5 Mental Health Conditions that Can Benefit from EMDR

EMDR Therapy

Talk therapy can be beneficial for overcoming trauma and other mental health conditions, but it can dredge up uncomfortable emotions, and it can take a long time to see results. What if there was a therapeutic option that worked more quickly without the emotional challenges? There is, and it’s called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. First developed in the 1980s, and now widely embraced by mental health professionals, EMDR has been shown to treat a number of conditions, most notably trauma, adverse childhood events, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as related mental health issues. And experts suggest it may be more effective than traditional talk therapy.

Case studies and research are indicating that EMDR therapy may be helpful in alleviating a number of mental health conditions related to trauma, such as depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, and other psychiatric conditions. Click To Tweet

The process involves an EMDR therapist leading a patient through a series of bilateral (side-to-side) eye movements as they recall traumatic or triggering experiences in small segments until the painful memories no longer cause distress. EMDR essentially reduces symptoms of trauma by changing how memories are stored in our brains.

What’s more, preliminary case studies and research are indicating that EMDR therapy may be helpful in alleviating a number of mental health conditions related to trauma. Here’s what you need to know about this relatively new psychotherapeutic treatment and what conditions it can help.

THE ORIGINS OF EMDR

EMDR was first developed by a psychologist named Francine Shapiro in the 1980s. She conducted a study focused on 22 subjects who had suffered some form of trauma.  After undergoing an initial EMDR therapy session plus follow-ups at 1 and 3 months out, the study showed that EMDR successfully “desensitized” patients’ traumatic memories and “dramatically altered their cognitive understanding” of the situation. Additionally, they experienced behavioral changes, which included being freed of their primary complaints of intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, interrupted sleep, low self-esteem, and relationship issues. The remarkable findings were published in 1989 in the Journal of Traumatic Stress.

HOW EMDR LESSENS TRAUMA

A traumatic event or series of events triggers the body’s fight-or-flight stress response, which is designed to increase our chances of survival. However, with trauma, the brain doesn’t process the event(s) properly, and it fails to file the memory as a past event. The stress response stays engaged, and the brain stays alert to danger, even when it is safe. Sights, sounds, or smells, get attached to the trauma memory, and they can become triggers.

EMDR therapy helps our brain to process the traumatic memory that has the stress response and triggers associated with it and allows for natural healing to occur. The fight-or-flight response is essentially removed from the memory, yet the memory is retained. The memory of the trauma seems to be reconsolidated in such a way that it no longer causes severe distress when later recalled. When the PTSD symptoms are resolved or lessened, other conditions are helped too.

5 MENTAL HEALTH CONDITIONS THAT CAN BENEFIT FROM EMDR

1. PTSD

There are several forms of trauma: Nonviolent (emotional) trauma, adverse childhood events, and post-traumatic stress disorder. They all affect the nervous system and storage of traumatic memories in a similar fashion.

PTSD is the #1 condition EMDR was developed to help. As such, there’s a wealth of compelling research indicating its efficacy.

For example, a 2018 review of EMDR used to resolve PTSD examined a total of 2 meta-analyses and 4 randomized-controlled trials. The review concluded that EMDR therapy showed an improved diagnosis of PTSD and reduced its symptoms. It also helped reduce other trauma-related symptoms. What’s more, the studies reviewed indicated EMDR therapy to be more effective than other trauma treatments.

An earlier 2014 review of 24 randomized controlled studies suggested benefits from EMDR therapy for emotional trauma and adverse life events. In some of the reviewed studies, 84% to 90% of people who experienced a single trauma found relief from PTSD symptoms after just 3 EMDR sessions.

A Kaiser Permanente study involving 67 individuals with trauma assigned participants to either standard care treatment or EMDR. Compared to standard care, the EMDR group showed significantly greater improvement on measures of anxiety, depression, and PTSD, and a later follow-up showed the improvements were maintained at 3 and 6 months.

The American Psychiatric Association and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have recognized EMDR therapy as an effective treatment for PTSD.

2. Depression

Because EMDR has been proven to reduce rumination in patients with traumatic grief, researchers are now exploring it as a therapy to help those who suffer from major depressive disorder. So far, the research is promising.

A 2013 review found evidence that EMDR may be a potential new approach to treating depression but suggested that more evidence-based studies are needed to be conclusive.

