This article explores the connection between EMDR and headaches.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a type of psychotherapy that can help people process traumatic memories. Some people report experiencing headaches after EMDR sessions.
What is EMDR Therapy?
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It is an evidence-based form of psychotherapy developed in the late 1980s by psychologist Francine Shapiro.
The goal of EMDR is to reduce the distress associated with traumatic memories by activating the brain’s natural healing mechanisms through bilateral stimulation, usually in the form of guided eye movements.
How EMDR Works
During EMDR sessions, clients focus on distressing memories while simultaneously focusing on an external stimulus like tracking the therapist’s finger back and forth or listening to tones alternating between ears.
- This dual attention activates the brain’s information processing system to reprocess the traumatic memories into an adaptive resolution.
- Over time, the distress associated with the memories can be reduced or eliminated, which may include complex PTSD as the research is still ongoing.
Can EMDR Cause Headaches?
Some people do report experiencing headaches after EMDR therapy sessions. There are a few potential reasons why this might occur:
The most common cause of EMDR headaches is eye strain from the eye movements used during sessions.
- Constantly moving the eyes back and forth taxes the eye muscles and can lead to tension and headaches afterward. This typically resolves on its own after some rest.
Processing traumatic memories during EMDR can also trigger emotional releases which may manifest physically with headaches or migraines.
- Releasing emotions requires muscular contractions in the face, neck, and shoulders that can cause headache pain.
Crying and perspiring are common physical manifestations during EMDR as suppressed emotions are accessed. This fluid loss combined with hyperventilation can also contribute to dehydration headaches.
- Drinking plenty of water before and after EMDR sessions may help minimize headaches.
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Tips to Prevent EMDR Headaches
There are a few things clients can try to prevent headaches during or after EMDR:
Practicing relaxation techniques like deep breathing can help dial down muscle tension that contributes to headaches. Staying grounded when emotional material comes up will also help.
It’s perfectly fine to ask the therapist for a break during the bilateral stimulation if eye strain or tension headaches start to occur.
Drinking water before, during, and after EMDR sessions can offset fluid loss from crying. Avoid caffeine which can exacerbate headaches.
Let your therapist know if you experience frequent or severe headaches so the EMDR process can be adjusted accordingly if needed. Consider taking an over-the-counter pain medication afterward, if recommended by your provider. Be sure to read our guide on when to avoid EMDR.
While EMDR headaches are common, there are ways to manage them. Paying attention to your body during sessions and employing relaxation techniques can go a long way toward preventing headaches from EMDR therapy.