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EMDR Therapy

Is EMDR Therapy an Effective Treatment?

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Updated April 29, 2011

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EMDR Therapy, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy, is a treatment designed to reduce psychological symptoms associated with traumatic events. While EMDR therapy was originally designed to treat posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it is now often used to treat a variety of mental health conditions, including anxiety disorders and depression. Because many individuals with borderline personality disorder (BPD) have trauma histories and related symptoms, this is one approach that may be offered.

What Is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR is considered an integrative approach to psychotherapy (i.e., talking therapy) meaning that it draws on a number of different theoretical perspectives of treatment (including cognitive behavioral and psychodynamic perspectives).

While EMDR includes many different elements and techniques, the central aspect of the approach is the use of "dual stimulation" to facilitate processing of painful or anxiety-producing memories.

The primary mode of dual stimulation is the use of eye-movements-- using this procedure, the therapist has the client recall a painful target memory (i.e., a trauma memory) while simultaneously moving their eyes left and right following the therapist's hand movements. Other forms of dual stimulation involve the use of tapping, tones, or other stimuli. The dual stimulation process is theorized to promote deeper reprocessing of the stored memory.

Is EMDR Therapy Effective?

There have been a number of research studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of EMDR in the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder. It is now considered an empirically supported treatment for PTSD; EMDR has been consistently shown to be more effective than waitlist conditions, and is about equally effective as exposure-based cognitive behavioral therapies (CBT) for PTSD (although there is some emerging evidence that CBT works more quickly and produces more symptom reduction than EMDR).

How Does EMDR Work?

Despite growing evidence that EMDR is an effective treatment for PTSD, this approach continues to generate some controversy in the field because very little is known about how EMDR works.

While the developer of EMDR, Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., has argued that the dual attention and stimulation process is central to the effectiveness of EMDR, research suggests that dual stimulation is not actually a necessary part of the treatment -- adding eye movements or any other form of dual stimulation does not lead to better symptom reduction. This suggests that the exposure component of the treatment (i.e., having a person revisit their traumatic memory) is the most important part of the treatment -- meaning that this treatment is really not very different from CBT.

How Can I Find an EMDR Therapist?

If you are interested in finding an EMDR therapist, you may want to try the therapist directory provided by the EMDR International Association. You can also try asking your primary care physician, general practitioner, or psychiatrist for a referral.

Because the research data suggest that CBT may be a more effective form of treatment for trauma-related symptoms, you may want to also consider this treatment option. To find a CBT therapist, try the Find a Therapist Directory on the Association for Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies website.

Sources:

Bisson JI, Ehlers A, Matthews R, Pilling S, Richards D, Turner S. Psychological treatments for chronic post-traumatic stress disorder: Systematic review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Psychiatry 2007 Feb;190(2):97-104.

Devilly GJ. Power Therapies and possible threats to the science of psychology and psychiatry. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 2005 Jun;39(6):437-445.

Shapiro F. EMDR 12 years after its introduction: Past and future research. Journal of Clinical Psychology 2002 Jan;58(1):1-22.

Taylor S. Efficacy and Outcome Predictors for Three PTSD Treatments: Exposure Therapy, EMDR, and Relaxation Training. In: Taylor S, editor. Advances in the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder: Cognitive-behavioral perspectives. New York, NY US: Springer Publishing Co; 2004 p. 13-37.

Taylor S, Thordarson DS, Maxfield L, Fedoroff IC, Lovell K, Ogrodniczuk J. Comparative efficacy, speed, and adverse effects of three PTSD treatments: Exposure therapy, EMDR, and relaxation training. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 2003 Apr;71(2):330-338.

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