Using EMDR to Treat Trauma in Borderline Personality Disorder

How eye movements may ease a traumatic memory

EMDR Therapy, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy, is a therapy designed to reduce distress associated with a traumatic or disturbing memory and to also rework negative thoughts surrounding the memory.

Let's learn more about this type of therapy and understand why it may be a good option for some people with borderline personality disorder. 

Why is EMDR Used in People with BPD?

While EMDR therapy was originally designed to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it's now often used to treat a variety of mental health conditions, including anxiety disorders and depression — when a person with this disorder can identify a certain disturbing or traumatic memory.

Likewise, since many individuals with borderline personality disorder (BPD) have a history of one or more traumatic memories, EMDR is sometimes used to ease the memory and the emotions associated with it. 

What Is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR is considered an integrative approach to psychotherapy (i.e., talking therapy). This means that it draws on a number of different theoretical perspectives of treatment, like cognitive behavioral and psychodynamic perspectives. 

During an EMDR session, an EMDR therapist will ask the client to recall a single traumatic memory. Then a client will be asked to conjure up a visual image of the memory while simultaneously describing a negative thought associated with it. The person is also asked to share their negative emotions, like fear or anger, about the memory, and the physical sensations associated with these negative emotions.

The client will be asked to replace the negative thought with a positive thought while attending to a dual attention stimulus at the same time. The most common dual attention stimulus is lateral eye movements, which is moving the eyes left and right following the therapist's hand movements.

Dual attention stimuli are believed to facilitate the processing of painful or anxiety-producing memories, promoting deeper reprocessing of the stored memory. Other forms of dual stimulation involve the use of tapping of bilateral body parts (e.g., both knees) or tones stimulating both ears of the client at the same time.

Is EMDR Therapy Effective?

There have been a number of research studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of EMDR in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition, EMDR it's supported by the American Psychiatric Association in the treatment of trauma.

Despite the scientific evidence that EMDR is an effective treatment for trauma, this approach continues to generate some controversy due to the concern over whether eye movements and other forms of dual attention stimuli are really helpful in processing traumatic memories. 

A study published in the Journal of Behavioral Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry analyzed a number of scientific studies on EMDR, and the authors concluded that eye movements are valuable and do alter the processing of emotional memories. 

How Can I Find an EMDR Therapist?

If you are interested in finding an EMDR therapist, you may want to try the therapist directory provided by the EMDR International Association. You can also try asking your primary care physician, general practitioner, or psychiatrist for a referral.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Paauw C, De roos C, Tummers J, De jongh A, Dingemans A. Effectiveness of trauma-focused treatment for adolescents with major depressive disorder. Eur J Psychotraumatol. 2019;10(1):1682931. doi:10.1080%2F20008198.2019.1682931

  2. Shapiro F. The role of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy in medicine: addressing the psychological and physical symptoms stemming from adverse life experiences. Perm J. 2014;18(1):71-7. doi:10.7812%2FTPP%2F13-098

  3. Lee C, Cuijpers P. A meta-analysis of the contribution of eye movements in processing emotional memories. J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry. 2013;44(2):231-9. doi:10.1016/j.jbtep.2012.11.001

Additional Reading
  • Bisson JI, Ehlers A, Matthews R, Pilling S, Richards D, Turner S. Psychological treatments for chronic post-traumatic stress disorder: Systematic review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Psychiatry 2007 Feb;190(2):97-104.
  • Coubard OA. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) re-examined as cognitive and emotional neuroentrainment. Front Hum Neurosci. 2014;8:1035.
  • Devilly GJ. Power Therapies and possible threats to the science of psychology and psychiatry. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 2005 Jun;39(6):437-445.
  • Lee CW & Cuijpers P. A meta-analysis of the contribution of eye movements in processing emotional memories. J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry. 2013 Jun;44(2):231-9. 
  • Shapiro F. EMDR 12 years after its introduction: Past and future research. Journal of Clinical Psychology 2002 Jan;58(1):1-22.
  • Taylor S, Thordarson DS, Maxfield L, Fedoroff IC, Lovell K, Ogrodniczuk J. Comparative efficacy, speed, and adverse effects of three PTSD treatments: Exposure therapy, EMDR, and relaxation training. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 2003 Apr;71(2):330-338.
  • Taylor S. Efficacy and Outcome Predictors for Three PTSD Treatments: Exposure Therapy, EMDR, and Relaxation Training. In: Taylor S, editor. Advances in the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder: Cognitive-behavioral perspectives. New York, NY US: Springer Publishing Co; 2004 p. 13-37.

By Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault, PhD
 Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Eastern Connecticut State University.