Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapeutic technique that has gained significant popularity in recent years for its effectiveness in treating trauma and various psychological conditions. It is included in the NICE guidelines (the evidence-based recommendations that guide NHS treatments) as an effective option for PTSD and can be used in many other anxiety difficulties too.
What Is EMDR?
Before we dive into the question of whether we can do EMDR at home (in a self-guided way), let's briefly explore what EMDR therapy is and how it typically works:
EMDR is a structured eight-phase therapy designed to reduce the emotional impact of traumatic events. All eight-phases are guided by the therapist.
Early on in this process the therapist helps the client to identify the distressing memories they need to work on. You may think that the distressing memories would be obvious but not all memories are held consciously (known as explicit memories). Many memories are held at a level below our conscious awareness (known as implicit memories). An example of how an implicit memory shows up for someone is when they have a very strong emotional reaction (to an excessive level) to a current event (e.g. a panic attack or a fit of rage) or when they get caught in a repetitive behaviour patterns that they feel is self-sabotaging, without understanding why they always do this. This is the body ‘remembering’, and the repetitive behavioural responses are the way the body adapted to cope with intensity in the past. All of which can occur without our conscious awareness.
Once the themes of the distress and possible memories have been identified, the therapist supports the individual to develop skills for coping with strong emotions so that they can then reprocess those memories in a safe and controlled environment. Sometimes this phase actually needs to be done before memories are identified, it depends on how distressed someone is at the start of therapy.
During the trauma-processing phase, bilateral stimulation is used (meaning that the left and right side of the brain are stimulated in quick succession), often in the form of side-to-side eye movements or taps. This is believed to facilitate the brain's capacity to process and integrate traumatic memories so they are less emotionally charged, as happens naturally during the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep.
EMDR therapy doesn’t change the fact that traumatic events happened, but it does change how they are stored in the brain and body. After successful EMDR these traumatic events should feel more manageable and that you are no longer being held back by these excessive emotional reactions or repetitive behaviour patterns.
The Role of a Trained Therapist
One of the fundamental aspects of EMDR therapy is the presence of a trained therapist who guides the process. This therapist provides essential support, maintains a safe environment, helps clients navigate the emotional challenges that may arise during the sessions and ultimately helps the client to make sense of the adaptive material arising. A trained EMDR therapist can also adapt the therapy to suit the individual's specific needs, may draw on other therapy models at certain points where this would be beneficial, plus ensures that the process is conducted safely and effectively.
Self-Guided EMDR: Is It Possible?
Now, let's address the question at hand: Can you do EMDR on yourself? For those who have seen the videos of people in EMDR moving their eyes back and forth or tapping it might look like a simple technique and one you can try on your own. However, as has already been explained, it is actually a very involved phased-model with more to it than first appears. Many books and trainings refer to the 'art and science' of EMDR, demonstrating how it is more than just a protocol you can follow.
I will list three further reasons why I advise against it:
1. Coping with your Reactions: EMDR can bring up intense emotions, vivid memories, and strong bodily sensations. For some people it can also lead to dissociation, which is when we feel less connected to the present-moment. A trained therapist assesses for these issues and adapts the pace of therapy accordingly. They also need to be present to help you understand and manage these responses effectively and in a way that is healing. It might seem odd to think that these are signs of healing but often this is the body releasing implicit memories and part of the process of making them into digestible explicit memories.
2. Lack of Expertise: EMDR therapists undergo extensive training and education to ensure they can provide the necessary support and adapt the therapy to each client's unique needs. They have their core-professional training in mental health before going on to learn EMDR as an extra therapeutic method. Attempting self-guided EMDR without this expertise will not yield the desired therapeutic results.
3. Risk of Re-Traumatisation: Trauma survivors are at risk of re-traumatisation when revisiting traumatic memories when done in a way that is unsupported. A trained therapist will know when your nervous system is ready to tolerate revisiting the ‘trauma-site’ and will have prepared you for this to avoid this from occurring in the first place (through teaching grounding and soothing skills) but will also know how to manage any unexpected responses like this.
Alternatives to Self-Guided EMDR
If you are interested in the benefits of EMDR but do not have access to a trained therapist nearby, or prefer a more self-directed approach, there are alternatives to consider:
1. EMDR-Informed Calming Techniques: In the early phase of EMDR, bilateral stimulation is conducted in a gentle way (slowly and for shorter periods) alongside calming imagery as a method of learning to manage distress. Therapists ask clients to practice these between sessions and use them when they are feeling distressed. There are self-help books, videos, and online resources that incorporate these early-phase EMDR principles and techniques. A good one to start with is Tapping In by Laurel Parnell which guides you through the imagery and tapping in a safe way. I also have a video of a tapping exercise like this in my free roadmap out of anxiety and burnout and sometimes offer online workshops which incorporate EMDR-techniques. If you download this you will join my mailing list and get notifications of upcoming workshops. These allow you to try EMDR at home but are still therapist-guided.
2. Exercise with Bilateral Stimulation: Physical exercise that uses bilateral stimulation includes cycling, walking, jogging and swimming and can be very helpful. Activation of the left and right side of the body (in this case with your limbs whilst exercising) has been spoken about by neuroscientist Andrew Huberman as a way of calming the threat part of the brain. A good (small) way to notice the effects of this is to go on a walk or jog and allow yourself to bring to mind a problem that you’re feeling stuck on. Notice what happens during the exercise in terms of feeling able to overcome the problem and the ideas that start to show up to help you do this.
3. Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT): Whilst EFT uses tapping to calm anxiety as well the underlying theory is slightly different. If you have heard of tapping, and this was one reason that you were drawn to EMDR, then you might like to try reading more about it because there are lots of self-guided tools available. A good place to start is The Tapping Solution by Nick Ortner.
4. Virtual EMDR Sessions: Some therapists offer virtual EMDR sessions, which can be a more accessible option for those who cannot attend in-person sessions. There’s more about the effectiveness of online therapy here.
Whilst EMDR is a powerful therapeutic technique I believe that it needs to be with the guidance of a trained therapist who can provide crucial support and ensure safety throughout the process. Self-guided EMDR is possible in theory, but it comes with significant limitations and potential risks. If you have a negative experience it might put you off ever trying EMDR with a trained professional which would be a real shame as there is a strong evidence-base for this method of therapy and I find it works very well for many people in my own practice.
That said, I do think you can safely try the calming EMDR-techniques that I describe above in a self-guided way, but do take a look at one of the resources I've given to help you do this effectively.
If you are interested in EMDR therapy, I’d advise seeking the help of a qualified and experienced therapist who can provide you with the appropriate guidance and support tailored to your individual needs. Check out our team of EMDR therapists here.
Get more information about how EMDR works in this blog: What is EMDR?