EMDR for Anxiety Treatment: What Is It and Why Does It Work?

Using EMDR for anxiety is becoming more common as more clinicians and patients come to understand the benefits of this unique treatment. By understanding how EMDR works and the theories behind its efficacy, you can determine whether EMDR seems right for you. While outpatient treatment can be effective for some, people struggling with severe anxiety may be better served by incorporating EMDR within a broader spectrum of care.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) was developed, like so many things, by accident. The year was 1987 and Francine Shapiro, a psychologist in California, was hiking in the forest, plagued by intrusive and disturbing thoughts. “Yet she discovered that her anxiety lifted after moving her eyes back and forth while observing her surroundings,” write Hal Arkowitz and Scott Lilienfeld in Scientific American. Curious about her discovery, she began testing her method on her own clients who struggled with anxiety and quickly found that they too experienced a dissipation of anxious thoughts by moving their eyes in certain patterns. And, thus, “EMDR was born.”

Soon, researchers across the country began studying the potential of this new therapeutic form and therapists quickly began using EMDR for anxiety treatment in their own practices. Today there are over 20,000 mental health practitioners trained in EMDR and the therapy has since been applied for the treatment of a broad range of mental health disorders, including depression, eating disorders, and even schizophrenia. But even as its use has expanded, EMDR is still primarily employed to alleviate symptoms of anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorderpanic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder, offering new hope for people struggling with overwhelming fears.

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EMDR for Anxiety: How it Works


EMDR works by directing eye movements while imagining distressing scenarios and shifting your attention toward more positive thoughts, causing anxiety to dissipate.

While EMDR is rising in popularity within the mental health community, it has not risen to the level of prominence enjoyed by modalities like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and, thus, remains a mystery to many. So how does EMDR work? Arkowitz and Lilienfeld explain:

EMDR therapists ask their clients to hold the memories of anxiety-provoking stimuli—for example, the painful memories of a frightening accident—in their minds. While doing so, clients track the therapist’s back-and-forth movements with their eyes, much like a person in an old Hollywood movie following a hypnotist’s swinging pocket watch.

During this process, the therapist asks the client to notice the sensations, images, and emotions that they experience and slowly begin to shift attention away from negative thoughts toward more positive ones. In doing so, anxiety begins to lift and the client is able to regain control over their emotional state. Indeed, Shapiro herself notes that dozens of randomized controlled trials have found EMDR to be an effective treatment that produces “rapid decreases in negative emotions and/or vividness of disturbing images. Numerous other evaluations document that EMDR therapy provides relief from a variety of somatic complaints” associated with anxiety disorders.

One of the benefits of EMDR is that you don’t necessarily have to talk about painful memories, making the therapy particularly inviting for those who have trouble verbalizing their experiences or for whom those experiences remain too painful to talk about. Rather, using EMDR for anxiety can be a largely internal process during which you are gently guided by a compassionate therapist who seeks to lead you out of a place of anxiety toward one of safety and inner tranquility. This process can allow you to access parts of yourself that traditional talk therapy may not be able to reach.

The Theories of EMDR Efficacy


Although no one is sure exactly why EMDR works, there are a number of theories regarding its exact mechanism of action.

Despite evidence that EMDR does work, there is scant evidence for how it works. Dr. Joseph Goldberg notes, “By inducing the recall of distressing events [and thoughts] and diverting attention from their emotional consequences, EMDR in some respects borrows basic principles used in prolonged exposure therapy, the gold standard behavioral psychotherapeutic treatment of PTSD [and other anxiety disorders].” Another theory about why EMDR works involves the way the modality may simulate the effects of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Shapiro writes:

REM occurs in the same stage of sleep as dreaming, and during this time, scientists believe, the brain processes survival information. The implication is that, like REM sleep, the eye movements of EMDR facilitate the transfer of episodic memory, which includes emotion, physical sensations, and beliefs associated with the original event, into semantic memory networks, in which the meaning of the event has been extracted and negative associations are no longer present.

However, do you do not necessarily have to have experienced a distressing event in order for this process to be effective; even imagined and hypothetical stress-inducing scenarios and experiences of anxiety itself can be addressed using this technique. Shapiro herself believes that part of EMDR’s success can be attributed to the way it engages the imagination “as a client feels their way through their fears” in a relaxed state, ultimately allow you to reimagine those fears and gain control over them.

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EMDR in a Broader Spectrum of Treatment


By using EMDR for anxiety within a broader scope of treatment, you can remove barriers to healing and find rapid relief from suffering.

While EMDR can be an effective standalone treatment for some, people with severe anxiety that does not respond fully to outpatient therapies may need to consider more intensive care. Residential mental health treatment allows you to participate in a full curriculum of therapies in an immersive setting, giving you the opportunity to focus entirely on your recover and experience rapid results. These programs can employ EMDR for anxiety within a broader scope of treatment in which multiple modalities are employed to create truly personalized, comprehensive treatment experiences that speak to your unique needs. By engaging in multiple modalities, you can draw on the best of each therapeutic form, letting each intervention build on the other. For example, many people may initially feel uncomfortable discussing painful memories, thoughts, and emotions in psychodynamic therapy, limiting the efficacy of such treatment. However, if you are able to overcome the anxious response through EMDR, you may be able to gradually increase participation in psychodynamic and other talk-based interventions. By removing barriers to other forms of treatment, EMDR can facilitate deeper and more sustainable healing.

Anxiety disorders can be deeply distressing and severely compromise your quality of life, your functionality, and even your physical health. But with the right therapies delivered in a serene, comfortable environment, you can begin the process of recovery and make the changes you need to restore emotional harmony and create the life you truly want.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive residential treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance abuse and eating disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles and San Diego-based programs, and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting wellness.

Image Source: Jad Limcaco