More and more people are solving their minor and major psychological problems with EMDR. What makes therapy with moving fingers, vibrating objects or tapping sounds effective? ‘One thing is certain: EMDR is not for everything or everyone.’
Caring for a child. Nele Reymen (40) no longer knew how to do that two years ago. In the months after her second birth, the writer felt her self-confidence disappear. Everything seemed like a chore. The idea that she would be alone with her baby and toddler for several hours was especially paralyzing.
When Reymen started to feel more and more depressed, she sought help. The psychologist quickly talked about a morning that had made a big impression on her, a week after she had given birth. She was ill and due to circumstances she had to look after the children without her husband. ‘He had only just left the house when I had a severe panic attack in the toilet. I started hyperventilating and almost fainted.’ Her sleeping daughters didn’t notice anything and Reymen’s husband returned in time. ‘But for me it was a profound moment. I lost all control and truly believed I was dying.’
According to her psychologist, Reymen suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). To deal with it, she had to go back to that toilet moment in her mind. In her hands she held two balls, which vibrated alternately left and right. ‘The first time I recalled that memory it overwhelmed me. I was anxious and restless. But after a few times the tears stopped and I felt resigned. By the end of the session the thought no longer bothered me.’ Reymen calls it an important step in her healing. ‘Afterwards things got better and better at home.’
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EMDR – Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing – is the name of the therapy that Reymen followed. She was discovered by chance about forty years ago by the American psychologist Francine Shapiro (1948-2019). While walking in a Californian park, she noticed all kinds of negative thoughts, but she felt them quickly fade away. “Whenever I tried to go back to those thoughts, I noticed that my eyes were moving from left to right, but also that the negative charge was becoming less and less.”
That observation prompted Shapiro to initiate further research. Six months later, she had drawn up a protocol for therapists working with severely traumatized patients. The gist: let patients look at your fingers moving back and forth while recalling painful memories, because that will help them feel better.
Most fellow psychologists reacted with restraint. They found Shapiro’s sessions bizarre and lacking scientific evidence. Today there is much less skepticism. EMDR is one of the preferred treatments for trauma, even the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends it.
In our country, more and more psychologists and psychiatrists are becoming skilled in it. The professional association EMDR Belgium grew exponentially, to 1,000 EMDR therapists respectively. There are at least 40,000 in Europe. But the demand is still many times greater than the supply,” says Ludwig Cornil, recognized trainer and founder of EMDR Belgium. ‘Patients sometimes have to wait months.’
Prince Harry and Philippe Geubels
There are no figures on the number of people who tackle their traumas with EMDR. But more and more people are testifying about the wonderful effects. The best-known example is that of the British Prince Harry. In 2020, he tried to use EMDR to give a place to the sudden death of his mother Diana in an Oprah Winfrey documentary. Closer to home, presenter Eva Daeleman (after the attacks in Zaventem), cyclist Wout van Aert (after his crash in the Tour) and comedian Philippe Geubels (after the death of his mother) spoke about it.
It is also used in children. Eva Tuytelaers, teacher and ‘momfluencer’ discovered this on Instagram. After telling her followers about the major problems her 6-year-old son had with saying goodbye, she was advised to have him follow EMDR. ‘We had already tried therapy, but to no avail. Hélder found it increasingly difficult. Going to school was very difficult. Eventually he even started crying when I wanted to go to the bakery alone.’
With some fear of ending up with a vague type, Tuytelaers went to the EMDR therapist. He feared that some of this had to do with early childhood trauma. Tuytelaers’ son was born with a serious heart defect and had to stay in the hospital for a long time and sometimes alone. ‘The therapist asked my husband and me to write a child-sized story about that difficult period. We read that to Hélder while he held two vibrating rods.’ She didn’t expect it right away, but the reading sessions about a baby snake that got sick and had to do without a mommy and daddy snake had an effect quite quickly. ‘After the first session, the farewells in class went a little better.’
It is fairly certain that EMDR works. In about 37 percent of people who are treated, their complaints appear to be halved, says Dutch professor Pim Cuijpers, a world authority in the field of overview studies in psychology. He emphasizes that this only applies to people with post-traumatic stress disorder and that 11 percent of them recover without treatment.
The appeal of EMDR is not illogical. Not only is it an efficient therapy, it also takes a limited amount of time. For a simple and well-defined trauma, such as a house fire or car accident, a handful of sessions of one to one and a half hours may be sufficient. They can occur in the case of complex trauma, for example due to sexual abuse or neglectful relationships.
EMDR is no longer the eye movement therapy as Shapiro described it in 1987. There are numerous variants. Patients are often given buzzers. Sometimes they are also distracted with flashes of light or clicking sounds or have to move their hands or feet to a certain rhythm.
