Exploring Physical Side Effects of EMDR Therapy: Dispelling Misconceptions and Dangers

Physical Side Effects of EMDR

In the world of helping people with their feelings and thoughts, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy has become a solid way to help folks who are dealing with terrible memories and feeling very stressed out because of it.

However, just like any form of helping people, some misunderstandings and things can sometimes make it a little tricky. One such concern that often crops up in discussions is the possibility of physical side effects of EMDR therapy.

EMDR therapy, often spanning four to twelve sessions in a structured plan, effectively eases the emotional weight of traumatic memories. However, misconceptions can discourage potential beneficiaries.

Join us as we reveal the realities of EMDR therapy, clarifying its benefits and addressing physical concerns. By the journey’s end, you’ll grasp EMDR’s essence, its advantages, and whether it entails any physical risks.

Introduction To EMDR Treatment?

EMDR is short for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. A clever psychologist named Dr. Francine Shapiro came up with it back in 1987. She discovered that when she swayed her eyes from side to side while thinking about upsetting memories, the bad feelings connected to those memories became less potent.

Based on this discovery, Dr. Shapiro transformed EMDR into an eight-step therapy plan designed to assist patients in handling harrowing memories and lessening PTSD symptoms.

During EMDR, the therapist has the patient briefly focus on different aspects of the traumatic memory while simultaneously performing left-right eye movements, watching the therapist’s finger moving back and forth, or listening to tones alternating between ears. 

According to Shapiro, the bilateral stimulation of the brain using eye movements, sounds, or taps during EMDR induces a neurological state that finally allows traumatic memories to be processed correctly.

Once processed, the distressing memories are transformed into neutral memories that no longer cause PTSD symptoms. Proponents argue that EMDR can substantially improve PTSD symptoms in just a few sessions.

However, EMDR remains controversial due to insufficient high-quality evidence that it works. Critics argue that eye movements are unnecessary and that the benefits reported are simply due to standard exposure techniques common in other therapies. There are also concerns about possible adverse effects.

EMDR vs. Hypnosis - Physical Side Effects of EMDR

Why is EMDR So Controversial?

There are several reasons why EMDR has been controversial since its inception:

  1. Lack of evidence: Despite thousands of studies, critics argue insufficient high-quality evidence from randomized controlled trials proves EMDR is effective. Much of the research needs to be revised with biases and limitations. The few well-designed studies that exist provide only modest support.
  1. Unclear mechanism: How and why EMDR could work remains unclear. Shapiro’s theory about eye movements stimulating opposite sides of the brain is backed by something other than solid science. Critics argue any benefit reported is likely just due to the exposure techniques used.
  1. Potential adverse effects: Some patients have reported distressing psychological side effects after EMDR, such as worsening symptoms, dissociation, and even developing new trauma. However, research on prevalence and causes is limited.
  1. Commercial motives: The EMDR industry and training are lucrative, leading to accusations that financial reasons drive its promotion despite a lack of solid evidence. Millions have been spent marketing EMDR directly to consumers.
  1. Lack of standardization: There is no standard EMDR protocol, and therapists can be certified with minimal training. This raises concerns about quality control and inconsistent application in practice.

Given these criticisms, more high-quality research is still needed to determine if EMDR provides any added benefit over other PTSD treatments already proven effective. In the meantime, patients considering EMDR should weigh the potential risks and benefits.

The Power of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

EMDR therapy taps into the incredible power of our brains to heal from troubling memories. Through guided eye movements and reprocessing, EMDR helps individuals reframe traumatic experiences, ultimately reducing their emotional impact.

This innovative approach has become a beacon of hope for those grappling with PTSD and distressing memories, offering a path toward healing and recovery worth exploring in more detail.

How to Begin EMDR Therapy?

Embarking on an EMDR therapy journey is a pivotal step toward healing from traumatic memories. To initiate this process, the first and foremost task is finding a qualified EMDR therapist. EMDR, when administered 4 to 12 times in a structured treatment plan, is an effective method for addressing distressing memories and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

1# Choosing the Right EMDR Therapist

Choosing the perfect EMDR therapist is essential. Ensure they are experienced in the field and have a history of effective treatment for PTSD and related issues.

