In 1987, Dr.Francine Shapiro began studying how eye movements could help to reduce upsetting thoughts and memories. Her research led to the development of EMDR, which is now a leading treatment for PTSD in Canada and around the world. Following Dr. Shapiro’s pioneering discovery, medical professionals began researching different adaptations and applications for EMDR, including studying different types of bilateral stimulation and learning how EMDR could alleviate other mental health conditions.
While research on these applications is still emerging, there are a few conditions where EMDR shows particular promise. This article will discuss the literature and research on EMDR’s effectiveness with the following conditions:
Can EMDR help to treat generalized anxiety and panic disorders?
Aside from PTSD, treating anxiety is the most well-established use for EMDR. In fact, the second book written by EMDR pioneer Dr. Shapiro was entitled “EMDR: The Breakthrough Therapy for Overcoming Anxiety, Stress, and Trauma.” Dr. Shapiro, like many others, was convinced that EMDR could be a useful tool for those with a range of anxiety-related disorders.
Given its widespread use in treating PTSD, it is unsurprising that much of the evidence for EMDR and anxiety relates to people who have anxiety-related symptoms that result from traumatic events. For example, this study shows how EMDR can help to reduce childbirth anxiety following a stillbirth, and this study used subjects with autobiographical memories related to their anxiety.
However, initial trials suggest that even for those without a “big T” trauma, EMDR could help lower anxiety symptoms. A preliminary study that looked into EMDR’s impact on generalized anxiety disorder was published by Gavreau & Bouchard in 2008, and a subsequent study was conducted by Farima, R., Dowlatabadi, S., & Behzadi, S. in 2015. These studies were small in scope, but the few participants in both showed remarkable progress following their EMDR treatment. This overview by Faretta & Dal Farra (2019) provides some other excellent citations, suggesting that additional research would help to follow up on these promising initial results.
One of the benefits of EMDR in treating anxiety is how it puts the client in the “driver’s seat,” allowing them to use their own creativity and perspective to reorganize their thinking. As therapist Nancy Andino, LCSW, CASAC told the EMDRIA podcast:
“The same way that anxiety is a full-body experience – and when I say full body, it’s literally from head to toe – EMDR allows you to be able to read processes from head to toe. Actually, from toe to head! It allows us to be able to integrate it in such a manner that you are the one that has the control…we’re creating future memories.”
Andino (2023) makes an interesting point: anxiety comes with significant physical symptoms and sensations, so including the body in treatment through a bottom-up therapy like EMDR can often make sense. While research is ongoing about how best to target anxiety with EMDR, the experiences shared by Andino (2023) and others demonstrate the power of connecting the mind and body when treating something like anxiety.
Those who are interested in pursuing EMDR for an anxiety or panic disorder should seek a therapist with training and/or experience with this specific type of treatment, as this can sometimes require specialized care. Likewise, those undergoing other therapies, such as CBT, may benefit from discussing EMDR with their other care providers to understand how it might fit into a holistic care plan.
Can EMDR help to treat phobias?
As with generalized anxiety and panic disorders, EMDR can be used to help people experiencing specific phobias. According to Faretta & Del Farra (2017):
“Specific phobia is the most investigated anxiety disorder regarding the efficacy of EMDR therapy. Two RCTs have been carried out respectively on dental phobia (Doering et al., 2013) and flight anxiety (Triscari et al., 2015), both with significative results, which were maintained at 1-year follow-ups. These positive outcomes are corroborated by one large, non-randomized study on travel anxiety (De Jongh et al., 2011) and two controlled case studies on dental phobia (De Jongh et al., 2002) and claustrophobia (Lohr et al., 1996).”
Research indicates that EMDR is particularly effective in treating traumatically-induced phobias. The therapy can help people reprocess the memory behind the fear, leading to a less intense reaction to triggers. EMDR could also be useful if there is a belief or set of experiences underlying the phobia, even if there is not a clearly discernible traumatic memory.
Individuals dealing with phobias who are interested in EMDR should reach out to a therapist with experience in these matters to see if this treatment could make a difference for them.
Can EMDR help to treat eating disorders?
Case studies and initial trials suggest that EMDR can be highly effective in treating eating disorders. This is especially true for those with clear past experiences that played a significant role in the eating patterns or issues; for example, if someone is overeating or undereating to gain a feeling of control or comfort following a sexual assault.
That said, “big T” trauma is not necessarily needed for EMDR to be effective. We all have experiences and receive messages about our bodies and food throughout our lives. These experiences impact our belief systems and relationships with food and/or our bodies. EMDR can help people to reprocess the experiences or influences that underlie harmful relationships with food and/or their body, paving the way for a new, healthier future.
In this video, EMDR Consultant Kambria Evans explains why EMDR can be so effective in eating disorder treatment:
Individuals who are experiencing challenges with food or body image may find it useful to discuss these symptoms with their EMDR therapist, as this may have an impact on certain protocols and tools such as the Body Image Memory Questionnaire. Additionally, it may be helpful to seek out a therapist with particular training in this area.
Can EMDR help to treat chronic pain?
The treatment of chronic pain is one of the newer applications for EMDR (and one of the most promising!). A 2019 research review published by Tesarz et al. (2019) lays out six randomized controlled trials on the topic, noting that there is “considerable evidence that EMDR appears to be effective in the treatment of pain.”
Mark Grant (MA), a well-known authority on pain management and EMDR therapy, gives an overview of how it works in this training introduction video:
Grant also provides an excellent synopsis of research involving chronic pain and EMDR here.
Overall, many peoplehave seen a reduction in pain symptoms following EMDR treatment, especially where traumatic experiences are connected to the pain (such as whiplash from a car accident, or pain from burns after a traumatic fire). As a result, an increasing number of therapists who work in the area of chronic pain are pursuing training in this EMDR and many are having great success in applying the techniques developed by Grant and others.
Individuals who are interested in pursuing EMDR to treat their chronic pain should seek a therapist with training in this area, as there are EMDR protocols specific to treating pain that should be taken into account.
EMDR Has Potential Beyond PTSD
While PTSD is the diagnosis we most often associate with trauma, our reactions to difficult experiences can also manifest in other ways, including anxiety, phobias, eating disorders, and physical pain symptoms. Simply put, traumatic experiences can trigger a range of emotional, mental and physical responses, and treatment that targets those experiences can therefore have many different possible benefits.
It is also important to note that EMDR is not only helpful when it comes to reprocessing “big T” traumatic moments. It can also help people overcome the negative impacts of “smaller” experiences and triggers. In general, EMDR is a helpful therapy for anyone looking to reprocess their past in order to reorient their present and future.
Because of this wide range of applications and benefits, EMDR takes a holistic, client -centred approach. Therapists recognize that experiences and feelings can manifest in the body differently for different people,and clients have a great deal of control over which memories and experiences they choose to target through the therapy. Additionally, people may seek EMDR to help them with multiple issues; for example, a person might be dealing with anxiety, addiction, or chronic pain all at once, or may have additional mental health diagnoses to consider as they approach treatment. In these cases, it can be helpful to seek out a therapist with training or experience relevant to the issues at hand, as they can provide guidance and approaches that might be more effective.