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Dangers of EMDR Therapy: Key Risks and Considerations

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Exploring the therapeutic landscape, it’s crucial to acknowledge the potential risks and considerations associated with Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy.

While EMDR has proven highly effective for many individuals struggling with trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it’s essential to be aware of certain dangers and challenges that may arise during the process.

These could include the resurgence of distressing memories or emotions, temporary increased anxiety, or feelings of disorientation during or after a session.

Understanding EMDR Therapy

EMDR Therapy

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy is a psychotherapeutic approach that has been developed to treat individuals who have experienced traumatic events.

The goal of EMDR therapy is to help clients process and integrate distressing memories and resolve negative emotional experiences.

This is achieved through the use of eye movements, which are believed to stimulate the brain’s natural “adaptive information processing” system.

First sessions

EMDR therapy is structured around eight phases, which provide a comprehensive framework for the treatment process.

The therapist begins with client history and history-taking during the initial phases to better understand the client’s traumatic experiences and to assess their suitability for EMDR.

The client and therapist then work together to identify specific traumatic memories or incidents to focus on during the therapy sessions.

Desensitization and Reprocessing

The main part of EMDR therapy involves desensitization and reprocessing of the traumatic memories.

During this phase, the therapist guides the client to focus on the distressing memory while simultaneously engaging in eye movements or other forms of bilateral stimulation.

This is believed to help the client process and integrate the traumatic experience, reducing its negative emotional impact.

Therapist and Consultant Relationship

Throughout the EMDR therapy process, the therapist maintains a collaborative and supportive relationship with the client, ensuring their safety and promoting trust.

Therapists need to have a clear understanding of trauma and its effects on individuals in order to support clients and guide them through the EMDR process effectively.

EMDR Therapy Preparation and Process

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a psychological treatment approach used for various trauma-related disorders.

The process involves several stages that focus on preparation, assessment, installation, closure, and reevaluation to ensure successful treatment planning and execution.

EMDR therapy is generally conducted in a knowledgeable and neutral tone to maintain client comfort and engagement.

History Taking and Treatment PlanningIn this initial phase, the therapist gathers information about the client’s history, trauma, current symptoms, and goals for therapy.

Together, they create a treatment plan tailored to the client’s needs.
PreparationThe therapist explains the EMDR process and its techniques to the client, ensuring they understand what to expect.

Establishing trust and a sense of safety is crucial during this phase.
AssessmentThe therapist helps the client identify specific target memories or experiences that are causing distress.

They explore the emotions, beliefs, and physical sensations associated with these memories.
DesensitizationThis phase involves the use of bilateral stimulation, typically in the form of guided eye movements, to process the distressing memories.

Clients focus on the traumatic memory while simultaneously engaging in this bilateral stimulation.

The goal is to reduce the emotional charge associated with the memory.
InstallationIn this phase, positive beliefs and self-esteem are strengthened.

Clients identify and adopt positive beliefs that counteract the negative beliefs associated with the traumatic experience.
Body ScanThe therapist guides the client in a body scan to identify any remaining physical tension or discomfort related to the traumatic memory.

The client learns to release this tension.
ClosureAfter each session, the therapist helps the client return to a state of equilibrium.

The client practices self-soothing techniques to ensure they feel stable before leaving the session.
ReevaluationIn subsequent sessions, the therapist assesses progress and addresses any remaining distressing memories or related issues.

Additional EMDR processing may be necessary.

It’s important to note that EMDR is typically conducted over several sessions, with the number of sessions varying depending on the client’s needs and the complexity of their trauma.

The therapist’s role is to guide the client through these phases while providing support and ensuring their safety throughout the process.

Side Effects and Risks

EMDR side effects

EMDR therapy is a widely used approach for treating trauma-related disorders.

It is considered a safe and effective method, but like any other psychological intervention, it may come with some potential side effects and risks.

The potential for negative experiences during EMDR therapy, such as the temporary increase in stress or uncomfortable emotions, highlights the importance of working with a qualified, experienced therapist.

A skilled practitioner will be able to guide the individual through these challenging moments and minimize any adverse effects.

While EMDR therapy provides a valuable tool for addressing trauma-related disorders, it is not without risks.

Therefore, clients should be informed of the possible side effects and complications before starting therapy, and the therapist should closely monitor the individual’s progress to ensure their safety and well-being throughout the treatment process.

Stress and Anxiety

One of the possible side effects of EMDR therapy is an increase in stress and anxiety during the initial phase of the treatment.