When you’ve found a potential therapist, discussing your treatment plan, possible side effects, and the therapist’s approach is essential. Establishing a solid therapeutic alliance is critical, as this will be a cornerstone of your EMDR experience.

2# Preparing for Your First EMDR Session

Before your initial EMDR session, there are a few preparatory steps to consider. It’s essential to disclose your traumatic memories and any physical symptoms you may have experienced as part of your PTSD.

Your therapist will work with you to create a treatment plan that fits your needs. Remember that while EMDR can be an effective treatment for PTSD, it may not create new memories but rather help reprocess and alleviate the emotional distress associated with existing traumatic memories.

3# What to Expect After Starting EMDR

Following your initial EMDR session, feeling various emotions and physical sensations is typical.

These can include fatigue, vivid dreams, or heightened awareness of memories. This is a sign that the therapy is working, as your brain begins to reprocess and heal from past traumas. It’s crucial to keep talking openly with your therapist while discussing any worries or things that might happen. 

Over time, EMDR can provide significant relief from the emotional burden of traumatic memories, leading you toward healing and improved mental well-being.

Possible Dangers and Side Effects of EMDR

Although controlled studies have not found a higher prevalence of adverse effects compared to other therapies, some risks and side effects have been reported by patients undergoing EMDR:

Short-Term Side Effects of EMDR Therapy

  • Emotional Upheaval: Initially, EMDR therapy may evoke strong emotional reactions. Revisiting traumatic memories can stir up intense sadness, anger, or fear. These emotions can be overwhelming but are often part of the healing process.
  • Vivid Dreams and Nightmares: Some individuals may experience more vivid dreams or nightmares during EMDR treatment. These dreams may be related to the traumatic memories being processed and can be distressing.
  • Fatigue and Exhaustion: EMDR sessions can be mentally draining, leading to temporary fatigue or exhaustion after therapy. Setting aside time for taking care of yourself and resting is crucial to handle this side effect.
  • Heightened Anxiety: While EMDR aims to reduce anxiety related to traumatic memories, some individuals may experience increased stress during or after sessions as they confront distressing emotions and thoughts.

Long-Term Considerations with EMDR

  • Possible Relapses: Although EMDR can provide relief from distressing memories, individuals can experience occasional relapses of symptoms, especially during stressful periods. You might need to keep working with a therapist.
  • Integration of Healing: Long-term success with EMDR involves integrating the healing process into daily life. Individuals must continue using the coping strategies learned in therapy to manage stress and emotional triggers.
  • Maintenance Sessions: Some people find it beneficial to have periodic EMDR maintenance sessions to ensure that the positive effects of therapy are sustained over time.
  • Changing Perspectives: As EMDR helps individuals reframe traumatic memories, it can change how they view themselves and their world. This shift in perspective can take time to adapt to and may require ongoing support.
  • Worsening of Symptoms: Some patients say their PTSD or traumatic symptoms got worse rather than better after EMDR therapy. Bringing up traumatic memories or “reprocessing” them may cause further distress and anxiety in some individuals. This risk may be more significant for those with severe PTSD or complex trauma.
  • Dissociation: A dissociative disorder involves being disconnected from reality in some way. Pre-existing dissociation can increase with EMDR, with patients reporting feeling detached from themselves, their emotions, or their environment during or after treatment. 
  • New Trauma: For some, revisiting traumatic memories during EMDR and the way the treatment is conducted may inadvertently create new traumatic experiences. Patients report feeling re-traumatized or psychologically harmed by aspects of the EMDR process.
  • Abreactions: Some patients relive traumatic experiences vividly, experiencing abreactions where difficult emotions, memories, or physical sensations surge back. This can be not very pleasant or result in a PTSD-like response.

Other Physical Side Effects 

Anecdotal patient reports indicate a range of other physical reactions may also occasionally occur during or after EMDR, such as:

  • Nausea 
  • Perspiration
  • Stomach or bowel issues
  • Muscle twitches
  • Tingling sensations
  • Elevated heart rate and blood pressure

However, research has not confirmed whether side effects occur at a higher rate with EMDR compared to other therapies. Reported side effects may also be partially due to the natural distress provoked when confronting traumatic memories in treatment rather than the EMDR method itself.

