EMDR for PTSD: A Treatment That Works

Learn more about what EMDR therapy is and how it can benefit those working through the symptoms of PTSD.

therapist and patient

Updated on November 8, 2023.

Trauma is more common than you may think. In the United States, more than 90 percent of adults have experienced at least one traumatic or terrifying ordeal in their lifetimes, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). 

These incidents may involve a range of experiences, including natural disasters, accidents, assaults, serious injury—such as traumatic brain injury (TBI)—or experiencing or witnessing violence, including fighting in the military. 

Experts don’t fully understand why some people develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in response to traumatic events, while others don’t. When it comes to American soldiers who have returned from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, 29 percent were found by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to have had PTSD at some point. At least 10 percent of Vietnam war veterans, meanwhile, have experienced PTSD. 

I have many patients who have this potentially crippling anxiety disorder. Symptoms can include nightmares, insomnia, anxiety, depression, headaches, and joint and belly pain, to name a few. Most people experience emotional pain and suffering on a daily basis. They think about and repeatedly relive the trauma during the day and have nightmares at night.  

While the American Psychological Association (APA) recommends various forms of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as the front-line treatment for PTSD, a few years ago I became aware of a quick, safe, highly effective alternative treatment. It’s called EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, which the APA conditionally recommends as an appropriate alternative treatment with good outcomes. What I’ve found is that using EMDR for PTSD has worked on all of my patients who have been willing to try it—and most only needed a total of four sessions to see results. It has been truly remarkable. 

Here are a few commonly asked questions and answers about EMDR. 

What is EMDR therapy?

In 1987, Dr. Francine Shapiro, a psychologist, discovered a revolutionary way of diminishing the intensity of disturbing thoughts by directing a patient’s eye movements or by making rhythmic tapping sounds as the patient describes the traumatic event. 

What EMDR does is change the way in which we process painful and traumatic memories. Patients still remember the events, but the intensity and feelings surrounding them are reduced.  

What does EMDR treatment involve?

First, you’ll work with a therapist to create a comprehensive personal history. You’re then asked to make a list of the events that led to the trauma. The third step is to describe the negative thought associated with the trauma, and to develop a positive thought. The therapist then moves their hands back and forth in front of your face, asking you to follow these hand movements with your eyes. At the same time, you’re asked to describe in detail what happened to you.  

Some therapists, instead of directing your eye movements, use sounds such as tapping their hands or feet as you describe the event. By doing so, the therapist gradually shifts your focus to the positive thought. 

How does EMDR therapy work to alleviate trauma?

I have a great therapist to whom I refer the majority of my patients. She says it’s as if you are driving a pickup truck. All of your emotional baggage is in the back of that truck. You leave the tailgate down and start to drive. Watching in the rearview mirror, you can see the stuff flying out the back. You just keep on driving and leave it there. 

I have seen remarkable transformations in people who have undergone EMDR for trauma. While some professionals may feel it’s controversial, the therapy has received wide acceptance within the mental health community, including the APA. EMDR is administered by psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists who have received special training. 

There have been more than 100 randomized controlled studies done on EMDR. In a 2022 systematic review and meta-analysis published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, researchers compared the effectiveness of EMDR to CBT. They found that EMDR was just as effective as CBT for treatment of PTSD. Better still, positive outcomes could be reached much more quickly.

Another study published in BMC Psychiatry in 2021 found that even when patients received EMDR therapy from a therapist virtually, the treatment was effective. EMDR works, it’s quick, and it’s flexible—a great quality in this internet age. 

The biggest challenge I have had is convincing my patients to try it. Many are quite skeptical—some think these EMDR benefits can’t possibly be real, while others fear they’ll get their hopes up only to have it fail. 

If you or someone you know has experienced trauma, you might want to look into finding a therapist who is trained in using EMDR for PTSD. Ask your healthcare provider (HCP) for help finding a practitioner in your area. It may sound like an unusual approach—but there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain by giving it a try.

Article sources open article sources

National Council for Behavioral Health. Infographic: How to Manage Trauma. PDF accessed August 15, 2023.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: Practical Guide for Implementing a Trauma-Informed Approach. 2023.
National Institute of Mental Health. Coping with Traumatic Events. Page last reviewed May 2023.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. How Common is PTSD in Veterans? Page accessed August 15, 2023.
American Psychiatric Association. What is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? Page last reviewed November 2022.
American Psychological Association. PTSD Treatments. Page last updated June 2020.
EMDR International Association. EMDR Therapy Beginnings: Francine Shapiro. January 5, 2021.
EMDR Institute, Inc. Research Overview: Randomized Controlled Trauma Studies. Page accessed August 15, 2023.
Hudays A, Gallagher R, Hazazi A, et al. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing versus Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022 Dec 15;19(24):16836.
McGowan IW, Fisher N, Havens J, Proudlock S. An evaluation of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy delivered remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic. BMC Psychiatry. 2021 Nov 11;21(1):560. 

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