EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitizing and Reprocessing) therapy has been shown to benefit those suffering from trauma. Developed by respected psychologist Francine Shapiro, it’s a well-documented procedure that has been scientifically proven to be effective.  Traditionally, it’s delivered one on one with a therapist; is it possible to do it independently by using a virtual tool?

For most people, the word “therapy” has the connotation of meeting with a therapist in person and talking face to face in an office.  With modern technology, and especially due to the pandemic, doing therapy online or even via text message has become more common.  Many therapists moved their practices completely online. The need for social distancing affected other healthcare practitioners, including doctors who started seeing their patients virtually over a screen.

Naturally, the need to do EMDR online also increased, as many trauma victims were no longer able to visit a therapist in person.  However, there are concerns when it comes to doing EMDR virtually.

Virtual EMDR Explained

There are two types of virtual or online EMDR. The first is when the session is guided by a therapist online through a video call. The second is by utilizing a tool that guides the patient through the different phases and steps of the process.

For this article, we’ll focus on the tool, as virtual EMDR with a therapist online is not much different than one on one sessions in person. However, using a tool is a bit different because it is self-administered without a therapist to instruct and guide you.

Virtual EMDR through a tool is structured the same way as traditional EMDR and based upon the same principles.  Because it is virtual, a computer (or other device) and a stable internet connection are necessary.  These tools are actually designed by therapists, using their voices and faces.  However, there is a higher degree of client involvement when using a tool.  It is important to understand that EMDR through a tool can still be successful without the live guidance of a therapist.

Do EMDR Tools Work?

EMDR is comprised of eight different phases and there are many steps involved in each phase.  Typically, the sessions last for 90 minutes.  EMDR is a structured therapy with a set protocol that all therapists follow alike.

Unlike talk therapy, this type of treatment is more directional and uses predetermined steps. In other words, EMDR is not as dynamic as talk therapy that necessitates having a face-to-face session with a therapist.

Again, these tools are designed with the help of therapists who have experience in EMDR. As a result, the videos and the tools are aligned with the core EMDR phases and steps.

The difference between working with a therapist and doing it online is that the client has to heed to the instructions themselves.  This is particularly important during the later stages of reprocessing and side-to-side eye movement. A therapist isn’t physically or virtually present to guide the process or to ensure that the client is following the instructions precisely.

This can be challenging for some clients, but not impossible. It also depends on the tool itself and what resources it utilizes.  Most such tools rely on video and audio guides to help the client self-administer EMDR at their own pace from home.  Again, adhering to those directions takes precedence, as it’s the client’s responsibility to ensure that they are following the directions.

EMDR’s effectiveness is not affected by whether the therapy was delivered in person or online.  EMDR has been found to be particularly effective in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from singular trauma. According to a publication in the Permanente Journal, 24 randomized controlled trials found EMDR to be beneficial in treating emotional trauma.

As of yet, there hasn’t been much research on the impact of EMDR when delivered through a virtual tool or self-administered EMDR.  However, the efficacy of the treatment itself is well established in the psychology world.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OlfQIRJEsYk

Benefits of Doing EMDR With a Tool

While those who have access to an EMDR therapist may benefit more from in person treatment, there are several benefits to using a virtual tool:

  • Affordable: Virtual EMDR tools are far more affordable than actual therapy.  EMDR requires 8 to 12 sessions and not everyone has insurance or the financial resources to afford this.
  • More Flexibility: Doing EMDR with a tool offers more flexibility.  The client can conduct it conveniently on their own timetable instead of working within a therapist’s schedule.  This can be especially beneficial if a therapist is booked out or may be going on vacation.
  • More Control: Self-administering EMDR can give control to the client. Even though they are following directions from the tool or video guide, they are ultimately in control of their imagery and activity (bilateral stimulation). 
  • Preference To Work Independently: Some people have other problems like social anxiety or trust issues that may prevent them from working with a therapist.  Using a virtual tool can help them work on their trauma without triggering their anxiety.
  • Remote Access: Not every therapist is specialized in EMDR, which can make finding proper care difficult for people in remote places. In many regions and countries, there’s a serious lack of psychotherapists and psychologists altogether. Under these circumstances, virtual EMDR can be the solution. The tool can be accessed by anyone, anywhere.

Challenges/Risks of Doing EMDR With a Tool

Self-administering EMDR through a tool isn’t without its drawbacks and challenges:

  • Dissociation:  During EMDR, there’s always a small risk of dissociation with current surroundings, especially in the later stages when the traumatic event is recalled.  Unlike a therapist, the virtual tool may not be equipped to handle this risk.
  • Lack of Therapeutic Alliance: The therapeutic relationship and the support that a client receives from a therapist is absent when using an EMDR tool. 
  • Finding a Suitable Place: An individual pursuing virtual EMDR may not have access to a private and safe space that is naturally provided by a therapist’s office.

How to Do EMDR Virtually?

Self-administering EMDR online with a tool can be effective if done properly, and it may be a more practical solution for some clients.  For in depth information about self-administered EMDR programs and tools, read our article about virtual EMDR.  There are different tools available and we recommend VirtualEMDRRead our review here.

BetterHelp has numerous certified therapists specializing in EMDR who can conduct the sessions completely online through video conferencing.  These sessions are very similar to meeting with a therapist in person opposed to conducting the session yourself using a tool.

Summary

If you’re concerned about whether EMDR through an online tool is workable, try it for yourself. It may not work for everyone, but for the most part, the procedure and steps are no different than doing it face to face with a therapist.  If you follow the instructions faithfully, you are more likely to have positive outcomes.

Online EMDR has its pros and cons, but it’s preferable than no treatment at all. It’s important to understand EMDR, whether physical or virtual, can only help with single trauma.