Dangers of EMDR Therapy: Are They Real?

If you’re unfamiliar with eye movement desensitization and reprocessing and are considering it for your teen or young adult, you may wonder about the dangers of EMDR therapy. The treatment is safe, but there are some misconceptions surrounding it. Before diving deeper into this topic, it’s helpful to explore EMDR therapy itself.  

Teens and young adults who’ve experienced something traumatic, stressful, or painful don’t always fully process those experiences. Then, when something reminds them of the trauma — whether that’s a sight, a sound, or a feeling — they experience it all over again. EMDR uses eye movements to change how the brain stores these memories, helping young people gradually reprocess the past and alleviate symptoms of anxiety and trauma. 

To explore this treatment approach and answer the question “Can EMDR be harmful?”, we chatted with Terra Tuono-Shell, the executive clinical director of Embark Behavioral Health in Cabin John, Maryland. She explained how this type of therapy can help improve mental health, discussed side effects that can occur during the healing process, and more.

Are There Dangers of EMDR Therapy?

When asked, “Can EMDR be harmful?”, Tuono-Shell was clear that it’s safe for teenagers and young adults when properly administered.  

The so-called “dangers” of EMDR therapy arise when young people are treated by someone who isn’t fully trained and certified in this approach. For example, those not properly trained may not appropriately follow the eight phases of EMDR therapy delivery or give clients the skills and toolkit needed to cope with emotions or thoughts that occur during treatment.  

Research has backed up EMDR as a safe therapeutic approach. For example, a European Journal of Psychotraumatology study of adolescents with major depressive disorder found EMDR is safe — and associated with a significant reduction of depressive symptoms.  

What Are the Side Effects of EMDR Therapy?

Many types of therapy, including traditional talk therapy, can bring up uncomfortable feelings or secondary reactions — that is, side effects. The same holds true for EMDR, even though research has shown it’s safe and effective. Should they arise, EMDR therapy side effects may affect your teen mentally or physically.  

Mental health side effects of EMDR

Some of the most common mental health side effects include: 

  • Changed or vivid dreams: Dreams after EMDR are part of the brain’s natural way to reprocess and recatalog information and memories. 
  • Emotional sensitivity: Your teen or young adult may be more in tune with their memories and thoughts, making them more sensitive emotionally.   
  • Returning memories: This type of therapy helps with blocked and suppressed memories, so young people may have recovered memories with EMDR. 

Mental health side effects can be part of the healing process. For example, Tuono-Shell said, “When my clients experience dreams or recollections, it’s often something that they report as positive. It helps them remember something they couldn’t remember before and alleviates a lot of their anxiety or mental distress.”  

Physical side effects of EMDR

Thanks to the mind-body connection, your teen may also experience some physical side effects of EMDR both during and after a therapy session: 

  • Headache: Headaches are one of the most common physical side effects of EMDR due to the eye movements sometimes used. However, Tuono-Shell said a certified therapist can replace those movements with other EMDR techniques, such as tapping opposite sides of the body or listening to sounds using headphones, for teens and young adults who are prone to headaches or migraines.  
  • Nausea: A queasy stomach is one of the rarer physical side effects of EMDR. Tuono-Shell explained it’s short-lived, noting “It’s not the case where someone leaves the session, and they’re constantly feeling nauseous.” 
  • Fatigue: Feeling tired is another one of the physical side effects of EMDR. “After the session, you may feel mentally and emotionally drained and need rest,” Tuono-Shell said. 

Does EMDR Work?

Now that you better understand this treatment approach, you may be wondering, “Does EMDR work?” Research such as the study referenced earlier has shown it can, indeed, help people struggling with mental health issues, and Tuono-Shell said she’s had significant success using it to treat her clients. 

One reason she said it works is because it’s a slow and gradual process, delivered through eight distinct phases.  

“Your teen or young adult doesn’t go straight into trauma processing,” Tuono-Shell said. “After we take their history, the second phase is giving them individual coping mechanisms so that if they experience any distress outside of the session, they can use those skills. We don’t keep going until they’re able to use those skills.” 

Tuono-Shell noted there are multiple benefits to this treatment approach.  

