It’s easy to see why people think EMDR therapy is like hypnosis. In traditional sessions, EMDR therapists instruct patients to follow their moving fingers with their eyes like hypnotists ask clients to follow a swinging pendulum with theirs. But are they really similar?
EMDR is not hypnosis, but some aspects of the therapy are similar to it. These include their objectives, some techniques, non-use of drugs, treatment plans, use of external devices, invocation of the rapid eye movement state, and mental health conditions they attempt to resolve.
We created this mini guide to clarify some points of contention on a topic greatly misunderstood but not often discussed. Read on to have a clearer understanding of both processes.
What Is EMDR?
EMDR means eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. Psychologist Dr. Francine Shapiro developed it in 1987 and subsequently presented it to the medical community initially to help people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Shapiro found that generating rapid side-to-side eye movements while thinking disconcerting thoughts inexplicably eased her distress. She proceeded to apply her discovery to resolving related mental health conditions like anxiety, panic attacks, stress, depression, addiction, and phobias.
How Does EMDR Work?
Since EMDR is an unconventional form of psychotherapy, it has spawned controversy among mental health practitioners. Despite its popularity, some still question its effectiveness. To this day, EMDR proponents, in spite of knowing how it works, have yet to understand why it does.
Patients relive troubling memories (possible root causes of their problems) while following their therapists’ fingers (or equivalent objects) with their eyes as these move from left to right and back and forth.
This procedure is similar to hypnotists swinging pendulums in front of subjects whose eyes follow these as they move side to side.
The objective of both procedures is to stimulate both sides of the brain to “reset” it. EMDR practitioners call this bilateral stimulation (BLS). This mental reboot compels the brain to process traumatic memories in such a way that when they reoccur, their intensity is lessened. As a result, affected patients are no longer bothered by them.
The back-and-forth eye movements during EMDR and hypnotherapy sessions are meant to replicate the rapid eye movements during deep sleep called REM sleep or REM state. Shapiro believed the brain processes memories and events that happened during the day through REM sleep.
Therapists introduce adaptive coping strategies to patients throughout the BLS process. These procedures are repeated until patients are entirely desensitized from their traumas.
Distinction Between Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy
Hypnosis is the inducement of a state of consciousness wherein clients lose voluntary action and become highly responsive to direction. Hypnotherapists use hypnosis to extract suppressed memories or to modify behavior with suggestion—the process of influencing someone to accept an idea, impulse, or belief without question.
Hypnotherapy is the application of therapeutic techniques to someone in the state of hypnosis. It has two clinical approaches:
- Suggestion Therapy. Used for coping with issues like self-doubt, fear, anxiety, smoking cessation, harmful habits, weight control, stress, and Hypno-healing (activating the body’s immune and restorative systems).
- Analytical Therapy. Used to uncover and eradicate the root causes of complex problems like phobias and other psychological disorders.
How Does Hypnosis Work?
Consulting hypnotist Erick Kand claims hypnosis addresses all the emotions related to trauma or abuse. Its advantage is that clients don’t have to relive traumatic experiences to be effective, unlike in EMDR.
Stages of Effective Hypnotherapy
The Human Givens Institute outlines these as:
- Induction. Reach the REM state by artificial means
- Trance. Calm clients to prepare them for knowledge absorption
- Education. Gives clients a new perspective
- Healing. Psychological and physical healing through access to positive resources, mind revitalization, acquisition and practice of healthy new behaviors, and incentivizing the body to heal itself.
- Restoration of free will. Clients regain control of their lives.
Similarities Between Hypnosis and EMDR
The crucial features of EMDR and hypnosis are similar. As both advocate the mind-body connection, they are considered holistic.
The chief similarity between EMDR and hypnosis is they both work with the subconscious. Both compel negative emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and concealed memories to free their patients from their bonds.
Similarity in Practical Uses
Both EMDR and clinical hypnosis are successful in treating various issues, including:
- Irrational fear
- Panic disorders
- Chronic pain
- Performance anxiety
- PTSD and trauma-related disorders
- Physical and psychological abuse
- Substance abuse
Similarity in Methodology
Both therapies follow these modalities:
- Mind-body link
- Image processing
- Disconnection or disassociation
- Exploration of cognitive abilities
- Coping techniques
- Educational instruments
- Cultivation of safe surroundings
Similarity in Purpose
Hypnosis is not a therapy in itself but a guided concentration and relaxation technique licensed therapists use with psychotherapy to help people with mental health issues. In this matter, both hypnosis and EMDR explore repressed excruciating emotions, thoughts, or memories. Hypnosis has an added dimension in that it is also used to block the sensation of physical pain.
Similarity in Speed of Results
Before, psychotherapy took a long time to work, depending on the nature of the condition (with mixed results). Now, with EMDR (a form of psychotherapy) working side-by-side with hypnotherapy, therapists and patients are discovering that problems previously resistant to years of traditional psychotherapy are being solved in a very short period and with fewer sessions.
Similarity in Non-Drug Use
A big part of the relative safety of EMDR and hypnosis is that they don’t involve drugs. They have also been proven to work well with PTSD, whose victims are better off limiting their medications to those absolutely essential to their recovery. The difference is, in EMDR, patients are always in control of each session, while hypnotherapy clients are not.
