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Home Psychology Dangers of EMDR Therapy: Uncovering the Risks

Dangers of EMDR Therapy: Uncovering the Risks

dangers of emdr therapy

EMDR therapy has been around for several years but has recently gained popularity for its ability to treat trauma, anxiety, and a range of other mental health conditions.

Although backed by scientific evidence, this treatment has been surrounded by controversy because of its potential risks. But is EMDR really dangerous, or are these concerns just myths and misconceptions?

Dangers of EMDR Therapy: What You Should Be Aware of

Accessing old or traumatic memories can be painful and may do more harm than good if you are not ready to process them again. 

This is just one danger of EMDR treatment that you should be aware of if you’re considering trying this type of therapy, along with some of the following emotional and physical side effects:

#1 Feeling emotional

EMDR therapy has 8 distinct stages that patients must be taken through at a slow pace. Bringing up traumatic memories too early on in the treatment can be highly distressing and take an emotional toll.

Feeling emotional


However, it’s normal for intense but unexpected emotions to resurface either during your sessions or days later as your brain begins to process what you’ve shared. Over time, you’ll become more comfortable with these emotions, and they will tend not to linger as long.

#2 Insomnia

Although EMDR may help improve sleep, many patients undergoing the therapy experience new or intense dreams after sessions, which can lead to sleep disturbances. 

However, this is a normal part of the treatment process as your brain begins to process past memories and make new connections.

#3 Extreme fatigue

Evoking traumatic memories causes your brain to work overtime, which can leave you feeling extremely tired. You may also experience fatigue as a result of insomnia.

Be sure to take proper care of yourself and get plenty of rest after each session.

#4 Physical and emotional discomfort

It’s normal to experience physical sensations like muscle tension, increased heart rate, or sweating during your sessions. Other reactions may include shaking or crying, which are both common responses to trauma.

These sensations can be uncomfortable, so it’s important to know that you can ask for a break whenever you feel that it is needed. 

#5 Additional memories

Although EMDR focuses on looking back at old memories, it can also bring up some new memories that you may have repressed, along with unfamiliar feelings. 

However, you shouldn’t worry about processing these memories, as your EMDR therapist will help you through this in a safe, supportive environment.

What Is EMDR?

Known as EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy is a mental health treatment designed to help patients overcome trauma.

EMDR was developed in the late 1980s by American psychologist Francine Shapiro to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Today, it is widely used to treat a range of other conditions, including dissociative, panic, and anxiety disorders, along with depression and eating disorders.

What Is EMDR

The therapy is based on the belief that, like the human body, the brain is capable of naturally healing from trauma.

From preparation to reprocessing, EMDR is therefore properly structured to ensure that patients can reconnect with, process, and heal from their traumatic memories, beliefs, and emotions, but in a safe, calm way.

This may be supported by bilateral stimulation, a technique where the EMDR therapist uses light, sound, or touch across the body in a rhythmic pattern to help induce relaxation

4 Benefits of EMDR Therapy

Although there are some potential risks if not performed properly, EMDR does have several benefits as a form of therapy. 

#1 Tends to have rapid results

EMDR focuses directly on reprocessing traumatic memories and experiences that may be causing distress. Getting straight to the issue means that it can help patients much more quickly than other types of therapy.

However, it’s important to note that the length of time this treatment takes varies from person to person, depending on their individual circumstances. Rushing through it can cause more harm than good, so it’s important to complete each stage at a pace that suits your needs.

#2 Helps with self-esteem

What’s great about EMDR therapy is that it can help you challenge any unhelpful thoughts you may be having about a traumatic memory.

For example, some of those experiencing trauma may wrongly blame themselves for what happened, and as a result, will feel weak, powerless, and like a failure.

Helps with self-esteem

Processing this trauma can help patients change their perspective on how they see themselves, turning persistent sadness into positive thoughts and boosting their self-esteem overall.

#3 Doesn’t require talking

If you have trouble discussing your trauma, EMDR may be a good choice for you. Some other therapies require patients to live through many of their traumatic memories again by talking them through with the therapist.  

One of the benefits of EMDR is that you are in control of what and how much you share, and you won’t be pushed to discuss everything. Your therapist only needs basic details of the trauma to help you.

#4 Backed by science

EMDR is a highly effective form of therapy for treating trauma and is backed by a vast number of clinical studies.

