EMDR vs Talk Therapy (Complete Comparison)


Talk Therapy Chairs

Some people find that standard talk therapy isn’t particularly effective for helping them solve their problems, or else progress is painfully slow despite the often high cost of private counselling and psychotherapy. We talk specifically about people suffering from trauma or just struggling to get over and come to terms with their past. Are there any other solutions which may help?

In this article we want to speak about Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or EMDR as a potential alternative form of therapy better suited to help people overcome trauma and unpleasant events in their life, comparing and contrasting it to standard talk therapy.

It has been shown to be a very effective and deep reaching form of therapy which can root out and resolve trauma at the core and return people to a sense of wholeness again. It has been shown to be a very effective therapy at helping people come to terms with their past.

There are many cases, especially when trauma is involved, where EMDR may be more effective than conventional talk therapies in improving a person’s quality of life.

Here is a very quick comparison of EMDR to talk therapy, according to different criteria:

  • Cost – EMDR is often more expensive than talk therapy, but also often faster acting.
  • Speed – EMDR is often much faster acting than conventional talk therapy.
  • Effectiveness – EMDR can help process unresolved trauma that talk therapy cannot access.
  • Efficiency – EMDR has a ripple effect, whereby processing key experiences can also automatically process other related experiences to resolution. Talk therapy doesn’t have this.

Let’s compare and contrast EMDR with talk therapy in more detail, running through the pro’s and cons of standard therapy first, before detailing the benefits of EMDR as an alternative.

Getting Over the Past

By processing trauma on it’s own terms EMDR can better help people to fully let go of unpleasant things from their past.

Some Benefits of Talk Therapy

There is no doubt that standard talk therapy can be of great benefit to some people. Standard counselling and therapy often places an emphasis on getting clients to more fully and accurately verbalise their inner experiences, to be able to describe with more nuance and clarity exactly what’s going on inside them.

In this sense it can be an excellent tool of self awareness and clarity, getting the person to see more clearly the conflicts, contradictions and frustrations that may be going on inside them. If they have conflicting values and beliefs that are pulling them in different directions then talk therapy can uncover this and help them resolve these conflicts.

Talk therapy can also be excellent for developing communication skills, especially for couples counselling. It can help couples to learn where their communication has broken down, or perhaps that it never even properly started! A structured form of therapy guided by a counsellor can help couples communicate in a way that keeps their relationship open and harmonious but also honest.

There is also some evidence that developing a therapeutic relationship with a counsellor can be beneficial to clients in and of itself. It can provide a level of security and comfort to just know that their therapy sessions are a place where they can safely shut the world away for an hour and share their concerns and insecurities in a confidential environment.

A therapeutic relationship can represent a safety and security that has been missing in some people’s lives.

Some Limitations of Talk Therapy

So we absolutely do not want to knock talk therapy as it is can definitely alter many people’s lives for the better by providing self awareness, improving communication and resolving internal conflicts. However there are some cases in which talk therapy can prove ineffective for some people, especially people suffering from very deep trauma.

This can be people who have experienced trauma in the most obvious sense of war and natural disasters and other life threatening experiences, or it can be people who have just had a series of unpleasant things happen in their life in quick succession which have overwhelmed them and left them with the same PTSD symptoms.

They can find themselves stuck with a pervasive feeling of numbness and emptiness, unable to get pleasure out of any of the things that used to make them happy. Their life and relationships are unfulfilling and they may often say they miss their “old self” – the sense of self they had before the trauma which they can’t seem to get back to.

They may find talk therapy provides some of the benefits we mentioned but try as they might, they simply cannot shift this pervasive numbness. They can turn up, take the therapy seriously, and want to get better, but the talk therapy just can’t break them through this sense of being numb and frozen.

This is an important problem that needs to be addressed. Give that people are often spending hundreds or thousands of dollars of their resources, they need to be going to the right kind of therapy that is going to be giving them the most benefit for the vast sums of money they are often spending.

And in cases of trauma we want to single out EMDR as as important therapy that helps to resolve trauma in a more rapid and effective way than talk therapy sometimes can.

How EMDR Works

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or EMDR is a powerful form of therapy that can be used to specifically treat all forms of trauma, from “Big T” Traumas such as war and other life threatening and near death experiences, right down to “Small T” traumas or unpleasant life events.

The “Small T” label is unfortunate in some ways as it is quite clear that an accumulation of Small T traumas in a person’s life can have the same kind of effect as a Big T trauma, especially if they happen in quick succession.

