By Derin Kubilay - Clinical Psychologist & EMDR Therapist
When thinking about the therapeutic effects of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, it’s easy to fall in love with the idea of the treatment and all that it has to offer.
But like any other therapy, EMDR therapy has downsides too. You should be aware of these dangers before making any decisions regarding whether or not you want to try this type of treatment.
This guide will shed light on everything you need to know about the dangers of EMDR therapy.
New to EMDR? Click here to learn more about EMDR therapy.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a type of treatment that is effective in reducing symptoms of trauma.
For that reason, there are no reported dangers associated with EMDR therapy. In fact, WHO concluded that EMDR therapy is a safe technique people can use to heal from trauma.
EMDR can worsen if the person is not in a good mental state. For example, suppose they are in a severely depressed state and have suicidal thoughts. In that case, a non-competent therapist does not know how to deal with disturbing thoughts and overwhelming emotions.
On the other hand, there are good scientific articles exploring the role of using EMDR with suicidal patients (Fereidouni et al., 2019; Jamshidi et al., 2021; Proudlock and Peris, 2021).
In a general conclusion, they found that EMDR therapy reduces the severity of suicidal thoughts, depressive feelings, and mental health symptoms.
In fact, the improved adaptive response helps them to reimagine situations in better manageable ways. This increases self-efficacy and coping skills. To learn more, you can read this article.
Though most people report feeling better after EMDR therapy, there are some potential side effects that you should be aware of. These include:
Many kinds of therapy can make you feel uncomfortable or leave you with a sense of grief or loss after the session is over. It’s important to talk to your therapist about any worries or questions before starting sessions and to trust your clinic experiences during the sessions. EMDR may also trigger thoughts about past traumatic events, so it’s important to discuss these memories with your therapist so they can help you healthily process them.
New memories that surface during EMDR sessions are common, and your therapist is a master at helping you healthily manage them. However, if you struggle to manage these memories outside of therapy, you must consult with your therapist before continuing with sessions.
If you work with a couple and family therapist, it may be happened that your therapist recommend involving family members or other loved ones in future sessions.
These can arise during or after sessions, so it’s essential to be prepared for them. Staying with a disturbing memory can be tiring, and it can lead to some emotional sensitivity. However, it is a part of the journey. We should look for the meaning of this memory – what does it want to say to us?
It’s crucial to have a strong support system in place so you can talk about your emotions and healthily work through them. Medications might affect how EMDR works too, so if you’re taking anything like anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medications, or sleep aids, speak to your doctor about possible interactions beforehand.
These can include changes in heart rate, sweating, or shaking. There’s also a chance that you might feel lightheaded or dizzy during an EMDR session.
In addition, some people experience headaches, neck pain, nausea, or chest pain after EMDR therapy. So, you should be prepared for these sensations.
These are common after EMDR therapy and usually involve memories from your past. Your brain is reprocessing the remnants of the traumatic memories, and it is very typical to see vivid dreams. You may have more vivid dreams for a night or two.
If you’ve suffered nightmares before therapy, these usually disappear or lessen. If you find yourself experiencing nightmares or having difficulty waking up from these dreams, speak to your therapist about them.
The worst thing you can do is try to suppress these memories on your own, which will only lead to more intense nightmares. Instead, talk about them with someone close to you and always remember that whatever you’re dealing with, it doesn’t define who you are as a person.
After an EMDR session, it is not uncommon to feel worse before you feel better. This is because you are processing a lot of emotions and memories that you may have been repressing. If you feel more depressed after an EMDR session, you must talk to your therapist about this so they can help you healthily process these emotions.
It is important to note that sadness is a normal human emotion that everyone will experience at stressful times. Depression (major depressive disorder) is a mental disorder that has an overpowering effect on many parts of a person’s life.
No, it is not harmful as long as it is being done by a qualified therapist. The effects that come after a session vary on the person and can be positive or negative. Some people may have emotional responses to memories that are triggered during an EMDR session.
For example, they could feel frightened, overwhelmed, angry, or sad. But this usually passes once the therapy session has ended.
Talk to your therapist about what you’re feeling, and they will do their best to help you process those feelings in a safe environment where you feel supported and understood.
