Eye-Movement Desensitization and Response (EMDR) can be an effective treatment for the symptoms of OCD.
If you live with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), you likely experience obsessions. These negative thoughts can be overwhelming and pervasive. You may even use compulsions to cope.
Many effective treatments for OCD are available, including a newer form of therapy: Eye Movement Desensitization and Response (EMDR) therapy.
EMDR is most commonly used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It aims to help you process traumatic memories in a safe environment. Research shows it can also help treat OCD, meaning your symptoms will have less of a daily impact.
The goal of EMDR is to help process traumatic memories to recover from the effects of trauma. Dr. Francine Shapiro developed it in 1987 to treat PTSD. It’s considered a nontraditional form of therapy.
EMDR is based on the idea that we don’t process traumatic memories correctly when they happen.
When we see something that reminds us of the trauma — or a trigger — it feels like it’s happening again. Our brains can’t distinguish between the past and the present. Those memories come up repeatedly in flashbacks, nightmares, and fear.
During an EMDR session, you recall traumatic memories while moving your eyes from left to right. This bilateral stimulation is meant to engage both sides of your brain. Your therapist might instead tap both of your hands alternately.
Recalling trauma while stimulating both sides of your brain helps you store those memories correctly to feel less vivid and fear-inducing. Because this is done in a safe environment, your nervous system learns to rest instead of entering fight, flight, or freeze mode when you remember the event.
What other conditions can EMDR help treat?
Although EMDR is primarily used for treating PTSD, research suggests it can also be used to treat:
- anxiety disorders
- bipolar disorder
- dissociative disorder
- eating disorders
- personality disorders
- substance use disorder
Even if you don’t fit the criteria for any of the above-mentioned conditions, a mental health professional might still recommend EMDR, especially if you’ve had a traumatic experience.
Research shows that EMDR can effectively treat people with OCD.
OCD is usually treated with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) called exposure response prevention (ERP) therapy. ERP helps you face triggers and manage obsessions without engaging in compulsions.
Although ERP is an effective OCD treatment, EMDR can also be helpful.
One review looked at nine studies on EMDR for OCD, all of which showed that EMDR improved OCD symptoms. The review concluded that EMDR could be as effective as ERP in treating OCD.
Participants in both groups improved symptoms, with no significant difference between the groups. This suggests that EMDR could be as effective as CBT.
EMDR might also be helpful for people who find that CBT isn’t helping them. A 2019 case series looked at eight people with OCD whose symptoms didn’t improve after CBT. Researchers found that EMDR was effective at reducing their symptoms.
Lastly, EMDR can complement ERP treatment. One 2020 study looked at 60 people with OCD who had experienced traumatic events. It found that participants who had both ERP and EMDR therapy experienced more improvement than those who had only ERP therapy.
Why does EMDR help with OCD?
While trauma doesn’t appear to be a main cause of OCD, stress — including abuse or a traumatic event — can trigger the onset of OCD in a person already at risk.
It makes sense then that OCD obsessions are often related to trauma. Processing this trauma can help reduce the fear at the heart of those obsessions.
Published EMDR treatment protocol for OCD suggests therapists treat each obsession and compulsion as a current, ongoing trauma. Through this method, EMDR might help people process their ongoing obsessions the way it helps people process past traumas.
What symptoms can it help with?
Is EMDR good for obsessions associated with OCD? Yes, it can be.
These obsessions are intrusive thoughts that are particularly upsetting, persistent, and repetitive. The 2020 research suggests that EMDR could reduce the intensity and frequency of those obsessions.
The studies also found that EMDR could help reduce compulsions and feelings of anxiety and depression associated with OCD.
While there is no cure for OCD, there are many effective ways to treat it. EMDR is one possible treatment. According to research, EMDR can help improve the symptoms of OCD.
If you’re considering EMDR for OCD, the first step is to find a therapist who is experienced in treating OCD with EMDR.
The International OCD Foundation has a list of OCD therapists. The EMDR International Association has a therapist directory.
It’s worth noting that EMDR isn’t for everyone. The OCD treatment that works for you might not work for another. You can explore possible ways to manage your OCD symptoms with your therapist.
Many people with OCD also benefit from prescription medication, support groups, and self-care strategies.