EMDR as a Psychotherapy Method for Anxiety, Panic, PTSD, and Trauma



EMDR as a Psychotherapy Method for Anxiety, Panic, PTSD, and Trauma

We all encounter stress throughout our daily lives. When a strong emotional response to a stressful or disturbing event makes it hard for a person to cope, it's often called traumatic.

By Mark Zuleger-Thyss

Editor, Garden of Healing, LLC



Although post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
is not always directly related to trauma,
it is beneficial for those who have witnessed or experienced trauma
to recognize the symptoms and seek help.


Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is a type of psychotherapy that uses thoughts, feelings, and body sensations to bring up a traumatic memory. This method involves moving your eyes a specific way while you "reprocess" the traumatic "stuck" memories.

EMDR Therapy can help people with various mental health conditions, such as anxiety and panic. This therapy method doesn't require talking in detail about a distressing issue. It instead focuses on changing the emotions, thoughts, or behaviors by "reprocessing" them. This allows your brain to resume a natural healing process.



Your "mind" and "brain" are not the same thing - they're different. Your brain is an organ of your body, and your mind is the collection of thoughts, memories, beliefs, and experiences that make you who you are.

The way your mind works relies on the structure of your brain. That structure involves networks of communicating brain cells across many different areas.

That's especially the case with sections that involve your memories and senses. This networking makes it faster and easier for those areas to work together. That's why your senses — sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings — can bring back strong memories.



The patient is asked to think about the traumatic memory and focus on an external stimulus that makes the eyes move side-to-side. These side-to-side eye movements help facilitate the belief's processing by activating both brain hemispheres.

EMDR practitioners might move a hand from side to side or wave a wand to prompt this eye moment. Or the practitioner might use a special light meter. To follow the prompt, the patient moves their eyes back and forth. 

In this process, the person notices any thoughts, feelings, images, memories, or sensations that might arise. For example, eye movements stimulate the brain to make associations and neural connections that help integrate disturbing memories.


EMDR is based on the observation that psychological stress can be reduced if the eyes are moved quickly and rhythmically while the patient is thinking about a stressful or traumatic event. Eventually, the distress associated with the memory dissolves.

Researchers believe that EMDR works by engaging similar brain mechanisms as those involved in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.


Adaptive Information Processing

EMDR relies on the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) model, a theory about how your brain stores memories. This evidence-based approach to treating trauma and PTSD is helpful for a wide range of other mental health issues. This theory recognizes that your brain stores normal and traumatic memories differently.

Developed in 1987 by Dr. Francine Shapiro, a psychologist and educator at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California, it has been around for over 25 years. EMDR is designed to heal the emotional distress resulting from traumatic memories. This approach has helped millions of people find relief from trauma-related mental health issues.


During everyday events, your brain stores memories smoothly and networks them so they connect to other things you remember.

During disturbing or upsetting events, networking doesn't happen correctly. Instead, the brain can go "offline." There needs to be more connection between what you experience (feel, hear, see) and what your brain stores in memory through language.

Often, your brain stores trauma memories in a way that doesn't allow for healthy healing. Trauma is like a wound that your brain hasn't been allowed to heal. Because it didn't have the chance to heal, your brain didn't receive the message that the danger was over. 

Recognizing Post-traumatic stress disorder in yourself or others

Trauma can vary in severity and impact—approximately one in three people who experience severe trauma also experience PTSD. People struggling with mental health symptoms, i.e., feeling sad, hopeless, and unable to function daily, should seek help as soon as possible.

You don't have to experience a specific trauma to develop PTSD. Many people associate this disorder with military veterans. While PTSD is common in military populations, witnessing an event, like a car accident, can trigger PTSD symptoms.

Trauma, depression, anxiety, grief, relational issues, low self-esteem, substance abuse, and other mood disorders can all be helped by EMDR in tandem with other scientifically validated modalities.

When considering if you or a loved one are living with PTSD, remember that the onset of symptoms can show at any time, not immediately after experiencing trauma. Some people have reported symptoms appearing decades after being exposed to trauma.



The most widespread use of EMDR is for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But EMDR therapy also is effective in reducing symptoms of the following conditions:


  • Anxiety disorders: Generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobias, and social anxiety/phobia. Phobia stress (caused by chronic disease).
  • Depression disorders: Major depressive disorder, persistent depressive disorder, and illness-related depression.
  • Dissociative disorders: dissociative identity disorder, amnesia, and depersonalization or derealization disorder.
  • Eating disorders: Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorders: obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), body dysmorphic disorder, and hoarding disorder.
  • Personality disorders: borderline personality disorder, avoidant personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and Schizophrenia.
  • Trauma disorders: Acute stress disorder, PTSD, and adjustment disorder.



The Advantages of EMDR

Dozens of studies have found that EMDR is safe and effective – it works.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing tends to work faster than other forms of therapy. Therefore, patients receiving EMDR start seeing results much sooner than with other forms of treatment.

Another advantage is it is frequently less stressful. EMDR focuses on "reprocessing" stuck emotional memories and moving past your trauma. Other therapy methods involve having you describe and even relive adverse, distressing events.


In the first few years, EMDR was mainly used to treat psychologically traumatized patients, but EMDR is now recognized worldwide and even by The World Health Organization (WHO).

After EMDR's early beginnings as a technique for treating PTSD, it has since developed into a psychotherapy method. It can be used effectively and efficiently to treat many mental health disorders.





Rapid Eye Movement Therapy for "reprocessing" the Amygdala

EMDR is a treatment that has been around since 1987 and may help patients with an over-activated Amygdala.

Control of the pre-frontal cortex is reduced when experiencing overwhelming events and reliving the trauma. When you get triggered, the rational thinking part of your brain can't control the emotional aspect of your brain, and you feel overwhelmed.

The traumatic memories get stuck in the Amygdala-hippocampal complex, and when triggered, they appear to occur in the present. "Stuck" memories are thought to be memories that haven't been processed yet.

While sleeping, we process and consolidate memories from the hippocampus to the neocortex. Regular, less traumatic memories don't become stuck because, at night, when we dream, these memories are moved out of the Amygdala-hippocampal complex and processed by the rest of the brain.


Neuroscientists propose that what happens during REM (dream) sleep happens during EMDR. This "reprocessing" temporarily slows down your Amygdala and synchronizes your brain waves, helping you deal with the traumatic memory.


During EMDR therapy, traumatic memories are continuously reactivated, replayed, and encoded into existing memory networks. EMDR helps traumatic memories become untangled and processed like your usual, less traumatic memories.





© 2023, Mark Zuleger-Thyss | Garden of Healing, LLC | All Rights Reserved. 


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