More recently, research published in 2018 examined eight subjects with depression undergoing EMDR. Of the eight people engaged with the treatment, seven of them had shown “clinically significant and statistically reliable” improvement on the Hamilton Rating Scale for depression. The researchers concluded that EMDR is a feasible treatment for both recurrent and chronic depression.

A 2021 meta-analysis of 11 studies went further claiming that “EMDR may be considered an effective treatment for improving symptoms of depression, with effects comparable to other active treatments.” However, it recommended more studies on the long-term effects of EMDR.

3. Eating Disorders

Eating disorders have proven difficult to treat through conventional methods. Mental health experts are now exploring EMDR as a way to help since eating disorders are often a maladaptive response to traumatic experiences.

In one clinical case study, EMDR therapy played a critical role in the recovery of unremitting anorexia nervosa in a 17-year-old inpatient, helping her to return to a normal weight that was maintained at 12 and 24 months post-treatment. Another case report that examined EMDR and emotional eating found that the participant experienced an overall positive change in eating behavior. It also stated that EMDR might help to reduce weight over time and to improve results in maintaining weight after weight loss. A 2017 review published in Clinical Neuropsychiatry: Journal of Treatment Evaluation, concluded that EMDR holds promise for treating eating disorders, but recommended more scientific research for efficacy to be confirmed.

4. Substance Abuse

Similar to eating disorders, substance abuse issues are often associated with trauma and PTSD.  When EMDR has been used to treat both trauma and substance abuse, so far, research indicates positive results, although further investigation is needed.

A case study followed 4 individuals suffering from both PTSD and substance abuse issues who underwent EMDR. The results suggested that the treatment of PTSD with the standard EMDR protocol “can have a positive effect on substance abuse disorder symptoms up to at least 12 months posttreatment.”

5. Comorbid Psychiatric Issues

In a review study titled “EMDR: Beyond PTSD” researchers claim that solid evidence shows that traumatic events can contribute to the onset of psychiatric disorders and can worsen their prognosis. The researchers sought to find if EMDR could help psychiatric comorbidities to trauma, including bipolar disorder, unipolar depression, anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, and chronic back pain.

The review concluded that the available evidence shows that EMDR therapy improves trauma-associated symptoms in patients with comorbid psychiatric conditions. Additionally, it suggested that EMDR therapy could be useful in improving psychotic or affective symptoms, as well as helping with chronic pain conditions.

EMDR: A Viable Therapeutic Tool

The bottom line of the research on PTSD and other conditions shows that EMDR therapy is a viable and powerful psychotherapeutic tool on its own or in conjunction with other therapies.

Post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health disorders can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, remote clinical evaluations, and video therapy for adults, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

7 Comments »

  1. I am a LCSW. I just started the EMDR training. I found this article very informative. Thank you.

    Comment by Abbie Luck — August 8, 2022 @ 5:14 AM

  2. I begin my EMDR treatment this week. I am 45 yrs old with a history of childhood/adult trauma that has caused anxiety, depression, and PTSD. I am excited but nervous to begin this journey of healing, and can't wait to get to the other side.

    Comment by Candy Basnight — August 8, 2022 @ 5:22 AM

  3. Excellent article! I used EMDR to significantly reduce claustrophobia. The EMDR sessions enabled me to then successfully complete 20 HBOC sessions for brain injuries!

    Comment by Debbie Healy — August 8, 2022 @ 6:22 AM

  4. I've been teaching clients online for more than 3 decades how to use the eye movements to manage chronic pain, traumatic stress, hypertension and addiction. It's an excellent skill to learn.

    Comment by Richard Dale Hite — August 8, 2022 @ 8:34 AM

  5. EMDR has helped me immensely. I was able to resolve a nasty childhood trauma in three sessions!

    Comment by Joseph Nelson — August 8, 2022 @ 11:33 AM

  6. I started EMDR 10 months ago. It has changed my life for the better. It helped me come back from a terrible, unwanted divorce, losing my business, financial ruin, Covid, low self esteem all due to the aforementioned plus childhood traumas from being a homosexual. I highly recommend EMDR. Of course, it also would not have worked if it wasn’t for my OUTSTANDING THERAPIST.

    Comment by Guillermo Arriaga — August 8, 2022 @ 9:36 PM

  7. I've been practicing EMDR for 25 years. It's an amazing tool and has helped so many people heal! I'm so grateful for this tool.

    Comment by Cheryl Lyson — August 9, 2022 @ 5:10 AM

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