For this reason we class trauma as anything unpleasant that has happened in a person’s life that they have struggled to fully process psychologically and “get over”.

EMDR involves an unusual methodology whereby a client is encouraged to tap in to memories of the trauma, and when brought back into awareness the therapist provides some kind of stimulus such as hand movements for their eyes to track backwards and forwards. This effectively stimulates the brain into processing the trauma.

How EMDR Works in 2 Minutes

 

Since the therapist is getting the client to hold the traumatic memory in the conscious mind as well as following the outer stimulus of the hand moving backwards and forwards, it effectively gives the mind more to think about than just the traumatic memory and therefore “blurs” or lessens the intensity of it.

The dual focus of attention appears to allow the mind to process and digest the trauma in a way it couldn’t at the initial time it happened.

EMDR has been shown to be an extremely effective therapy at treating all kinds of trauma, recommended by the World Health Organization as a Class A treatment for PTSD and other psychological problems.

The Efficiency of EMDR vs Talk Therapy

Moreover, EMDR practitioners have noticed it to be an extremely rapid and efficient form of therapy, often delivering very quick and permanent results in resolving trauma when compared to other forms of therapy.

The Ripple Effect of EMDR, whereby resolving one major instance of a certain class of experience such as humiliation or physical abuse will lead to resolution of all other instances of that type of experience, also makes it an immensely positive and effective form of therapy.

For people struggling with trauma in the widest sense of the word – anything unpleasant from their past they are struggling to move on from – then EMDR is most definitely a form of therapy that is worth looking into.

This is especially the case if you have tried talk therapy and have found it to be ineffective or very slow moving despite your best efforts and intentions.

The 8 Step Process of EMDR Briefly Explained

 

See here for our detailed article on how the 8 step EMDR process works.

How EMDR Differs From Talk Therapy

The answer as to why EMDR appears to be so effective in dealing with trauma when compared to other types of therapy maybe lies in the difference in methodology of how the EMDR framework views and treats psychological disturbance.

In short, it comes at the problem of psychological issues such as trauma in such as way that makes it more effective at addressing it at the deepest level than other forms of talk therapy.

In other words, EMDR works so well because it addresses the root cause of trauma in terms of the unprocessed memory itself rather than symptoms which can result from it such as dysfunctional behaviours or depression. In this way it can provide a more fundamental form of healing from trauma than other types of therapy, and can often do so more rapidly as well.

We have embedded a video below by the inventor of EMDR Francine Shapiro, where she goes through the EMDR process in full detail, including methodology, empiricial support, as well as comparisons to other forms of therapy such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Psychodynamic therapy. See the 2 minute mark where the full comparisons are drawn out.

EMDR treats the cause of trauma; other types of therapy treat symptoms only

 

EMDR Compared to Other Therapies

Type of TherapyViews source of psychological disturbance as:Treats With:
Psychodynamic TherapyConflicts in the conscious/subsconscious mindTalking, verbally working through conflicts and contradictions
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)Dysfunctional beliefs and behavioursDirectly challenge and modify these beliefs; set homework tasks
EMDRUnprocessed memories stored in the body/brainAccess and process these memories using eye movements and other stimulus

 

From the table above it is clear to see how EMDR can be so much more effective at treating trauma, as the methodology means it actually processes trauma on it’s own terms rather than trying to remedy the symptoms of the trauma while leaving the trauma itself untouched.

The latter method isn’t likely to be effective, simply because trauma stays stuck in the body and will do so for the rest of a person’s life unless it is actually accessed and processed.

So whilst accessing deeply unpleasant trauma from our lives can be a gruelling and difficult experience at the time, it will ultimately be a therapeutic and healing experience as it will pull trauma out by the root and fully allow the mind to “digest” it and let it go. It is the deepest and most thorough way of addressing trauma and is of potential benefit to anyone struggling to let go of their past.

See our EMDR Resouces page for links to some of the best books on EMDR therapy.

Cost Implications For EMDR vs Talk Therapy

This aspect can be a tricky one. EMDR therapy can sometimes be more expensive per session than standard talk therapy (not always though – prices for all types of therapy do vary according to the therapist).

However, EMDR can also act much faster than standard therapy, which can often take months or years to deliver significant progress. EMDR has been reported to deliver significant progress in 6 sessions or less. See our article on how quickly EMDR takes to work for more on this.

