Dangers of EMDR Therapy

practical psychology logo
Published by:
Practical Psychology

On The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, a housewife discusses her and her family’s experience with EMDR therapy. The therapy brought up memories of the housewife’s abusive childhood, memories that the housewife had blocked out. Although many viewers applauded the housewife for bringing these experiences out into the open, others warned that the dangers of EDMR therapy and similar techniques may outweigh the benefits.

EMDR therapy has been gaining popularity over the past few years. This approach to therapy is relatively new, and studies are still being done on the benefits and potential dangers of EMDR therapy. This page will offer insight into this beloved - and controversial - way to unpack and process traumatic events. 

What Is EMDR?

EMDR stands for “eye movement desensitization and reprocessing.” It is an eight-stage approach to therapy that allows patients to safely look at traumatic memories and experiences in a new light. The goal is to be able to process these memories and move forward into a life without the heavy weight of these memories. 

Is EMDR Therapy Hypnosis?  

The goals of EMDR and hypnosis may be the same - to reach peace of mind. But the methods used to unpack trauma are very different in an EMDR session and a hypnosis session. EMDR is an eight-stage process, with one stage particularly focusing on coping mechanisms, stress reduction, and handling distress. EMDR is so much more than just moving your eyes back and forth or tapping your body.

Why Do People Pursue EMDR? 

Traumatic memories can have a serious effect on a person’s mental health, even if those memories aren’t very clear. A person who experienced trauma or neglect as a child may not be able to articulate what happened to them, but they may still live with the negative feelings from that time. It isn’t until we process the memories that we can go on living and minimize their negative effects. 

One way that we process memories is by entering the REM stage of sleep. REM, which stands for “rapid eye movement” is the stage of sleep when we dream. This stage is critical for processing memories and emotions. A child who did not develop these skills due to trauma may still have trouble processing their memories. 

Early studies on EMDR show that integrating eye movement into the retrieval of traumatic memories can help patients process these memories. 

Who Founded EMDR Therapy? 

Francine Shapiro developed EMDR therapy in the 1980s. During a walk, Shapiro realized that she was seeing her negative memories in a new light. What was causing this positive change? From this walk, Shapiro decided to study how bilateral movement, like walking, and eye movement could change how patients remembered negative and traumatic events. 

Is EMDR Therapy Legitimate?

Yes! Although this process has only been around for a few decades, the studies on EMDR therapy have shown promising results:

“Seven of 10 studies reported EMDR therapy to be more rapid and/or more effective than trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy. Twelve randomized studies of the eye movement component noted rapid decreases in negative emotions and/or vividness of disturbing images, with an additional 8 reporting a variety of other memory effects. Numerous other evaluations document that EMDR therapy provides relief from a variety of somatic complaints.” 

It’s important to note that, because EMDR therapy is so “hot” right now, patients may try to administer facets of EMDR therapy on themselves without going through the proper training. EMDR therapy is not just about sitting down, waving a finger in front of your face, and making your trauma disappear. 

If you are interested in pursuing EMDR therapy, make sure you are working with a licensed professional. You may be instructed to try EMDR therapy only as a supplement to other forms of therapy. This recommendation is made to avoid any potential dangers of EMDR therapy and to ensure that the therapy works in the way it’s supposed to work. 

Can EMDR Help With Anxiety and Other Disorders?

Although EMDR is primarily used to treat simple PTSD, therapists have found success in using it to treat: 

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Dissociative identity disorder 
  • Eating disorders 
  • OCD
  • Other trauma disorders 

How Long Does EMDR Therapy Last? 

A therapist may move through the eight phases of EMDR therapy in 6-12 sessions, but the timing will depend on the patient’s past trauma and emotional processing.

According to the American Psychological Association, EMDR therapy takes place in eight phases:

  • Phase 1: History-taking
  • Phase 2: Preparing the client
  • Phase 3: Assessing the target memory
  • Phases 4-7: Processing the memory to adaptive resolution
  • Phase 8: Evaluating treatment results

If the patient is fully prepared or they have been working with an EMDR therapist previously, EMDR may only take a few sessions. A patient with complex PTSD, or a patient who needs assistance with handling emotional distress, may spend more time in “phase 2” than other patients. The “right” amount of time it takes to undergo EMDR therapy is the amount of time it takes to properly process traumatic memories. 

Dangers of EMDR Therapy

Facing any type of traumatic memory comes with risks if proper preparation is not taken. After all, our minds hide or repress traumatic memories for a reason. Bringing them to light can cause serious distress, especially if a patient has not developed proper coping mechanisms to handle emotional distress. 

Patients who undergo EMDR therapy may experience vivid dreams as they begin to face traumatic memories, but symptoms of anxiety will likely lessen as the treatment goes on. Before you undergo EMDR therapy, talk to your therapist (or get a second opinion) about how the treatment may affect mental health. EMDR therapy is a relatively safe form of therapy when performed properly. If your therapist claims that there are big risks involved in the therapy, you may want to work with someone else. 

Any new form of PTSD treatment is often met with controversy, and EMDR therapy has some naysayers. However, the studies that have come out regarding EMDR therapy have largely been positive. 

Can EMDR Cause False Memories? 

One concern regarding EMDR is the creation of false memories. During EMDR therapy, a therapist will ask their patient about past trauma. Any time a patient is asked to retrieve traumatic memories, especially traumatic memories from childhood that were not properly processed, the risk of creating false memories exists. This is not a problem unique to EMDR. Our minds want to “fill in the blanks,” and in people with PTSD, “individuals with these disorders tend to recollect emotionally negative experiences better than emotionally positive events.” 

Can EMDR Cause Psychosis? 

Early studies of EMDR showed that EMDR can reduce symptoms of psychosis, but these results are not guaranteed. The risk of developing psychosis from EMDR is similar to the risk of developing psychosis from other approaches. 

Other Therapy Approaches 

EMDR therapy is a relatively safe approach to processing trauma, but it’s not the only one. Many patients use EMDR as a supplement to other forms of therapy. Get familiar with these approaches as you look for a therapist to administer EMDR or other approaches. 

Systematic Desensitization

The “D” in EMDR stands for desensitization. This is not a new word in therapy or processing trauma. Systematic desensitization is an approach that many patients use to overcome phobias or process traumatic memories. Bilateral movements or eye movement may not be involved in systematic desensitization. Instead, a therapist will teach patients how to handle emotional distress, and then slowly expose their patients to distressing memories or thoughts. As the patient learns to associate these once distressing thoughts with relaxing ones, they can better face their fears. Flooding therapy is a more extreme version of systematic desensitization.


CBT stands for “cognitive behavioral therapy.” CBT is one of the most common approaches used by therapists today. This therapy takes a look at your thought patterns, and how those thought patterns affect your emotions and behaviors. By changing your thoughts, you can change your behaviors. 

CBT may be used in addition to EMDR, or as a way to regain stability when EMDR practices are used. A therapist using CBT on a patient may also recommend EMDR to deal with specific traumatic memories. 


DBT is a type of CBT that focuses on using mindfulness to change patterns of behavior. Again, DBT can be used in addition to, or alongside, EMDR.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2022, October). Dangers of EMDR Therapy. Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/dangers-of-emdr-therapy/.

About The Author

Photo of author