Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or EMDR has been shown to be effective for a number of different psychological conditions now, not just just for trauma. What about anxiety and the debilitating effects it can have on a person’s life? Can EMDR help with this common mental condition?
EMDR can definitely help with anxiety since the “flight” or flight” response of internal stimulation and physiological arousal that is often associated with anxiety is something that EMDR is very effective at treating. The bilateral stimulation so often used in EMDR is very effective in quietening anxiety and other states of heightened internal arousal.
The EMDR methodology is specifically aimed at tapping a person in to a negative internal state physiologically and psychologically, and then effectively using the bilateral stimulation to “distract” the mind from focusing solely on the internal state of distress, thereby lessening the intensity of the anxiety or other emotional state.
In addition, EMDR is also very effective at resolving any underlying trauma which might be driving and fuelling the anxiety. In this sense it can be seen as a more fundamental kind of treatment which can address anxiety at the core. Let’s look in more detail at the nature of anxiety and how EMDR can help with it.
The Nature of Anxiety
“There’s not a single mental illness out there for which anxiety is not a key piece”
The excellent video above by Dr Ramani Durvalsula is a great introduction to the topic of anxiety. It is a crucial psychological condition to understand, since it is so common nowadays and in many ways can be seen to be the root of so many other psychological problems.
However, it is also important to add to this that anxiety itself also often stems in turn from unresolved underlying trauma, which is one of the reasons why EMDR can be so effective in treating it. We will cover this in more detail below.
Firstly, it is important to scale anxiety. Anxiety and worry can range from the normal background level that is unavoidable in daily life to the horrendous “ten out of ten” intensity of severe anxiety that can be utterly cripping and paralyzing to a person.
We also all have different thresholds of anxiety we can tolerate before it becomes debilitating to us. Some people can withstand a lot; others can be crippled by even a small amount of anxiety.
It can also be something pervasive in a person’s life (or a period of it), something which comes on in waves of panic attacks or something which only appears in very specific circumstances eg. socializing, dating or talking to people. So it can appear in a number of different contexts, which can affect how it is viewed and addressed in therapy.
Adding to the confusion on this is that anxiety can be interpreted in a number of different ways. Of course anxiety is unpleasant and no one likes to experience it, but in some circumstances it can be seen as almost a self protective part of someone that is signalling that something needs to change.
It can almost be seen as a signal from the deepest part of oneself that something is seriously out of whack with some aspect in their life at the moment, be it a job, relationships or something else. It is a signal that something needs to change. In this sense, anxiety can be seen as an ally that is ultimately trying to help you in some cases, though it is never nice to experience at the time.
Anxiety can also be something that appears to come over someone when they enter certain situations, like rooms with lots of people in or some other social situations. There is something about the situation that triggers an unease or “angst” without the person – perhaps where the root of the word anxiety comes from.
Anxiety can also be something which meshes with worry and rumination in a vicious cycle, where a person starts to worry about something that has happened or might happen. Out of this an overwhelming anxiety can build up inside the person, affecting sleep levels and other aspects of life in a way that can be debilitating. They are living inside their heads and not in the present moment.
Anxiety can be a debilitating condition that takes people out of being present and in the moment
How EMDR Works
EMDR can help with this because the methodoloy of the EMDR process heavily involves something known as bilateral stimulation, which has been shown to be very effective in reducing internal states of distress within a person. See our article on bilateral stimulation for more on this.
In EMDR treatment, the therapist will usually tap the client into a traumatic memory or other state of distress, and then encourage them to focus on this inner state whilst also providing some form of external stimulation to follow.
This most often takes the form of the therapist moving their hand backwards and forwards for the person to follow with their eyes. Other stimulation such as audio or tapping can also be used. The client is meant to keep focus on both the internal state and also the external movement simultaneously.
This process of bilateral stimulation combined with a dual focus of attention, where the person is focused on the internal and the external simultaneously, has the effect of blurring or lessening the intensity of traumatic memories or internal states.
Because the mind/brain has something else to focus on and not just the traumatic memory and other associated inner experiences, the emotional sting is taken out of it. When treated thoroughly using this EMDR method, the memory becomes just another memory which no longer burdens and bothers the person in the way it used to.
In this way EMDR is an immensely positive treatment which can help people move on from traumatic experiences in their life by reducing the negative emotional and physiological dynamics that are attached to them. They are able to make peace with them and let them go.
The precise mechanism by which EMDR works is not yet fully understood by experts, though there are several leading theories as to why it is so effective. See our detailed article on the subject. However, there is no longer any doubt that EMDR is very effective in treating trauma.
The proven effectiveness of EMDR means that it is actually a recommended treatment for trauma by the World Health Organization. However, there is also a growing body of research which shows it can be effective in treating other disorders. Let’s look at anxiety in particular below.
How EMDR Can Help With Anxiety
This methodology has most commonly been used to treat trauma, and the physiological states that are triggered when revisiting memories of this trauma. However, the same general principle applies to any psychological condition which produces a state of prolonged, subjective distress within the person.
People will sometimes refer to this as “that place inside” – a subjective psychological state that anxiety, trauma or other disorders can create inside them that leaves them unhappy, distressed, ruminating and distant from others.
As we have already touched on, anxiety is a very complex disorder, which can come from a number of different sources and be interpreted in a number of different ways. So it is impossible to say that EMDR will be effective in 100% of cases involving anxiety.
However, what can be said with certainty is that the EMDR process is often very effective in treating any psychological condition or disorder which creates a heightened state of distressing psychological and physiological arousal inside the person.
If you are in an unpleasant or distressing place inside, and ruminating about that state, as is so common with anxiety, then the bilateral stimulation that is such a major part of EMDR has the potential to greatly reduce this state of internal subjective distress.
In this sense, EMDR and bilateral stimulation can be seen as one form of a more general concept of a pattern interrupt, where some kind of outer stimulus allows the mind/brain to be distracted from some internal distressing state.
Giving the mind something else alongside the distress to focus on blurs and lessens the intensity of that state. See our article on EMDR and a Dual Focus of Attention for more on this.
In addition, EMDR can be very effective for anxiety simply because when traced back, so much anxiety stems from underlying trauma anyway. In many cases the anxiety is a symptom of these underlying unprocessed memories, and resolving these to resolution through EMDR often eliminates the anxiety which results from them.
In this sense, if anxiety is something which you suffer from, EMDR is definitely something worth looking into. This is not the same as recommending it for all cases of anxiety. Each case is different so it is important to consult a qualified therapist to assess what treatment options may be suitable for the anxiety the person is suffering from.
Academic evidence on the effectiveness of EMDR for treating anxiety is less prevalent than the research on other disorders like addition and depression for example. However, anecdotal evidence of EMDR helping with anxiety is very plentiful. Here are links to some scientific studies on using EMDR to treat anxiety.