For instance, a 2014 review of several studies identified 24 randomized controlled trials that support the positive effects of EMDR in treating emotional trauma. It also found that 7 studies reported this treatment to be more effective than cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Why Is EMDR So Controversial?

Although EMDR is considered to be safe and effective, it is a controversial therapy due to some of its potential risks, as well as the way in which research on the treatment has been interpreted.

A review of EMDR research found that in comparison to control groups receiving no treatment, EMDR produces a greater reduction in PTSD symptoms

While this appears to be effective, the review also shows that there is no difference in outcomes between EMDR and exposure therapy. This type of therapy is a similar form of trauma treatment to EMDR, apart from the fact that it involves no eye movements. 

The eye movements used in EMDR may, therefore, be an unnecessary part of the therapy. More scientific research into the benefits of bilateral stimulation and eye movements is required to tackle this controversy.

Can EMDR Cause Dissociation?

EMDR is not known to cause dissociation, which is when a person disconnects from their own sense of identity, memories, thoughts, and experiences.

In fact, although psychotherapy is considered to be the main treatment for dissociation, EMDR can be effective in helping those who are experiencing it. This is because dissociation can occur after going through trauma, as your brain represses the memory of the experience to help cope with it.

When treating a patient with a dissociative disorder, it’s important for the therapist to slowly and thoroughly go through each EMDR stage. Jumping to the reprocessing phase before the patient is ready can breach dissociative boundaries, which increases the risk of destabilization.

How to Get Started With EMDR Therapy

If you decide that EMDR therapy sessions are for you, you may be wondering how to go about accessing the treatment.

The first thing that you should do is find a qualified therapist. This should be someone who has completed a training course endorsed by the EMDR International Association (EMDRIA) and with whom you can work on a one-on-one basis.

You’ll get started with 1–2 sessions per week, which will last for around 6–12 weeks. Some people may have more sessions, depending on their progress as judged by the therapist.

How to Get Started With EMDR Therapy

Next, you will need to be properly prepared for your sessions. Without discussing your trauma in too much detail, you should be honest with your therapist about what you’d like to achieve by the end of the treatment.

As explained before, there are 8 distinct stages to EMDR: history taking, client preparation, assessment, desensitization, installation, body scan, closure, and reevaluation. 

While some patients may be ready to begin processing their traumatic memories after the first session, others may take longer to prepare, spending longer on the history-taking stage, for example.

A good therapist will take you slowly and carefully through each stage, ensuring that you are emotionally ready before moving on.


Can EMDR make things worse?

At first, you may feel that EMDR is worsening your emotional state as you begin to work on your trauma, which you may have repressed for a long time. However, this is simply part of the healing process, and at the end of treatment, you should feel better than ever.

Is EMDR safe?

Yes, EMDR is a completely safe treatment that is recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA). You will be guided by a professionally trained therapist who will provide support as you reprocess traumatic memories and experiences.

Is EMDR only for those with PTSD?

It is a common misconception that EMDR is only suitable for those with post-traumatic stress disorder. In reality, it can also be beneficial for a variety of other mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety, as well as panic and dissociation disorders.

A Word From an MD

From helping you to properly process traumatic memories to reducing negative feelings and thoughts, EMDR therapy has several benefits for good mental health. It’s often wrongly assumed that this treatment causes patients to relive their trauma and that it can be dangerous.

However, this is not the case, as it simply helps the brain to properly process and heal from traumatic experiences and memories. 

Remember that you are in control of your sessions, so if you are experiencing extreme physical or mental discomfort, you can ask your therapist for a break at any point.


EMDR therapy is a scientifically-backed, effective treatment for trauma and other mental health conditions. Despite the controversies surrounding EMDR, it is a completely safe form of therapy when conducted by a professionally trained therapist.

You should be aware of some of the side effects that you may experience, including fatigue and discomfort. However, your therapist will provide you with some coping skills to help you handle any difficult emotional or physical sensations that may arise.

Written by
Edibel Quintero, MD

Edibel Quintero is a medical doctor who graduated in 2013 from the University of Zulia and has been working in her profession since then. She specializes in obesity and nutrition, physical rehabilitation, sports massage and post-operative rehabilitation. Edibel's goal is to help people live healthier lives by educating them about food, exercise, mental wellness and other lifestyle choices that can improve their quality of life.

dangers of emdr therapy

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