Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) vs. Traditional Talk Therapy

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The mental health field is not as easily understood by the lay person as it is the medical field. Therefore, I will attempt to clarify the difference between EMDR and traditional talk therapy   utilizing comparisons of specialties in the medical field.

To start, think about the difference between a Primary Care Physician (PCP) and a Neurosurgeon. Would you go to a PCP to receive treatment that only a Neurosurgeon could provide? The answer to that is clear, no.  Your PCP would refer you to the specialist.

In the mental health field, to provide traditional talk therapy, clinicians earn a master’s degree (think of a PCP earning a medical degree). However, to provide EMDR services, clinicians need to work on this specialized treatment (think of the Neurosurgeon).

It is common for individuals not familiar with the mental health field to think that psychotherapy is “all the same.”  There are several reasons for this, such as lack of information and or understanding of the field.

In traditional talk therapy the goal(s) set depend on the issue at hand and informed by the therapist’s modality.  However, the goal of most talk therapy is for individuals to verbalize, organize, and process their inner world to create change.  They can develop awareness of e.g., symptoms/patterns and then learn the necessary tools or skills to utilize those when certain symptoms/patterns are present.  

Individuals with anxiety and depression, for example, can learn to recognize the symptoms, verbalize them, process the impact, and learn healthy ways to manage those symptoms. The goal is to reduce such and return to some level of normal functioning. Individuals whose trust in the world has been shattered due to certain traumatic event(s) can also grow and heal through the safe and confidential space provided by the psychotherapist. It can be extremely difficult for an individual to do this work alone. Therefore, in talk therapy, the clinician can utilize interventions to facilitate the process.

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What happens when alleviating suffering through the traditional talk therapy is not enough or may take longer than an individual can afford? Here is where specialized providers can help utilizing the additional service of EMDR. This added service not only speeds up the process of healing, but also provides relief to that which is not always visible.

Oftentimes individuals in traditional talk therapy treatment stay stuck emotionally dealing with flashbacks, nightmares, numbness, or a deep sense of being unsafe in the world, for example.  The EMDR treatment can facilitate relief from the horror of daily re-experiencing such traumatic memories.

EMDR follows a structured protocol. Through the protocol, specialists encourage those in treatment to focus briefly on the trauma memory or part of the trauma memory while they simultaneously experience bilateral stimulation3 (BLS) (typically eye movements). EMDR researchers found that BLS reduces the vividness and emotions associated with trauma memories.2, 3 These memories appear to be “frozen in time,”1 creating distress in the form of “upsetting images, thoughts, and emotions.”1

Utilizing EMDR services alongside talk therapy is often a faster and more efficient way to overcome trauma. It can also provide results that last an entire lifetime.

While talk therapy can facilitate the organization, insight, and skills development, EMDR can facilitate the brain’s natural way to heal from memories “frozen in time.”1

By: Yamilka Urquiza-Mendoza, PsyD (February 20, 2023)



  1. EMDR International Association (2023). About EMDR Therapy. https://www.emdria.org/about-emdr-therapy/
  2. Kavanagh, D. J., Freese, S., Andrade, J., & May, J. (2001). Effects of visuospatial tasks on desensitization to emotive memories.British Journal of Clinical Psychology,40(3), 267-280.
  3. Shapiro, F. (2001).Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): Basic principles, protocols, and procedures. Guilford Press.