This happens as the individual is required to focus on the traumatic memories, which can be emotionally distressing. 

However, these stress levels typically reduce as the therapy progresses and the traumatic memories are processed.

Uncomfortable Emotions and Physical Sensations

After EMDR session side effects

Another potential risk is the emergence of uncomfortable emotions and physical sensations during the therapy sessions.

Some individuals may feel a tightness in their chest, a rapid heartbeat, or other bodily reactions while revisiting traumatic experiences.

These symptoms usually subside once the session ends or shortly after.

Hallucinations or Delusions

In rare cases, EMDR therapy can lead to hallucinations or delusions, particularly in individuals with pre-existing psychiatric conditions. 

The therapist must be aware of the client’s mental health history and monitor for any signs of psychosis throughout the treatment.

Perceptions and Endorsements of EMDR Therapy

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a widely used treatment for trauma-related disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The therapy has gained acceptance and endorsement from various organizations, but some concerns regarding its effectiveness and safety have arisen.

American Psychiatric Association and American Psychological Association

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) recognizes EMDR as an effective treatment for PTSD in adults.

This endorsement adds to the therapy’s credibility as a viable option for individuals suffering from trauma-related disorders.

Moreover, the American Psychological Association (APA) has included EMDR in its list of evidence-based practices for the treatment of PTSD.

This acknowledgment further validates the therapy’s effectiveness and brings it closer to being widely accepted within the mental health community.

National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE)

In the United Kingdom, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has recommended EMDR as a treatment option for PTSD alongside other trauma-focused psychological therapies.

This recommendation supports the notion that EMDR is a suitable choice for therapists and clients seeking evidence-based treatments for trauma-related disorders.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

EMDR Therapy

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has also recognized the potential benefits of EMDR therapy by incorporating it into their treatment protocols for service members experiencing PTSD.

This adoption demonstrates the therapy’s perceived value and impact on the population most commonly affected by PTSD.

Despite the endorsements, some concerns regarding the safety and efficacy of EMDR therapy persist.

Critiques often focus on the lack of clarity regarding the underlying mechanisms leading to its reported effectiveness, as well as the potential for re-traumatization during the course of treatment.

These concerns necessitate further research and discussion to address the potential risks of EMDR therapy.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can EMDR make things worse?

In some cases, EMDR therapy may lead to an increase in distress or the emergence of new memories.

However, these situations are generally temporary and can be addressed within the therapy process.

Why is EMDR so controversial?

EMDR therapy is considered controversial due to a lack of consensus on its underlying mechanism, as well as skepticism about the role of eye movements in the therapy.

Despite this, numerous studies have supported its efficacy, and it has gained widespread acceptance as a valid treatment for trauma.

What are the potential side effects of EMDR?

The side effects of EMDR therapy are generally mild and temporary, especially when compared to the benefits experienced by many patients.

Common side effects include temporary increases in distress, vivid dreams, or the emergence of new memories.

It is essential to work with a qualified EMDR therapist to manage any side effects that arise during treatment.

Is there anyone who should avoid EMDR therapy?

EMDR therapy may not be suitable for everyone.

Individuals with certain medical conditions, such as uncontrolled epilepsy or severe mental illnesses, may need to consult their healthcare provider before undergoing EMDR therapy.

It is crucial to work with a qualified EMDR therapist who can assess each individual’s suitability for the treatment.

Are there any long-term effects from EMDR?

Long-term effects of EMDR therapy are generally positive, with many patients experiencing lasting reductions in PTSD symptoms, anxiety, and depression.

However, as with any therapeutic approach, individual experiences may vary.

Maintaining open communication with the therapist is critical to ensure that any ongoing issues are addressed appropriately.

Do some people experience depression after an EMDR session?

Some individuals may experience a temporary increase in depression or anxiety following an EMDR session.

This can result from the processing of traumatic memories or emotional material.

It is important to remember that these feelings are usually temporary and can be managed with the support of a qualified EMDR therapist.

Additional Resources

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About the author

Eliana Galindo
Eliana is a dedicated psychologist from Colombia who has gained extensive experience and made significant contributions in child development, clinical psychology, and rehabilitation psychology.Her work as a rehabilitation psychologist with disabled children has been transformative and compassionate. In the child development field, she creates nurturing environments through assessments, interventions, and collaboration with families.In clinical psychology, she supports individuals overcoming mental health challenges with empathy and evidence-based approaches. Inspired by her experiences, Eliana is motivated to write about mental health, aiming to raise awareness and advocate for a compassionate and inclusive approach to well-being.

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