So to summarize, the per session cost of EMDR therapy can be higher than for talk therapy, but the total investment required to gain significant progress can be much less with EMDR, since it can for some clients be a very powerful and fast acting form of therapy.

The efficiency aspect of the ripple effect we mentioned above is also something to consider. In terms of getting the best value for money, EMDR can again be better here, since processing key “standout” or “cornerstone” experiences to resolution also processes other related experiences to resolution.

In talk therapy, you’d usually have to talk through each experience individually, which means more sessions and higher cost overall, even if the per session cost may be lower for some therapists.

Do Whatever Feels Right For You

Looking through the various criteria, then it does appear that EMDR can often have a distinctive edge over standard talk therapy for getting clients into a better place more quickly, and often with lower overall cost, especially when trauma is involved.

However, that is not to say that EMDR is the best option for everyone in all cases. It is important to consult with qualified professionals, who can conduct thorough evaluations to see which option may be best.

Here are some quick suggestions as to when each might be best.

Talk therapy may be best if:

  • You simply prefer discussing things face to face – the human interaction aspect is important in making you feel safe and validated.
  • You don’t have a history of really large scale trauma in your life.
  • You consider yourself a fairly well developed, balanced individual with healthy ego strength, who just wants to discuss some immediate, short term concerns in your life in a confidential space.
  • You are not willing to, or do not feel ready to, re-access and tap into large scale life traumas you have had. You want to approach therapy much more slowly and gradually.

EMDR therapy may be best if:

  • You have tried talk therapy and it hasn’t delivered great results.
  • You have tried talk therapy, and yet the same traumatic experiences that happened before have continued to happen.
  • You like the concept of resolving underlying causes (actual traumatic experiences), rather than symptoms which stem from the trauma (anxiety, depression, addiction etc).
  • See our linked articles on how EMDR can help treat anxiety, depression and addiction by resolving underlying traumatic experiences.
  • You have certain specific phobias (EMDR has been shown to be very effective at dealing with certain phobias).
  • You have a history of significant trauma in your life. The memory of these experiences continues to bother you and intrude into your thoughts.
  • You want fast acting, quicker results in resolving traumatic experiences and improving your quality of life.
  • You are not frightened to re-access traumatic experiences in order to process them to resolution. You are on board with the “the only way out is through” notion.

Click here for resources to help find an EMDR Therapist

Mindfulness as a Related Resource

At this point it will also be useful to mention the practice of mindfulness as another resource which can be used to help people in overcoming trauma in life. Whilst it is practiced in a different way, over time it can deliver a similar kind of result to EMDR in terms of providing people with a greater ability to let go unpleasant things from their past.

Mindfulness bascially involves the Buddhist practice of paying attention to things as they are in the present moment, without judgement or suppression. Most often this involves various forms of meditation, where the person focuses on the breath, sensations in their body or thought patterns in the mind.

Through constant practice and repetition, mindfulness meditation can improve our ability to stay present in moment to moment awareness, and also to not be so aversive and avoidant towards unpleasant moods and emotions such as anxiety and depression.

By letting all moods and experiences in, both good and bad, and observing them non judgementally, meditators often find that things like depression tend to go away very quickly of their own accord.

Once this kind of mindset is cultivated, people often report it gives them a greater ability to let go of traumatic and unpleasant experiences from their past. The meditation helps them to make peace with it after a certain amount of time as the Buddhist philosophy is very much about accepting things as they are and not trying to change them.

In this way mindfulness can be said to offer a similar kind of benefit to EMDR. However, the two methods do still vary drastically and it is safe to say that EMDR is a far faster acting and more powerful method of resolving trauma.

Mindfulness by contrast is a very gradual slow process which can require months or years of meditation practice before things can be fully let go.

For this reason EMDR has sometimes been called “Mindfulness on Steroids” as it appears to produce the same kind of effect as mindfulness, but in a much shorter space of time. There is also an aspect of mindfulness built into the EMDR process, as it involves paying attention to how trauma can manifest in physiological sensations in the body and using eye movements to process this residual energy.

Whilst being a more gradual slower acting way of letting go, mindfulness can still be enormously useful in and of itself, for building up moment to moment awareness and improving concentration and general mood regulation. It can be an excellent practice to supplement EMDR or talk therapy and a useful tool in it’s own right.

See our Mindfulness Resources page for more information.

Click here to see our EMDR Resources Page

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