“What you have a patient do does not matter much, as long as you tax the working memory,” says Katharina Meyerbröker (Utrecht University), who conducted research into the form of therapy in people with early childhood trauma. According to her, the essence is that another task is done together with retrieving the memory. The combination seems to remove the emotional charge more quickly.
People are naturally good at avoiding pain points. With EMDR you look for the worst moment of a memory.
University of Utrecht
‘With EMDR we go to the pain points. People are naturally very good at avoiding this: we do our utmost to think as little as possible about things that make us very angry, sad or afraid. With EMDR you look for the worst moment of a memory. By returning to it repeatedly, the tension subsides, sometimes in just one session,” Meyerbröker explains. ‘I still think it’s magical. Occasionally I see a patient go from tension level ten to zero in one session. Even for an experienced therapist it is impossible to predict.’
Scientists still don’t know why EMDR works and what exactly these eye movements or the variants do in our heads. “Shapiro believed that with her therapy she somehow made the left and right hemispheres of the brain work better together,” says Tom Beckers, professor of cognitive psychology at KU Leuven. But that theory remained vague and was never substantiated.
An idea that is gaining traction today is about how emotional memories are etched in our minds. For a long time they were thought to be immutable. But some people come back from that. A number of scientists believe that if we actively stir up memories, they return to an unstable state, allowing us to change their emotional charge. After EMDR therapy, a less intense variant would be written. ‘But this also applies: there is no consensus,’ says Beckers.
Copywriter Magali De Reu (34) went to an EMDR therapist two years ago to reflect on a conversation that was very painful for her. ‘That was about my autism and ADHD. Some important people around me did not take those diagnoses seriously and told me that I just had to try harder. It made me feel bad about myself.”
By repeatedly returning to that difficult message, De Reus reduced uncertainty. At the same time, it created space to work on other problems. This included an image of the sexual abuse she experienced as a child, old bullying and attachment trauma. ‘With my complex background, I have already come a long way in care. But especially since I discovered EMDR, I feel like a different person. I am calmer, less disturbed. And a surprising side effect: it also works on the problems that arose from my autism. Friends don’t think I’m so rigid anymore.’
Besides the wonder, there are also concerns. These include the fact that EMDR is no longer only used against post-traumatic stress. Therapy could also make a difference in cases of compulsion, depression, burnout, pain, addiction, borderline and eating disorders. If you google it, you will find an even longer list. Even EMDR for horses and dogs appears to exist.
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Experts such as Cuijpers, Beckers and Meyerbröker call this drift a bad trend, because there is only sufficient scientific evidence about EMDR for post-traumatic stress. If you use it to address other diagnoses, you risk that nothing will change or that the complaints will increase. They also point out that unnecessary costs are being incurred. ‘For those in a vulnerable position, this is anything but desirable.’
Cornil from EMDR Belgium does not entirely share that fear. He emphasizes that worldwide studies are underway into EMDR for problems other than post-traumatic stress. ‘Some people have wrong expectations of EMDR. They think that therapy can be a quick fix for almost anyone with psychological problems. It’s not that simple,” says Cornil.
He points out that only qualified psychiatrists, clinical psychologists and educational psychologists are allowed to specialize in EMDR, while more and more coaches or non-certified therapists are offering sessions in our country. ‘The themes discussed through EMDR can be intense. It is important that the supervisor can assess the risks and knows how to deal with unforeseen and dangerous situations. A patient cannot do anything against poor treatment from a coach, because there is no legal framework.’
I sometimes call EMDR the Coca-Cola of trauma treatment. Marketing it comes naturally.
University of Utrecht
The commercial side is also sometimes disappointing. There are only a limited number of recognized institutes where you can take EMDR courses, and they are quite expensive. “I sometimes call it the Coca-Cola of trauma treatment,” says Meyerbröker. ‘Unlike other therapies, marketing comes naturally, because EMDR is so concrete and wonderful.’
However, according to Meyerbröker, there are other, equally effective trauma treatments. Beckers also emphasizes this, who refers to cognitive behavioral therapy, in which people try to change certain behaviors through conversations and training. This treatment has also been proven to be effective for post-traumatic stress. ‘It remains important to keep in mind that EMDR is not for everything or everyone. In psychotherapy the following applies: no hype is justified.’
The male will continue with EMDR for the time being. ‘I’m glad I found a therapy that doesn’t require me to tell you for the umpteenth time who I am, what I’ve experienced and why. I like the action-oriented nature of EMDR. And it continues to help me release emotional baggage for the time being. That’s what I need now.’
Reymen stopped after one EMDR session. She still follows therapy as maintenance, ‘even though I don’t carry any major trauma compared to others’. ‘For me, EMDR was an important starting point to get my life back in order. It has erased the black pencil lines of a profound moment. I think the print has remained. I will continue to work on that.’