Possible Dangers and Side Effects of EMDR

Debunking Misconceptions and Fears

Many misconceptions and unfounded fears surround EMDR therapy, which can deter individuals from seeking this potentially life-changing treatment. It’s imperative to bust these myths and give out the correct information.

EMDR therapy, conducted 4 to 12 times within a structured treatment plan, is not inherently dangerous. It is considered a safe and effective treatment for addressing distressing memories, PTSD, and related conditions.

EMDR Dangerous or Unethical

Critics have questioned the ethical implications of EMDR therapy, often fueled by misconceptions about the treatment’s safety. However, extensive research and clinical evidence support the safety and effectiveness of EMDR when administered by qualified therapists.

The therapy does not create new memories or pose significant physical risks. In contrast, it offers individuals the chance to heal from debilitating emotional distress.

Separating Fact from Fiction in EMDR Therapy

To truly understand the potential dangers of EMDR therapy, it’s crucial to separate fact from fiction. While individuals may experience short-term side effects such as vivid dreams and heightened anxiety during treatment, these are typically manageable and outweighed by the long-term benefits. 

The real danger lies in perpetuating misconceptions that deter individuals from seeking therapy that can improve their mental and emotional well-being. When conducted by a trained therapist, EMDR therapy offers a path to healing rather than posing any inherent dangers.

Is EMDR Risky? Myths about EMDR

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy works well for people with harsh memories and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But, like anything else, people sometimes believe things that aren’t true, which can make them scared or confused. 

Let’s dive into some common myths surrounding EMDR, clarify the differences between EMDR and hypnosis, and examine the reality of EMDR as a therapeutic approach.

Some critics have made alarming claims about the potential dangers of EMDR:

1> Myth: EMDR can cause dissociative identity disorder.

Reality: There is no evidence that EMDR causes dissociative identity disorder (DID), a complex dissociative disorder known as multiple personality disorder. EMDR may temporarily induce dissociative symptoms in those predisposed but cannot create DID.

2> Myth: EMDR can make false memories.

Reality: While EMDR may allow real memories to surface, there is no proof it can create radically false memories out of thin air. As with any psychotherapy, false memories remain a risk, however.

3> Myth: EMDR can make things worse.

Reality: Some patients report worsening symptoms, but controlled studies show adverse effects occur at similar rates during EMDR compared to other therapies. EMDR does not inherently make things worse when conducted by a properly trained therapist.

4> Myth: EMDR can cause personality changes.

Reality: While EMDR may help change thoughts, emotions, and behaviors related to trauma, there is no good evidence it alters core personality.

EMDR vs. Hypnosis: Clarifying the Difference

EMDR and hypnosis differ significantly in their approach and techniques:

  • EMDR uses bilateral stimulation, like moving your eyes or feeling things with your sense of touch, to help people deal with and change their scary memories. It focuses on desensitizing the emotional impact of these memories.
  • Hypnosis relies on relaxation and guided imagery to access the subconscious mind. It aims to modify behaviors or thought patterns through suggestion and is often used for issues like smoking cessation or weight loss.

Can EMDR Therapy Make Things Worse?


While some critics have overstated the risks, EMDR still appears capable of worsening trauma-related symptoms in some cases. 

Several factors may contribute to adverse effects:

  • Insufficient stabilization and preparation first. EMDR should only be undertaken once the patient has achieved some stabilization through techniques like mindfulness or breathing exercises. Rushing into reprocessing trauma too soon risks worse outcomes.
  • Inadequate training and competence of the therapist. Practitioners require extensive training to administer EMDR safely and effectively. Subpar therapist skills increase the risk of distress.
  • Treating severe or complex trauma. EMDR may be poorly suited for severe PTSD or complex cases until issues like extreme dissociation are addressed first.
  • Patient vulnerability. Those with severe mental illness, personality disorders, or a high level of fragility may be more susceptible to decompensation or side effects.
  • Distressing the patient. Pushing patients to discuss trauma details before they are ready or continuing EMDR after they become significantly distressed can cause harm.

Thus, myths, misconceptions, and dangers can cast unnecessary doubt on the efficacy and safety of EMDR therapy. Debunking these myths, clarifying the differences between EMDR and hypnosis, and emphasizing the evidence supporting EMDR’s effectiveness, proper screening, preparation, therapist expertise, and allowing clients to control the pace of sessions can help minimize adverse effects of EMDR. 

