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Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

However, EMDR is not a certain cure, nor always effective. In even the most successful studies approximately 25 percent to 33 percent of participants report no clear benefit. EMDR’s most consistent benefit is helping clients to feel better about themselves because they feel less troubled by and more able to cope with trauma memories. EMDR is less likely to actually change how much bodily arousal and mental hypervigilance trauma survivors experience, although such changes do occur at times.

EMDR also is not always the best treatment to deal with PTSD or related psychological problems. One study with Vietnam military veterans diagnosed with PTSD showed EMDR to be no better than other widely used forms of counseling. Another study with spider-phobic children showed EMDR to be less helpful than an “in vivo exposure” treatment in which the children gradually and safely saw and touched a variety of real or artificial spiders.

EMDR involves carefully but intensively confronting very frightening or disturbing memories. Some clients report that the eye movement feature of EMDR helped them to rapidly feel less terrified, intimidated, or hopeless while undergoing this therapeutic “exposure” to sources of fear, anxiety, or depression.

However, several studies suggest that “direct therapeutic exposure” by vividly and safely confronting stressors without eye movements is equally as effective as EMDR.

These studies, with combat veterans or civiliant trauma survivors diagnosed with PTSD, and with adults with phobias or panic disorder, raise the question of whether eye movements are essential to the positive results that can occur fullowing EMDR. That question remains unanswered.

If you or someone you know are considering undergoing EMDR, you should be aware, however, that PTSD is a complex and devastating disorder. No single procedure can “cure” PTSD.

The best treatment plan is based upon a thorough professional assessment, and may include individual therapies such as EMDR or therapeutic exposure, but also a range of other appropriate services such as group and family therapy, addiction care, medication, stress and anger management, vocational therapy, and healthcare. EMDR, like any other therapy, should be done with these basic guidelines:

  • with a goal of helping the survivor make sense of confusing disturbing experiences
  • with an emphasis on gaining self-esteem and personal empowerment
  • vividly and without avoiding any aspect of the experience, however stressful
  • guided by the survior’s desire for healing, not as a test of strength or stamina
  • with an emphasis upon helping the survivor find realistic new hope and optimism
  • free from pressure, demands, manipulation, or criticism from the therapist
  • with a goal of helping the survivor develop accurate and realistic self-understanding
  • guided by the survivor’s bodily and emotional feelings and awarenesses
  • at an intensity and pace that the survivor feels is helpful, not overwhelming
  • guided by an active and involved therapist

For information on qualified EMDR therapists, contact the International EMDR Network

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

Psych Central Staff

Psych Central Staff writers are vetted, professional authors and science journalists. All work written under this moniker is editorially and scientifically reviewed by Psych Central.

APA Reference
Psych Central. (2018). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 21, 2019, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.