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Dangers of EMDR Therapy: Myth or Reality?
Mental Health

Dangers of EMDR Therapy: Myth or Reality?

HR_author_photo_Edibel
Written by Edibel Quintero, RD | Medically reviewed by Medically reviewed by Rosmy Barrios, MD check
Published on January 2, 2023
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7 min

Psychological therapies seek the patient’s well-being, but why are therapies like EMDR considered dangerous? This article explains it in detail.

Dangers of EMDR therapy
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The person who comes to therapy seeks to solve the problem that generates discomfort. Various types of therapy treat problems from different perspectives, EMDR therapy being one of these.

EMDR therapy is considered adequate when dealing with various mental disorders since it teaches the brain how to identify if it is in a dangerous situation or not. Like any other therapy, it has adverse effects that can be considered dangerous.

Are there really dangers of EMDR therapy? Why is this type of technique used in psychotherapy? This article explains what it consists of and how it affects the patient.

6 Dangers of EMDR You Should Be Aware of

All treatments have adverse effects that must be considered when accessing them, and EMDR therapy is not an exception. Some reactions could be considered dangers of EMDR due to how some people react to their exposure. The most common symptoms are the following:

#1 Vivid dreams

Vivid dreams are intense dreams that feel similar to real-life memories. The person is aware of the dream and can change its content. These dreams feel so real that they can affect a person’s mental health.

Vivid dreams are a form of reprocessing of what the brain is going through. This rarely happens after an EMDR therapy session.

#2 Discomfort during therapy

A person exposed to any type of therapy may feel uncomfortable. For many people, it is difficult to think and relive traumatic memories, so they repress them and avoid experiencing similar sensations.

While reliving trauma is quite a difficult process, it is part of therapy. There comes the point where the symptoms subside, and the brain calms down.

#3 Disturbing memories may arise

Exposure to EMDR therapy can bring to light memories that the person may think never happened when in fact, they did. It can be disturbing when it manifests itself. EMDR does not create memories that have not existed. Rather, it brings to light events that were experienced but had been forgotten by the patient. 

#4 Extreme tiredness after therapy

After an EMDR session, the patient may feel tired because of the work the brain is doing with the traumatic memory. Headaches also appear but are usually mild and disappear quickly. 

#5 Lightheadedness

The psychological and physical symptoms of EMDR therapy can make the patient feel lightheaded. This is possible due to all the physical and mental fatigue that the person goes through during the process. The mind is overloaded trying to relive the trauma, emotions surface, and physical reactions manifest.

#6 Emotional sensitivity

Because this type of therapy works on events that trigger overwhelming emotions, the person may feel emotional during and after the procedure. The therapist will be there to help the patient manage the reaction they will have during the process.

What Is EMDR?

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, known by its acronym as EMDR, is a type of psychotherapy that aims to treat various mental disorders. This therapy is commonly used to help people heal from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, panic disorders, specific phobias, and other pathologies.

EMDR therapy focuses on working on people’s traumatic memories to recover from the traumatic event that has marked their life, which will help them improve their mental health. This type of therapy uses eye movements, where the EMDR therapist moves their fingers, and the patient follows the movement with their eyes, which activates brain function, reintegrating the traumatic event but in a healthy way.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing does not mean that this type of mental health therapy involves performing eye movement. The EMDR therapist can relive the traumatic memories, but also other types of bilateral stimulation where the therapist gives small blows to the hands or shoulders of the patient or alternating sounds in both ears. Everything will depend on which process the patient feels more comfortable with.

What bilateral stimulation seeks is that both cerebral hemispheres connect and communicate to reduce the emotional burden that the trauma has generated. Emotional charges are common in the individual, they are born before a possible threat that the person feels, known as stress. When the load is exceeded, where the brain cannot process it, trauma originates.

Like other types of techniques, EMDR can be performed in the form of online therapy, which makes it easier for people anywhere in the world to access this type of therapeutic process.

Is EMDR Safe?