Benefits and Effectiveness of EMDR

EMDR therapy, administered 4 to 12 times in a structured treatment plan, offers many benefits. At the forefront is its remarkable effectiveness in alleviating the emotional burden of traumatic memories.

Individuals who undergo EMDR often report significant improvements in their mental health and overall well-being. The therapy can help individuals break free from the grip of distressing memories, ultimately leading to a better quality of life.

Despite the controversies and potential risks, some benefits of EMDR have been reported:

  • Numerous case studies and patient testimonials cite a significant reduction in PTSD and trauma symptoms for many individuals after EMDR.
  • Several meta-analyses have found significant effects of EMDR in treating PTSD compared to control groups, with moderate to large effect sizes.
  • Randomized trials have also reported that EMDR resulted in a more significant improvement of PTSD symptoms than non-EMDR treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
  • EMDR may achieve treatment results faster than other therapies like CBT or psychodynamic approaches. Trauma resolution can sometimes occur in just 3-4 sessions.

However, the quality of evidence is still lacking compared to other established PTSD treatments. Given the risks, some guidelines list EMDR as an optional second-line treatment for PTSD rather than a frontline treatment.

Why is EMDR So Controversial

Some Outstanding benefits of EMDR – Physical Side Effects of EMDR

Through rigorous research, it has been evident that EMDR treatment has fantastic benefits that are a pleasure signal for those facing symptoms. Let’s see those outstanding benefits briefly: 

1# Emotional Healing through EMDR

One of the primary benefits of EMDR is its capacity to facilitate emotional healing. Traumatic memories can be emotionally crippling, leading to PTSD and severe distress.

EMDR treatment helps individuals confront these memories in a safe and controlled environment, gradually reducing their emotional impact. It enables people to regain control over their emotions, fostering resilience and a sense of emotional well-being.

2# Cognitive Advantages of EMDR

Beyond emotional healing, EMDR offers cognitive advantages. It can help individuals reframe their perception of traumatic events, transforming negative beliefs into positive ones.

This mental shift empowers individuals to better cope with stress and adversity. Moreover, EMDR can enhance cognitive flexibility and problem-solving skills, aiding individuals in their daily lives beyond the therapy sessions.

3# The Physical and Spiritual Impact of EMDR

EMDR therapy is not confined to the emotional and cognitive realms; it also has physical and spiritual implications. While it may not create new memories, EMDR can significantly reduce the physical symptoms often associated with traumatic memories. 

Additionally, by addressing past traumas and promoting emotional healing, EMDR can lead to a profound spiritual well-being. Many individuals feel a renewed sense of purpose and inner peace after undergoing EMDR therapy, emphasizing its holistic impact on mind, body, and spirit.

Summing up the Topic for You

While EMDR therapy remains controversial given its unclear mechanisms and limited high-quality evidence base, patients report benefits in reducing traumatic symptoms when applied correctly under the right conditions. 

However, EMDR may also risk worsening symptoms or causing adverse psychological effects in some cases. Potential physical side effects include headaches, fatigue, and dissociation during sessions, though these appear no more common than with other therapies.

Proper therapist training, screening, and trauma preparation are essential to minimize risks.

The ongoing debate and uncertainty surrounding the physical side effects of EMDR therapy will likely continue until more definitive randomized trials demonstrate its efficacy and safety compared to established PTSD treatments.

Patients considering EMDR should have realistic expectations, ensure proper protocols are followed, and weigh the potential benefits against the risks for their situation.

EMDR does not usually cause physical pain directly. However, it can occasionally trigger headaches, muscle tension, stomach upset, tingling, or other discomforts as the body responds to the stress and emotional intensity of reprocessing trauma.

Some temporary eye strain, fatigue, or irritation may occur during EMDR from the eye movements. However, there is no evidence it damages vision or causes permanent eye problems. Breaks can be taken as needed.

No side effects like headaches or dissociation are typically temporary during or after treatment sessions. However, by uncovering trauma memories, EMDR may potentially worsen pre-existing trauma-related physical symptoms.

There is zero scientific evidence that EMDR damages the brain. Skeptics’ concerns are purely speculative. EMDR aims to stimulate and integrate connections between brain hemispheres, not harm the brain.

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