EMDR vs. CBT vs. Traditional Talk Therapies

While EMDR protocols include elements of other modes of psychotherapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing does not depend on traditional ‘talk therapy.’ Similarly, unlike its cohort as a front-line treatment of trauma, namely cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), EMDR does not involve directly challenging beliefs, describing events in detail, exposure, or homework. Instead, EMDR uses the patient’s rhythmic eye movements under the guidance of a trained therapist to access and process subconscious memories. The speed at which change and psychological healing occurs has been described as remarkably fast and powerful.

Understanding How EMDR Works

To better understand how EMDR works, think of a piece of food that gets stuck in your throat. Until it can be dislodged or broken down, it cannot go down your digestive tract. The same thing applies to emotionally charged memories which are too ‘large’ or painful to ‘digest’ psychologically. They get stuck in your subconscious mind until they are accessed, processed, and healed. Traumatic experiences are known to overwhelm the brain’s natural coping capacity, giving rise to harmful coping strategies, blocked memories, present-day triggers, and other traumatic symptoms. EMDR has been found to be highly effective in helping dislodge ‘stuck’ memories, release repressed emotions, understand old experiences in new ways, and reprocess traumatic information so that it is no longer psychologically disruptive.

Given that the client is very much in charge during EMDR, therapists have championed this revolutionary therapy as ideal for people whose power has typically been taken away by violation or abuse.

EMDR and Bilateral Stimulation

Bilateral stimulation is the essential component of EMDR, allowing information to go to both sides of the brain by means of an alternating sequence. Specifically, during EMDR, the therapist guides a client in a series of bilateral or “left-right” eye movements while the client focuses on various aspects of a disturbing memory. This alternating sequence of eye movements is called “bilateral stimulation.” Other types of effective bilateral stimulation are finger, hand or toe tapping, hearing an alternating sound between the left and right ears while wearing headphones, or using a vibrating device to apply tactile stimulation to the back of the hand.

Theories behind the effectiveness of bilateral stimulation include:

  • Stimulating the right and left hemispheres of the brain encourages the two hemispheres to actively communicate with each other, resulting in a more integrated experience
  • Bilateral stimulation enables a sense of dual awareness, keeping clients in the present moment while the mind simultaneously goes somewhere else (into the past). This helps ground clients in the present, reducing the distress associated with events or memories being processed. Similarly, it helps keep the mind open to processing information in new and different ways.

At the beginning of an EMDR session, the therapist will ask the client to rate their level of distress, with the goal and hope that the level of distress will decrease and become less disabling by the end of the session. In the reprocessing phase of EMDR, clients attend to present triggers or past memories while engaging in bilateral stimulation. During this time, new insights or associations emerge or changes in memories. The good news is that one does not have to believe in EMDR for it to work. The powerful results speak for themselves.

EMDR Recognition

While EMDR began as new therapy for an age-old affliction and was met with skepticism, today eye movement desensitization and reprocessing is accepted as a treatment of choice for post-traumatic stress disorders by many trauma organizations and mental health departments. Over 20 controlled clinical trials have been completed, with results attesting to the value of EMDR and demonstrating its usefulness across age, gender, and culture.

Conditions Treated by EMDR

In addition to trauma, EMDR therapy is now applied to conditions such as:

  • Dissociative Disorders
  • Sexual/Physical Abuse
  • Substance Abuse/Addiction
  • Eating Disorders
  • Anxiety
  • Panic Attacks
  • Phobias
  • Performance Anxiety
  • Personality Disorders
  • Complicated Grief
  • Body Dismorphic Disorder

Finding an EMDR Therapist

Only fully trained EMDR clinicians holding a license in the field of mental health are qualified to guide patients in this process. For more information on EMDR and for a list of trained EMDR therapists, visit the website of the EMDR Institute, Inc.