We do not ignore or avoid negative emotions; we see them, observe them as they are, and explore with the client together. We follow our negative feelings to see where they bring us.
Therapists might use another technique called “reprocessing therapy”. It is less focused on individual memories but instead focuses on how these memories affect your daily life in the present day.
Undeniably, there are several myths and misconceptions about the effectiveness and dangers of EMDR therapy.
EMDR therapy employs bilateral stimulation to activate both brain hemispheres for processing traumatic memories. The process includes remembering the event or trauma in detail, followed by adaptive resolution.
First, the client remembers the memory.
Then, she detects the worst image of the memory, the negative cognition underlying the memory, related emotions, and bodily sensations.
After detecting these, we start the bilateral stimulation. We want her to focus these components while simultaneously engaging in EMDR desensitization.
At this point, the client is instructed to only notice whatever spontaneously happens.
After each set of stimulation, the clinician instructs the client to let her mind go blank and to notice whatever thought, feeling, image, memory, or sensation comes to mind.
Depending upon the client’s report, the clinician will choose the next focus of attention.
This process basically reminds some individuals of hypnosis because it activates two brain parts. However, unlike hypnosis, EMDR does not rely on suggestions or ideas from others. Rather, it focuses on memories from personal experiences.
You can learn more about the 8 stages of EMDR here.
It’s a myth that EMDR only targets PTSD. In fact, this technique helps people address various psychological disorders such as mood disorders, anxiety-related disorders, substance abuse, and many more.
It is also wrong to think that EMDR cannot worsen one’s condition due to its intense nature. It is a myth that EMDR therapy involves PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Although a person with PTSD may also have difficulty forming and recalling memories, a diagnosis from a licensed therapist is required to determine if she suffers from PTSD.
However, even if they do, they will still need treatment for their condition with other accepted modalities known to be effective.
Although EMDR therapy is increasingly becoming popular among mental health professionals worldwide, the method was developed back in 1989 by Francine Shapiro.
In her own words, EMDR was initially conceptualized as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing to describe what seemed like a dual action mechanism of brain changes resulting from simultaneous eye movements paired with sets of external stimuli. So, this isn’t a new therapy!
This is a myth because EMDR only addresses specific issues that require desensitization and reprocessing. For example, when someone goes through this therapy, her emotions are made less negative, which makes them feel better overall. Also, no cases of severe deterioration have been reported so far.
No, this is untrue. There have been cases where people with epilepsy were treated with eye movement therapies and had no seizure-related episodes. However, it is still wise to tell your therapist if you have epilepsy so that they can avoid anything triggering a seizure episode during treatment sessions.
There is no way to know for sure if EMDR therapy will work for you.
However, Shapiro (2014) has shown that after completing a course of treatment with at least 12 sessions, 60-70% of people experience significant improvement in their symptoms.
EMDR Research Foundation reported that it has proven its success over 30 years on several mental disorders ranging from PTSD to mood disorders.
EMDR Institute stated that a couple of 90-minute EMDR sessions can show a remarkable decline in PTSD symptoms.
And because EMDR is noninvasive, it’s much safer than other treatments that can have lasting side effects.
EMDR therapy is an effective treatment for PTSD and other mental health issues. The benefits outweigh the risks, but it is crucial to know the possible consequences before beginning treatment.
If you are experiencing any side effects after an EMDR session that lasts more than a day or two, please contact your therapist immediately.
Clinical Psychologist & EMDR Therapist
Fereidouni, Z., Behnammoghadam, M., Jahanfar, A., & Dehghan, A. (2019). The Effect of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) on the severity of suicidal thoughts in patients with major depressive disorder: a randomized controlled trial. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 15, 2459–2466. https://doi.org/10.2147/NDT.S210757
Jamshidi, F., Rajabi, S., & Dehghani, Y. (2021). How to heal their psychological wounds? Effectiveness of EMDR therapy on post‐traumatic stress symptoms, mind‐wandering and suicidal ideation in Iranian child abuse victims. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 21(2), 412-421.
Proudlock, S., Peris, J. Using EMDR therapy with patients in an acute mental health crisis. BMC Psychiatry 20, 14 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-019-2426-7
Spector, J., & Kremer, S. (2009). Can I Use EMDR with clients who report suicidal ideation?. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 3(2), 107.