Why Does EMDR Therapy Work?

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EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Since its development in 1989, more than 20,000 mental health providers have been trained to use this relatively new treatment method. But why does EMDR work?

EMDR's origin

In order to understand why EMDR works, we first have to look at how it was developed. In the late 1980s, psychologist Francine Shapiro discovered a connection between persistent upsetting memories and eye movement. 

One day while on a walk, Shapiro noticed that while she recalled negative emotions, the negative feelings associated with her thoughts eased when her eyes darted from side to side. She later found the same positive effect in her patients.

Although EMDR is generally considered to be a safe treatment with few side effects, its effectiveness is still debated. And even its most enthusiastic supporters aren’t sure why it works. For now, all we have are theories.

A way to process painful memories

According to common theories behind EMDR, painful traumatic memories can cause lingering stress if they haven’t been completely processed. When sights, sounds, words, smells, or memories trigger unprocessed memories, you re-experience them. This re-experiencing is what causes emotional distress and the other symptoms categorized as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Some practitioners believe EMDR changes how your memories are stored in your brain. As an EMDR therapist leads the patient through a series of bilateral (side-to-side) eye movements while recalling traumatic experiences in manageable segments, the brain rearranges how it stores these memories, making them less upsetting. The EMDR treatment is repeated as many times as the brain needs until finally, the memories don’t cause additional distress.

A connection to exposure therapy

Another theory is that by recalling distressing events while diverting attention from the emotions of the event, patients can take control of their upsetting thoughts. EMDR borrows some basic principles used in prolonged exposure therapy – the gold-standard behavioral psychotherapeutic PTSD treatment.

In fact, in 2020 the American Psychological Association (APA) posited that EMDR might simply be a variety of exposure therapy. That would explain why EMDR and exposure therapy are both often used to treat similar issues, including phobias.

The Wound analogy

When you have an injury, your body works to close the wound. If something interferes with the healing process, the wound festers, causing more pain than it would if it were allowed to heal normally. Once the interference is removed, healing can resume.

EMDR follows a similar approach, but with mental healing instead of physical healing. EMDR’s school of thought asserts that the brain's information processing system naturally bends toward mental health. But if the system is blocked or imbalanced by a disturbing event that’s continuing to linger and cause harm, the emotional wound festers, causing additional suffering. EMDR helps remove the block so healing can resume normally.

The "not knowing is okay" argument

Some practitioners don’t think any of these explanations are correct, but simply argue that not knowing how EMDR works does not discount its track record of effectiveness.

It’s true that EMDR still needs to be studied more to prove its efficacy in additional populations and to fully understand why it works so well.

But for now, it can be a powerful tool for mental health providers and their patients. It can help patients with trauma live a fuller, happier life. Ask your provider if EMDR therapy is an option for you; they can walk you through deciding whether it can benefit your situation.

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