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What have EMDR and psychedelics got in common?

How can they create psychological and physical changes in the brain?

EMDR – a psychedelic experience?

If you work in the field, or have had it yourself, you’ll be familiar with EMDR. But for those of you that don’t know, EMDR is a particular type of therapy that uses physiological processes to engender psychological change. Specifically, it uses a process called bilateral stimulation to change the way the brain responds to distressing psychological experiences. The potential effects of which include eliminating flashbacks & nightmares as suffered in PTSD whilst reducing hypervigilance and improving mood [1]. There is also expanding research to show the efficacy of EMDR in reducing physical pain [2].

Bilateral stimulation can be done through eliciting swift eye movements or through what is called “butterfly taps” which have you crossing your arms and tapping your shoulders one after the other in quick succession. There are other mediums as well, but these are the most common. The process of EMDR is more than this, of course. Your EMDR Therapist will set up a formulation and the memory, sensory experience or other target to be processed and then facilitate the processing. Processing can be very different from session to session and across individuals.

Generally speaking, however processing will be multimodal. What I mean by this is that people will process cognitively (having lots of thoughts or contextualising memories), emotionally (feeling and expressing different emotions), visually (seeing different aspects of the memory or related memories) and somatically (physically feeling sensations). For some individuals, there is a predominant mode of processing but for others, it will go across the full gamut.

However, the processing goes in EMDR, the experience is like one of free association; like all of your neural networks have had the breaks released and you’re making connections all over the place. Some will be intuitive. Some will seem disjointed and unconnected. Others, surprising and enlightening. Ultimately, your brain is being given the opportunity to piece together information that it hasn’t been able to before.

Intrigued about EMDR and psychedelics?

Huge disclaimer here – although I strongly believe in the power of psychedelics for persisting mental health difficulties, I also strongly believe that they should only be used in the context of an experienced facilitator after adequate medical and psychological assessment. For now, this is only available in the UK in the context of trials. If you are interested in any of these trials you might like to check out Clerkenwell Health who are organising a series of studies in conjunction with King's College London. They have a trial at the moment focussed on those with PTSD but they have more coming up in the near future. I am not affiliated or receiving any incentives to share this.

EMDR is available for free in some IAPT services but not all and I know waiting lists are long. It is worth exploring options for your local one if you live in England or Wales. Otherwise, unless already in a mental healthcare pathway, your other options are unfortunately private. You can use this directory to find accredited EMDR practitioners. I am also EMDR trained. You are always welcome to get in touch to see about waiting times.


[1] Scelles, C., & Bulnes, L. C. (2021). EMDR as treatment option for conditions other than PTSD: A systematic review. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 644369.

[2] Tesarz, J., Wicking, M., Bernardy, K., & Seidler, G. H. (2019). EMDR therapy's efficacy in the treatment of pain. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 13(4), 337-344.

[3] Scelles, C., & Bulnes, L. C. (2021). EMDR as treatment option for conditions other than PTSD: A systematic review. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 644369

[4] Bremner, J. D. (2022). Traumatic stress: effects on the brain. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience.

[5] Danckert, J., & Merrifield, C. (2018). Boredom, sustained attention and the default mode network. Experimental brain research, 236, 2507-2518

[6] Lanius, R. A., Terpou, B. A., & McKinnon, M. C. (2020). The sense of self in the aftermath of trauma: Lessons from the default mode network in posttraumatic stress disorder. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 11(1), 1807703.

[7] Ruban, A., & Kołodziej, A. A. (2018). Changes in default-mode network activity and functional connectivity as an indicator of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy effectiveness. Neuropsychiatria i Neuropsychologia/Neuropsychiatry and Neuropsychology, 13(3), 91-97

[8] Aday, J. S., Bloesch, E. K., & Davoli, C. C. (2020). Can psychedelic drugs attenuate age-related changes in cognition and affect?. Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, 4, 219-227.

[9] Calancie, O. G., Khalid‐Khan, S., Booij, L., & Munoz, D. P. (2018). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing as a treatment for PTSD: current neurobiological theories and a new hypothesis. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1426(1), 127-145



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