., Strauss, J. L., & Williams, J. (2002). Comparison of two treatments for traumatic stress: A community-based study of EMDR and prolonged exposure. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58(1), 113–128. [Link]

[6]: EMDR International Association. (2022). EMDRIA Certification. EMDRIA. [Link]

[7]: Shapiro, F. (2014). The role of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy in medicine: Addressing the psychological and physical symptoms stemming from adverse life experiences. The Permanente Journal, 18(1), 71–77. [Link]

[8]: Ibid.

[9]: Shapiro, F. (2018). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy, Third Edition: Basic Principles, Protocols, and Procedures. Guilford Publications. [Link]

[10]: Cuijpers, P., Karyotaki, E., Weitz, E., Andersson, G., Hollon, S. D., & van Straten, A. (2016). The effects of psychotherapies for major depression in adults on remission, recovery, and improvement: a meta-analysis. Psychological Medicine, 46(7), 1533–1545. [Link]

[11]: World Health Organization. (2013). Guidelines for the management of conditions specifically related to stress. World Health Organization. [Link]

[12]: Shapiro, F. (2012). Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy. Rodale Books. [Link]

[13]: Hofmann, A., Hilgers, A., Lehnung, M., Liebermann, P., Ostacoli, L., Schneider, W., & Hase, M. (2020). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing vs. treatment-as-usual for non-specific chronic back pain patients with psychological trauma: a randomized controlled pilot study. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 10, 884. [Link]

[14]: Talkspace. (2023). EMDR Therapy: What It Is And How It Works. [Link]

[15]: Shapiro, F. (2018). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy, Third Edition: Basic Principles, Protocols, and Procedures. Guilford Publications. [Link]

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