Like any other type of psychological therapy, it has its side effects, but if EMDR therapy is carried out by a professional in the area, it is a safe practice. Organizations such as the World Health Organization recommend EMDR as one of the treatments to be used for trauma-related disorders. It is also recognized within the scientific community.

The therapist will explain to the patient what therapy consists of and the effects that it may have during and after it. The fact that it is safe does not mean that it does not have effects since the person relives traumatic events that marked their life in a meaningful way, so it is common to expect reactions to the event that is recalled.

So far, there are no reports that this therapy is dangerous and that its use should be stopped. When distressing memories appear during the therapeutic process, the therapist will help the patient manage emotions through an established plan.

Can EMDR Make Things Worse?

At first glance, it may seem that EMDR therapy makes things worse, but this is not the case. 

During the therapeutic process, the patient relives the trauma, and the emotions appear. These emotions are often strong but are part of the healing process. When the person becomes aware of those emotions, the healing process can continue.

For a person who avoids experiencing emotions that remind them of a traumatic event, it’s difficult to start EMDR therapy. For example, a childhood trauma that has been so strong that the person, as a coping mechanism, forgets it. At first, it seems like the therapy makes the patient create events that didn’t happen, worsening their health.

Throughout the process, the mental health specialist will accompany the patient to manage those emotions that manifest when delving into the traumatic memory, making them feel as comfortable as possible.

Can EMDR Cause Panic Attacks?

One reason a person is undergoing EMDR therapy is to treat panic attacks, as it helps reduce the frequency with which they occur. This therapy does not cause panic attacks. What happens is that, like any other type of psychotherapy, working the traumatic memories manifests the symptoms, which leads to the belief that EMDR therapy is making the patient worse. The continuation of treatment reduces the symptoms.

Panic attacks are manifested in events similar to the trauma experienced. Any environmental stimulus, such as smells, places, or any element that the person associated with the traumatic event, the brain assimilates as dangerous, so their alarm system activates, and they think about protecting themselves. 

In EMDR therapy, the therapist teaches the patient how the brain can respond healthier. During the therapeutic process, the patient focuses on the events that led to the traumatic response and then is taught to connect both parts of the brain. The connections are made with the emotional and the logical part to identify that the situation was not threatening, making the fear decrease.

When the brain learns to respond in this way, there will be fewer panic attacks. The person may experience unexpected emotions, which is normal. The brain is going through a restructuring process where it is learning to respond differently than it was used to.

A Word From a Psychologist

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR, was developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro in the 1980s. One day, Shapiro was walking in a park and realized that eye movement lessens the discomfort generated by the traumatic memory. She tested it with other people and found that their response was similar, so she created a therapeutic process involving eye movement and other cognitive elements.

Through various studies, the doctor’s hypothesis underwent a structured psychotherapeutic process, showing efficacy in treating various mental disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, panic attacks, depression, abuse, and other mental illnesses.

Conclusion

EMDR therapy is considered an effective method to help people recover from traumatic events that affect their mental health and well-being. Like any other treatment, it has side effects that can impact the person in one way or another. When it comes to this type of technique, some adverse reactions that people who are under this treatment have can be considered dangerous. 

When talking about the dangers of EMDR therapy, it seems that the patient will have a negative experience that will make them feel worse, which is not true. While reliving trauma can cause discomfort and other emotions, this is part of the healing process.

The patient has to relive the trauma to teach their brain how they should respond to it and to situations that trigger similar emotions. This is a difficult process because there are traumas that have completely changed a person, but this therapy will contribute to positive changes in the patient’s life.

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HR_author_photo_Edibel
Written by
Edibel Quintero is a medical doctor who graduated in 2013 from the University of Zulia and has been working in her profession since then. She specializes in obesity and nutrition, physical rehabilitation, sports massage and post-operative rehabilitation. Edibel’s goal is to help people live healthier lives by educating them about food, exercise, mental wellness and other lifestyle choices that can improve their quality of life.
Medically reviewed by Rosmy Barrios, MD
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