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.

Medically reviewed in April 2021

Trauma is more common than you may think. In the United States, 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women have experienced at least one highly traumatic or terrifying ordeal in their lifetimes.  

These incidents may involve sexual assault, serious injury—such traumatic brain injury (TBI)— or witnessing violence and fighting in the military. We don’t fully understand why some people develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and others don’t. When it comes to American soldiers who have returned from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, at least 20 percent have been affected. Thirty percent of Vietnam war veterans, meanwhile, suffer from PTSD. 

I have many patients who suffer from 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 talk therapy is the most common form of 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. 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 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 his or her 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 
What EMDR does is change the way in which we process painful and traumatic memories. Patients still remember the events, but without the emotional attachment.  

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 by the American Psychological Association. EMDR is administered by psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists who have received special training. 

There have been at least 20 controlled studies done on EMDR. One study conducted at Kaiser Permanente found that 100 percent of those suffering a single trauma were cured of their PTSD. They were treated with only six 50-minute sessions. In another study, 77.7 percent of combat veterans no longer suffered from PTSD after 12 sessions. 

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.

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