Similarity in Brain Reprogramming
Shapiro discovered that EMDR affects how the brain processes information because troubled minds function normally after treatment. Patients no longer suffer from upsetting emotions, images, and sounds when they recall traumatic events. As such, EMDR is viewed as a physiological therapy that encourages patients to perceive disturbing events calmly.
Many types of therapy—including hypnotherapy—have similar objectives: encouraging the brain to process negative information in a positive way. EMDR tries to achieve this by duplicating the REM state. The other types of therapies have their equivalents.
Similarity in Technique Prompts Combination With Other Therapies
Hypnosis is often integrated into psychotherapeutic treatments like neurofeedback, interpersonal therapy, and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Since it involves verbal repetition and imagery, it has become an indispensable aid to traditional psychotherapy. EMDR (a form of psychotherapy) is also sometimes used with CBT and other forms of talk therapy.
An article from Positive Psychology reports on the work of hypnotherapist and family trauma therapist Dr. Katherine Compitus with EMDR and hypnosis. She says EMDR is similar to hypnosis in many ways .
In EMDR, therapists encourage patients to enter a relaxing, trance-like state to mindfully recall physical sensations during a traumatic event. Compitus explains that the trance is a vital part of EMDR because, without it, patients feel agitated, overstimulate the limbic system , and have difficulty processing unsettling memories. Therapists keep patients in a semi-hypnotic state to enable them to recall troublesome events while preserving control over the situation .
Similarity in the Use of External Devices
Although devices aren’t necessary in hypnotherapy, some practitioners ask clients to listen to words and music through headphones. Others use pendulums, metronomes, or other devices to hold clients’ attention. Most hypnotherapists just talk their clients into hypnosis.
EMDR therapists use sound (delivered through headphones—physically, or mobile apps— remotely) or other moving objects (light bars—physically, or dots on a screen—remotely) to administer BLS to patients as alternatives to the eye movement method.
Similarity in Safety Protocols
In hypnotherapy, clients use safety protocols to logically see the facts of their situation instead of viewing their experience emotionally. This allows them to be calm and in control during sessions, helping hypnotherapists maintain their objectives and guide clients through the healing process.
As in hypnotherapy, EMDR therapists don’t need to know all the facts of the trauma, as long as patients are aware of the sensations, emotions, and thoughts involved in the events.
Differences Between Hypnosis and EMDR
Many EMDR therapists claim EMDR and hypnosis are not the same. Others say otherwise. Here is where experts contradict each other. According to Hypno-systemic coach Bijan Kholghi, EMDR can be combined with hypnosis. However, they are not similar because hypnosis instigates a relaxed state while EMDR tries to connect to an anxious one.
Contradiction in Trance Inducement
Contrary to what Dr. Compitus said above, Forester said that EMDR is not at all like hypnosis. Hypnotists and hypnotherapists encourage clients to dissociate, use guided imagery, or access separate areas of their brain. They put clients into a trance and suggest direction.
With EMDR, patients are never in a trance and are always present. As they’re active participants, they remember all that happened in the session. Hypnosis clients typically don’t remember everything in their sessions.
Difference in the Eye States
With EMDR, the fundamental component is to have patients’ eyes open for the eye movements to take place. Some hypnotists say clients generally have their eyes closed. Others say they don’t have to. Regardless, for hypnotic DVDs, hypnosis patients need to keep their eyes open.
Some hypnotherapists ask clients to close their eyes because doing so:
- Prepares them for therapists’ suggestions/directions.
- Enables them to focus more easily.
- Removes the discomfort associated with watching someone stare for an extended period.
Difference in the Brain States
Brain states are different in EMDR and hypnosis. During EMDR sessions, patients are awake, alert, and entirely in control. Healing in EMDR occurs faster compared to hypnotherapy. Like hypnosis, though, EMDR works with the subconscious to bring into consciousness buried emotions and thoughts that need to be re-experienced to release their hold on patients.
EMDR and Hypnosis Combined
Psychotherapist Brigitte E. Lifschitz likes to combine hypnosis with EMDR because she finds the two techniques more effective when used together. Distressing memories, traumas, and negative beliefs can be resolved much more quickly than with talk therapy alone.
Traumatic experiences from infancy can be dealt with, even if patients cannot remember the events. They don’t have to recall traumatic events in their entirety to resolve their problems—just the emotions and beliefs linked to those memories.
According to the EMDR Institute, the American Journal of Hypnosis published a special issue on combining EMDR therapy and hypnosis. The report approved this integration because, like psychoanalysis, both base their treatment methodologies on the theory that the brain perceives, stores, and retrieves information in a specific way.
Which Therapy Is Better for Trauma and Anxiety?
Doctor of natural medicine Dr. Josh Axe confirms that although EMDR and hypnosis aren’t exactly the same, they have common elements with mindfulness and meditation practices. EMDR benefits primarily psychological conditions (mostly dealing with trauma, abuse, depression, and anxiety).
Hypnosis deals with those too but also treats physiological conditions. See the lists above to compare. Each patient case is different, so therapists must tailor treatments according to the individual.
Since the essential features of EMDR and hypnotherapy are similar, people may think they can use either method interchangeably. However, when treating trauma, anxiety, or other medical conditions, it is best to choose medical professionals who customize their therapeutic approaches to fit unique needs.