Benefits of EMDR therapy

The benefits of EMDR therapy include: 

  • Fast results: “You can see results quite quickly,” Tuono-Shell said. “It’s not like talk therapy modalities where it can take months or even years. With EMDR, your teen or young adult may see see positive changes within three to five sessions.” 
  • Reduced negative thinking: In the third phase of the eight-phase EMDR process, therapists help identify any negative beliefs and thoughts young people hold about their past experiences and the positive beliefs and thoughts they want to feel instead. 
  • Increased self-esteem: Trauma and anxiety can sabotage self-image, and reprocessing traumatic memories can help your teen or young adult feel more empowered and rebuild their self-esteem
  • Particular effectiveness for trauma and PTSD: EMDR was pioneered in the 1980s to tackle post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and trauma, and it continues to be a go-to approach for those concerns.  
  • Minimal discussion of distressing issues: “When I’m doing talk therapy, I may run into resistance when a teen doesn’t want to share the whole story, or it’s difficult to go through the whole story,” Tuono-Shell said. “With EMDR, they don’t have to give all the details. We just go through the protocol, which helps them feel like they don’t have to share every painful detail.” 

Why Can EMDR Therapy Be Controversial?

So just why can EMDR be controversial? Tuono-Shell said there are various reasons, including questions around if EMDR is evidence based, if it will make mental health issues worse, if it’s a form of hypnosis, and if it’s only for treating PTSD. For example, some may think it’s a hoax. Others might wrongly assume that, unlike traditional talk therapy, EMDR is pseudoscience — fake science — and not evidence based.  

Here’s a look at four misconceptions some people have about EMDR.  

EMDR isn’t evidence based

If you’re wondering “Is EMDR evidence based?”, the answer is yes. Cleveland Clinic has noted, “Dozens of clinical trials since EMDR’s development show this technique is effective and can help a person faster than many other methods.” You can find research at the EMDRIA website.  

EMDR will make mental health issues worse

Given treatment can be intense, you may wonder if EMDR presents any dangers for making existing mental health conditions worse. Tuono-Shell said it doesn’t. 

“When you’ve had a distressing experience in life and attached negative emotions, thoughts, or sensations to it, EMDR will address that,” she said. “But all that was already there — it’s not like you’re creating something new or making something worse. You’re alleviating symptoms that you’re already experiencing.” 

Tuono-Shell added, “Remember, if your teen or young adult is working with a licensed, certified EMDR clinician, they’re going through the eight phases of EMDR effectively and efficiently. They have all the control in these sessions. The therapist is just a facilitator of the process and the phases. At any time, they can say ‘Let’s stop’ or ‘I don’t want to talk about this.’” 

EMDR is hypnosis

While EMDR and hypnosis have a lot of similarities, they are different.  

“EMDR involves using structured protocols and sets of bilateral stimulation,” Tuono-Shell said. “The bilateral stimulation can be done visually with eye movements, tactilely with tapping, or auditorily with headphones. With hypnosis, the structure can be more tenuous — not a phase-by-phase model, as is often prescribed in EMDR treatment. Hypnosis can also be self-taught, while EMDR must be followed within a clinical setting, with someone trained in that treatment approach. Hypnosis can be used in clinical and nonclinical settings.” 

EMDR is only for PTSD

Regarding the misconception that EMDR is only for PTSD, therapists apply this therapeutic approach to other mental health challenges as well.  

“It’s effective for many conditions besides PTSD,” Tuono-Shell said. “I’ve had a lot of success using it for people with anxiety disorders and specific phobias, and it’s helpful with developmental and childhood trauma too.” 

Aside from using EMDR for PTSD, a Frontiers review of research found that this approach had a positive effect on issues including addictions, eating disorders, performance anxiety, sleep, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

Next Steps With EMDR Therapy

While EMDR therapy can be controversial, it can be an effective treatment for a wide range of mental health concerns. And when it comes to the question “Can EMDR be harmful,” studies have shown it’s a safe treatment approach.  

If you’re interested in trying it for your teen or young adult and they’re already receiving therapy, you — or they — can ask if the therapist is certified in EMDR. If they aren’t, ask if they can recommend someone who is. EMDRIA certification ensures therapists have basic training in this treatment approach, have completed multiple hours of consultations and clinical EMDR sessions, and have kept their certification up to date. If your child isn’t in therapy, find a therapist who can help determine if EMDR is right for them.  

When working with a therapist, Tuono-Shell said the most important factor is the therapeutic alliance. This term refers to when teens or young adults and their therapists are aligned with the goals everyone wants to achieve, which improves outcomes.   

So, now that you’ve learned about EMDR, seen the dangers of EMDR therapy addressed, and heard about the therapeutic alliance, what next steps should you take? 

“I encourage parents to search for a list of certified EMDR therapists,” Tuono-Shell said. “Then, go in, have a consultation, and meet with them as a family. If you feel your teen or young adult can develop a healthy, positive therapeutic alliance with the therapist, that’s an indication you’ve found the right person to administer treatment, because that positive alliance will be the main catalyst for healing.” 

Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today.

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its big mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-supported approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual services, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), residential treatment, and outdoor therapy, visit embarkbh.com.