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EMDR for Panic Disorder

How EMDR Can Treat Panic and Anxiety

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Updated November 30, 2012

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EMDR can treat symptoms associated with panic disorder.

Photo © Microsoft

A type of psychological treatment, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) was developed by psychologist Francine Shapiro in 1987. Research on and use of this method has continued to grow, making EMDR a popular technique in treating mental health disorders. In recent years, EMDR has become a more common treatment option for panic disorder.

What is EMDR?

As a therapeutic approach, EMDR is based on several theories of psychotherapy, including concepts of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). During an EMDR session, the therapist will ask the client to recall difficult thoughts and emotions. He or she will then instruct the client to continue thinking about these traumatic thoughts or past events, while having the client to move their eyes from side-to-side.

To help the client focus on moving their eyes, the therapist will hold up his/her first three fingers and move them in a bilateral motion for the client’s eyes to follow. The client will continue to focus on the traumatic feelings or memories for a few moments while participating in bilateral eye movements. Once finished, the client will discuss any insights, thoughts, or images that came to mind.

Through the EMDR process, it is believed that those who have experienced past trauma can begin to heal from the fear and pain associated with such disturbances. Additionally, EMDR may allow a client to gain a new perspective that can facilitate improved self-esteem and enhance personal beliefs about their capabilities.

Instead of eye movements, the client may be asked to perform hand or finger tapping or to wear a set of headphones to listen to tones that are alternating from ear to ear. Regardless of bilateral processes used, EMDR is conceptualized as addressing disturbing memories and events through an eight-phase treatment approach. EMDR may cause rapid relief from symptoms with the potential to help a client begin to feel better after the first session, although there is a great deal of variability in patients' responses.

How EMDR is Used to Treat Panic Disorder

EMDR is primarily used to overcome symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, EMDR has been found to effectively treat other mood and anxiety disorders, including depression, phobias, and panic disorder. EMDR may be particularly helpful in treating panic disorder, panic attacks, and agoraphobia when past traumatic experiences are contributing to current symptoms.

When used in the treatment of panic disorder, the therapist may ask the client to bring their attention to feared physical sensations or thoughts linked to their panic attacks. EMDR is meant to break any associations one has between certain circumstances and symptoms. Through EMDR, a person with panic disorder may be able to manage anticipatory anxiety related to panic attacks. For instance, if driving in a car often leads to anxiety and panic attacks, EMDR may be able to help the person remain calm before driving and feel safer while on the road.

Therapists who use EMDR often assign homework to help maintain progress between sessions. The client may be asked to try a self-help technique that requires their imagination to envision a peaceful environment, such as visualization. Imagery desensitization may be practiced between sessions, allowing the client to picture what it would be like to gradually face their fears. EMDR practitioners also often suggest keeping a journal that tracks progress and learned relaxation techniques.

Getting EMDR Treatment

EMDR techniques are performed by trained professionals who are also qualified to treat panic disorder, such as psychologists or mental health counselors. If you are currently seeing a therapist who is not trained in EMDR, you can ask them to provide you with a referral. EMDR practitioners can also be found through online directories, including the EMDR Institute, Inc. or the EMDR International Association.

EMDR is complex and controversial technique. There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding how it works and it is not effective for everyone. Your doctor or therapist will be able to help you determine if EMDR is the right treatment option for your particular needs.

Sources:

De Jongh, A. & Ten Broeke, E. (2009). EMDR and the Anxiety Disorders: Exploring the Current Status. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 3(3), 133-140.

EMDR Institute, Inc. What is EMDR? Accessed on November 15, 2012.

Fernandez, I. & Faretta, E. (2007). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing in the Treatment of Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia. Clinical Case Studies, 6(1), 44-63.

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