Dangers of EMDR Therapy: Can EMDR Therapy Be Harmful?


Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or EMDR is a well-known therapy in the world of psychology. It’s typically used for trauma victims with classic PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) symptoms. But does it have any side effects?

Overall, EMDR is considered a safe therapy. In fact, it’s even recommended by professionals as well as organizations like the American Psychiatric Association (APA). As such, there are no dangers of using EMDR for a trauma victim or even someone with a dissociative disorder. However, there are challenges and some risks that the EMDR therapist must keep in mind and deal with during sessions. 

EMDR basically uses eye movements and bilateral stimuli to help trauma victims remember the traumatic event and process it in a new way so as to normalize those memories and make them less triggering and painful. In simpler terms, it allows trauma victims to process the traumatic event and the emotions related to it in a better and controlled way. 

Is EMDR Effective?

In order to determine EMDR’s safety, it’s vital to understand its effectiveness. At the end of the day, only a safe and tested therapy can produce positive results. In the case of EMDR, its high rates of effectiveness, as well as positive outcomes in trial studies, speak volumes about its safety. 

As many as 30 clinical studies have shown that EMDR is effective for people with PTSD, especially those dealing with a single trauma. Single trauma refers to an isolated traumatic event that causes emotional and mental problems for the victim, including PTSD symptoms. 

In fact, one review study from 2014 in the Permanente Journal suggested that EMDR may be even more effective for trauma victims than ubiquitous cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). 

Some research also found that this therapy can help trauma victims that are experiencing symptoms like anger and thoughts of self-harm or suicide. 

While Francine Shapiro, the psychologist behind EMDR, devised it for PTSD patients, it’s now used for other disorders as well, including dissociative disorders. It may also be used for depression or anxiety, especially those linked with childhood trauma. 

Many times EMDR is used alongside other therapies to bolster the results, especially when used for treating disorders other than PTSD. For PTSD, it still remains the most frequently used therapy and has also proved to be very helpful with OCDs.

It’s clear from scientific evidence as well as accounts from many seasoned psychologists that EMDR is an effective and rather quick way to help trauma victims. Moreover, it has been practiced for a long time, and there haven’t been reports of any serious side effects, so to speak. 

Challenges and Side-Effects of EMDR

EMDR is widely considered a safe and effective therapy by doctors and therapists alike. However, there are some challenges that therapists must address. Similarly, there may be side effects, although with very little chance. 

Understanding those challenges and risks can better equip both the therapist and the client to ensure the success of therapy. 

Emotional Side-Effects

EMDR, as a therapy, is marked by increased self-awareness for trauma victims. This can result in a number of side effects, including:

  • Surfacing of new traumatic memories
  • Strong, intense emotions during and after the sessions, lasting from hours to days
  • Physical sensations during the session
  • Vivid dreams 

These side-effects don’t last very long, typically, as the therapy carries on and the client improves their processing of emotions related to trauma. 

The beginning of the therapy can be triggering and emotional for a lot of the people that undergo this therapy. During the therapy, and particularly during the sessions, the client can be overwhelmed by emotions. 

Premature Reactivation of Traumatic Memory

EMDR is not a single-intervention therapy but a structured one comprising of several stages. These stages are designed so that the pace of the therapy is not too quick or too distressing for the client. 

Evoking traumatic memories too early in the process can be detrimental. It can take an emotional toll on the client, making the process too distressing for them. Getting to the eye movement session requires careful analysis by the therapist of whether the client is ready for this step. 

Risks with Dissociative Clients

Dissociative disorders often accompany PTSD, in which case EMDR can be useful for both disorders. Although EMDR may not be the main therapy for dissociative patients, it has the potential to improve their condition. 

That said, the risks with people with dissociative disorders are inherently the same as with people with just PTSD. As Dr. Shapiro herself has stated in her book about EMDR, penetrating the dissociative boundaries too early can be risky. It can result in an increase in suicidal/homicidal risk or destabilization that is beyond the control of the therapist. 

How to Ensure EMDR Safety and Effectiveness?

When done the right way, EMDR is harmless. Most people undergoing this therapy come out feeling and behaving much better than before. They have much better control over their emotions, and they see and perceive the traumatic memories differently. 

However, there are steps that ensure the effectiveness, and more importantly, the safety of the process. Obviously, you want to avoid the risks, however minimum. 

Choose a Trained EMDR Therapist

EMDR requires special training that isn’t always part of the general therapy training or degrees. Just because someone is a therapist doesn’t automatically mean they can deliver EMDR as well.

You should go with a therapist who is trained in EMDR and hasn’t had the training very long ago. While an EMDR certification isn’t required normally (some EMDR therapists don’t get certified), certification or membership with EMDRIA can ensure that the therapist is indeed trained in this therapy. 

When looking for a therapist near you, make sure to ask whether they are trained in EMDR. If you cannot find one, the online therapy platform BetterHelp.com may be a viable option. They have trained and vetted therapists that are available to communicate with easily and can deliver EMDR online.

Alternatively, you can also use a virtual EMDR therapy tool that allows you to self-administer the therapy. This essentially allows you to set the pace yourself and do it in an environment that’s safe for you. As the risks discussed above are very low, it’s generally just as safe a method as doing it with a therapist.  

Communicate With Your Therapist

It’s highly important for you to be comfortable with your therapist for EMDR to work. So ask questions about EMDR beforehand and discuss what it will be like, including side effects. 

During therapy sessions, don’t hesitate to speak about your feelings and thoughts. If something is uncomfortable or feels wrong, communicate your concerns. This will help your therapist help you, and it can make the whole experience safer. 

Bottomline

EMDR doesn’t cause any harmful side effects, as it’s safe when done the right way. Now, to ensure that it’s done the right way, you should choose an EMDR therapist who is well-trained in this therapy. 

If you live in a big city, finding a certified EMDR therapist shouldn’t be difficult. Plus, you always have the option of online therapy and self-administered EMDR. Whatever route you end up choosing, make sure to educate yourself so that you understand the process and can set expectations accordingly. 

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