What EMDR Doesn’t Do
September 5, 2022 by Sarah Earles, Clinical Supervisor/Child & Family Therapist
As an EMDR therapist, I get lots of questions about what EMDR is, and what EMDR does. In answering these questions, I sometimes have clients ask me if EMDR can help them do specific things with memory, like uncover repressed memories, or even erase memories. On the flip, side I also have clients who fear EMDR because they don’t want to lose memories. Fortunately, I am able to set the client’s mind at ease by sharing that EMDR does not do any of these things. Rather, I explain that the process of EMDR allows clients to recall and reprocess memories so as to remove some of their emotional charge, allowing clients to live in the present, rather than the past. This is the sole purpose of EMDR, and really all therapy in general, to help clients move towards better, brighter futures.
EMDR stands for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. Francine Shapiro, PhD., developed this therapy in the 1980s, and it has since undergone rigorous testing to become empirically validated (EMDRIA, 2022). EMDR, therefore, follows a specific protocol designed to help briefly bring up a traumatic memory, and then reprocess it using bilateral stimulation. This aids in reducing he disturbance the memory brings to the client in the present moment. The client, assisted by the therapist, then stores that memory back away with adaptive information about what the client would like to believe about themselves in the present moment. This adaptive information takes the form of a position cognition framed as an “I” statement, for example, “I am safe,” “I survived,” or “I am learning.” Memories stored with this information tend to be less charged, meaning they cause less distress when called to mind at a later date.
This brings me to my first assertion about what EMDR doesn’t do. EMDR does not erase memories. It simply takes clients through a supportive process that reduces the intensity of the emotions associated with the memory (Schermerhorn, 2022). Memories may seem to fade because they are less charged, but they are still there (Engelhard, McNally, & van Schie, 2019). They are still part of the story and make-up of the individual.
EMDR does not erase memories. Neither does it uncover “repressed” memories (Lebak, 2018). EMDR in and of itself will not uncover a memory. It only helps reprocess the current memory. As current memories or reprocessed memories gain less charge, however, clients may remember other things (Capecchi, 2022). Generally, these are neutral or positive, not something “repressed,” which would indicate something the brain closed off because it was too intense or difficult to acknowledge (Schermerhorn, 2022). As a reminder, the R in EMDR is for reprocessing, not recalling or remembering.
On that note, EMDR in and of itself does not create false memories, either. EMDR is only reprocessing (Austin Therapy and EMDR, n.d.). In EMDR, like with all therapies, however, clients may be more susceptible to suggestion and even misinformation, whether due to eye movements, or due to the trusting relationship with the therapist (Bain, n.d.; Houben et al., 2018; Otgaar et al., 2022). This is why it is important to do EMDR with a trained clinician who follows strict EMDR protocols, which means the therapist stays out of the way as the client processes and reprocesses (Bain). Good therapy is client-centered, not clinician centered.
EMDR therapy can benefit clients of all types, especially clients who do not want to talk about their trauma in detail. EMDR is empirically validated, with ongoing studies that demonstrate its efficacy. Is EMDR therapy right for every client, though? No. Good therapy is individualized and designed specifically for the client depending on their readiness and the clinician’s expertise. Before considering EMDR, therapy, though, it is helpful to know what EMDR doesn’t do so that clients can consider its possible benefits. Hopefully the information shared above aids in that process.
Austin Therapy and EMDR. (n.d.) The 5 biggest EMDR therapy myths. https://www.austintherapyemdr.com/blog/emdr-therapy-myths
Bain, R. (n.d.). False memories and EMDR therapy. Mailberger Institute. https://maibergerinstitute.com/false-memories-and-emdr-therapy/
Capecchi, S. (2022, June 29). Dangers of EMDR therapy: Side effects and misconceptions. Choosing Therapy. https://www.choosingtherapy.com/dangers-of-emdr-therapy/
EMDRIA. (2022). About EMDR. EMDRIA EMDR International Association. https://www.emdria.org/about-emdr-therapy/
Engelhard, I. M., McNally, R. J., & van Schie, K. (2019). Retrieving and Modifying Traumatic Memories: Recent Research Relevant to Three Controversies. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 28(1), 91–96. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721418807728
Houben, S. T. L., Otgaar, H., Roelofs, J., & Merckelbach, H. (2018). Lateral Eye Movements Increase False Memory Rates. Clinical Psychological Science, 6(4), 610–616. https://doi.org/10.1177/2167702618757658
Lebak, S. (2018, June 12) EMDR: Effective, efficient intervention for trauma. New Directions Counseling Services, LLC. https://newdirectionspgh.com/emdr-blog-one/#:~:text=EMDR%20does%20not%20recover%20repressed%20memories.&text=EMDR%20only%20assists%20the%20brain,Only%20time%20will%20do%20that
Otgaar, H., Curci, A., Mangiulli, I., Battista, F., Rizzotti, E., & Sartori, G. (2022). A court ruled case on therapy‐induced false memories. Journal of Forensic Sciences. https://doi.org/10.1111/1556-4029.15073
Schermerhorn, J. (2022, October 12). Will I forget my disturbing memories with EMDR therapy? Jenny Schermerhorn Psychotherapist. https://jennyschermerhorncounseling.com/blog/will-i-forget-my-disturbing-memories-with-emdr-therapy