February 27, 2023

EMDR Therapy Pitfalls: Can it Actually Aggravate Your Mental Health?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a relatively new approach that is gaining popularity in treating anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). EMDR focuses on processing past traumatic experiences visually, with the aim of reducing negative emotions and beliefs associated with them permanently.

Although EMDR has had success in treating people with PTSD, as with any therapy, there are potential negative effects that need to be acknowledged and addressed. This blog post aims to explore the potential pitfalls of EMDR therapy and how they can aggravate mental health.

The Basic Principle of EMDR Therapy

EMDR therapy aims to target the disturbing memories or negative experiences of a patient and help them to reprocess them in a way that they no longer cause distress. EMDR therapist guides the patients to visualize the traumatic event while tracking their eye movements. Through sensory and cognitive processing, the patient starts to become less reactive to the negative memory and accepts more positive ones.

The Risks of EMDR Therapy

While EMDR therapy is becoming a more mainstream treatment for mental health issues, like all treatment options, it isn’t suitable for everyone and does have potential pitfalls. The following are some of the risks associated with EMDR therapy.


The risk of re-traumatization is a common concern related to EMDR therapy. Some therapists argue that, while undergoing EMDR therapy, patients may feel lured or forced to confront their traumatic experience, which can result in them re-experiencing the distress or trauma.

When re-traumatization occurs, it can intensify distressing symptoms and cause flashback or dissociation, which may be even more debilitating than before.

Unreliable Memories

EMDR therapy depends on the patient’s willingness and ability to recall past trauma. However, the therapist themselves may unintentionally create false or unreliable memories related to a traumatic event during reprocessing. Thus, it is vital that both the patient and therapist work with accurate and reliable memories during EMDR therapy.

Intense Emotions

EMDR therapy aims to help patients process trauma through their nervous system. While this method can be successfully applied to some individuals, some patients report feeling emotionally overwhelmed during the therapy sessions. It’s essential to make sure that patients are emotionally ready for the intensity of EMDR therapy and that they can cope with whatever memories or emotions surface.

False Hope and Expectations

EMDR therapy encourages patients to accept their negative experiences and emotions. In some cases, patients may develop unrealistic expectations; they may hope that EMDR therapy will be the final step before they’re cured or resolved from their mental illness.

It is essential that patients understand that EMDR therapy is a process, and that healing is a journey, a work in progress. Patients should have realistic expectations about EMDR therapy and not use it as a quick-fix solution.

When EMDR Therapy Can Make Symptoms Worse: Common Pitfalls

PTSD Symptoms Intensity

While EMDR therapy shows promise, one pitfall is that it may exacerbate symptoms of PTSD. It is reported that for some patients, the therapy could lead to heightened anxiety and require more medication for management.

Unfortunately, there is no way to guarantee beforehand whether EMDR therapy will worsen or alleviate PTSD symptoms.

Preexisting Mental Health Issues

PTSD suggests that there is already an underlying pre-existing psychological issue present. Therefore, if a patient has a history of pre-existing conditions such as bipolar disorder, anxiety, or borderline personality disorder, there is a high chance that EMDR therapy aggravates those symptoms and causes more harm.

Before starting EMDR therapy, patients must get a correct clinical diagnosis of their underlying pre-existing issue. This helps create a tailored therapy plan for them that would work well with their EMDR treatment.

Dual Diagnosis

Patients with dual diagnoses who are undergoing EMDR therapy can have a higher risk of re-traumatization. In some cases, they are advised to delay their EMDR treatment until they receive treatment for the secondary condition that has been initiated.

Dual diagnosis means that an individual is diagnosed with two or more disorders, such as alcoholism and depression or bipolar disorder and eating disorders.

Inadequate Training of Therapists

EMDR therapy is efficacious when patients receive treatment from highly trained and certified EMDR therapists. Inadequately trained therapists can cause distress or harm to their patients.

The therapist needs to have appropriate knowledge and training when it comes to identifying PTSD symptoms, using EMDR accurately, and providing support during treatment.

Not Enough Preparation for Treatment

EMDR therapy requires a great deal of preparation from both the patient and therapist, regarding understanding the therapeutic process and explaining the benefits and risks involved.

Clients need to be informed about the process, and the process should be tailored based on each patient’s clinical and psychological profile to avoid any negative progression or unintended effects.


1. Does EMDR therapy work for everyone?

There is limited research on EMDR therapy’s efficacy; however, it does work well for many patients. Some clinical studies suggest that patients who have more severe traumas may not benefit, while others found it be useful in treating chronic PTSD.

2. What should I expect during my first EMDR therapy session?

The first EMDR therapy session begins with the therapist taking a thorough medical, clinical, and psychological history. Then, the therapist will explain the therapeutic process and how it works. At the end of the session, the therapist will get your permission to move forward with the therapy.

3. Is EMDR therapy a long-term or short-term treatment?

It depends on the patient and their therapy needs. EMDR therapy can take anywhere from a month to more than a year to complete, depending on the individual case’s complexity.

4. Is EMDR therapy safe?

Yes, EMDR therapy is safe when conducted under the supervision of a well-qualified and certified therapist. However, some patients may experience emotional discomfort or negative emotions during the therapy.

5. Do I have to relive the trauma to receive EMDR therapy?

No, the patient doesn’t have to relive the trauma directly. The therapy involves recalling and sharing psychosomatic emotions, thoughts, and images related to the traumatic event. This enables the patient to process their trauma and helps them recover.


EMDR therapy is a promising treatment option that can help ease PTSD symptoms. However, it comes with potential risks and pitfalls that must be acknowledged and discussed. The risks associated with EMDR therapy often outweigh the potential negative effects and, therefore, warrant careful consideration. Patients with PTSD should consult with a certified therapist and healthcare provider before deciding on EMDR therapy. By recognizing these potential risks, patients can make a more informed decision on whether or not EMDR therapy is right for them.

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