EMDR vs. CBT: Which Is More Effective?

Written By

Helen Kaminski, MSc

Updated:

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A quick search for ‘emdr vs cbt’ may result in some pretty disappointing results that may simply put you off, but this guide is the real deal, arming you with the knowledge you need before going for EMDR or CBT therapy and some tips and tricks to find the best therapist online.

Read on to delve deeper into both CBT and EMDR therapies, exploring their techniques, benefits, uses, and which one is best suited for particular conditions. 

CBT and EMDR: Which is better?

Mental health conditions are becoming more prevalent, with many individuals struggling with anxiety, depression, PTSD, eating disorders, and other related issues. 

Two of the most commonly used therapies are Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).

recent study provides evidence that internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy effectively reduces anxiety and increases people’s health-related quality of life.

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“You don’t have to control your thoughts. You just have to stop letting them control you.”

— DAN MILLMAN

CBT Vs. EMDR: What is CBT stand for?

CBT stands for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT is a talk therapy focusing on the individual’s thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors.

It aims to modify negative patterns by replacing them with more positive ones, ultimately leading to a more positive outlook.

  • CBT therapists work with individuals to identify negative thoughts and behaviors and develop coping mechanisms to manage them.
  • This therapy is particularly effective in treating anxiety disorders, depression, and eating disorders.
book of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy on a shelf

“In my practice I find that the great majority of the depressed patients referred to me improve substantially if they try to help themselves. Sometimes it hardly seems to matter what you do as long as you do something with the attitude of self-help.”-David D. Burns

What is CBT therapy?

CBT uses various techniques to help individuals challenge their negative thoughts and behaviors. 

Here are some of the critical techniques used in CBT:

Psychoeducation involves educating the individual about their condition and how negative thought patterns and behaviors can contribute to it.

  • It helps people understand the connection between their thoughts, behaviors, and emotions.
  • By understanding the relationship between thoughts, behaviors, and feelings, individuals can learn to identify triggers and develop strategies to manage them effectively.

Behavioral activation involves identifying and engaging in positive behaviors, even when one doesn’t feel like doing them.

  • It helps to increase positive emotions and improve mood. Individuals can break the cycle of negative thinking and reduce anxiety by identifying and engaging in activities that bring pleasure and a sense of accomplishment.

Cognitive restructuring involves identifying and challenging negative thought patterns and replacing them with more positive ones.

  • It helps change how the individual perceives and interprets situations, leading to positive emotions.
  • By challenging and replacing negative thoughts with more realistic and positive ones, individuals can learn to manage anxiety more effectively.

Exposure therapy involves gradually exposing the individual to the situations or stimuli that trigger their anxiety or fear in a controlled environment.

  • It helps the person learn they can handle these situations and reduces stress. Individuals can build confidence and learn to manage anxiety in real-life situations through gradual exposure.

Relaxation techniques: This involves using relaxation exercises such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and mindfulness to reduce stress and anxiety.

  • By practicing relaxation exercises regularly, individuals can reduce physical tension and learn to manage their anxiety more effectively.

Problem-solving skills: This involves learning to identify and solve problems in a structured and effective way.

  • It helps the person feel more in control and confident in dealing with challenges. Individuals can feel more confident in managing anxiety by learning how to break problems into manageable parts and develop practical solutions.

Psychotherapy utilizing CBT offers a range of practical techniques to manage anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems.

By understanding the condition, engaging in positive behaviors, gradually exposing to triggers, practicing the above-mentioned techniques, and developing proper coping skills, individuals can control their anxiety and improve their overall well-being.

“Everyone in a complex system has a slightly different interpretation. The more interpretations we gather, the easier it becomes to gain a sense of the whole.”-Margaret J. Wheatley


Are the benefits of CBT just a placebo response?

CBT is a widely used and effective therapy for several mental health conditions. It helps individuals manage their negative thoughts and behaviors, improving their mood and outlook.

Here are some of the key benefits of CBT therapy:

  1. Evidence-based: CBT is a well-established and evidence-based form of therapy, meaning that it has been extensively researched and has been shown to be effective in treating a wide range of mental health conditions.
  2. Focuses on the present: CBT is a present-focused therapy that helps individuals identify and change negative patterns of thinking and behavior in the here and now rather than dwelling on past events.
  3. Short-term: CBT is generally a short-term therapy, typically lasting between 6-20 sessions. This means that individuals can see significant improvements in their mental health relatively quickly.
  4. Collaborative: CBT is a collaborative form of therapy that involves active participation from both the therapist and the individual receiving treatment. This collaborative approach can help individuals feel more empowered and engaged in the therapy process.
  5. Flexible: CBT can be adapted to meet the unique needs and circumstances of each individual. This flexibility allows therapists to tailor the therapy to the specific needs of each client.
  6. Focuses on skills building: CBT emphasizes the development of practical skills and coping strategies that individuals can use to manage their symptoms and improve their mental health in the long term.

CBT aims to help individuals change negative thought patterns and behaviors contributing to their mental health.

CBT has been shown to have long-lasting benefits and can be effective in as little as 8-16 sessions. CBT is a relatively short-term therapy, making it a cost-effective treatment option for many individuals.

CBT offers an evidence-based, effective, and accessible way to manage mental health conditions.

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What is EMDR like?

EMDR is a therapy that helps individuals process traumatic memories or negative emotions. It uses eye movements, tapping, or sounds to facilitate the reprocessing of traumatic memories.

Person juggling and listening to music

This therapy is particularly effective in treating PTSD, phobias, and trauma. EMDR is believed to work by reprogramming the brain to process these experiences in a healthier way.

Fundamental techniques used in EMDR

Eye movements: The therapist will use side-to-side eye movements, either by moving their fingers back and forth or by using a light bar, to help stimulate the brain’s processing of traumatic memories.

Tapping: In some cases, the therapist may use tapping or other physical sensations, such as hand-held buzzers, to help stimulate the brain’s processing of traumatic memories.

Sounds: The therapist may also use sounds, such as tones or clicks, to help stimulate the brain’s processing of traumatic memories.

Imagery: The therapist may ask the client to visualize a traumatic memory or negative emotion and then guide them through reprocessing that memory or feeling in a more positive way.

Talk therapy: EMDR also involves talk therapy, in which the therapist helps the client to explore their thoughts and emotions related to the traumatic memory or negative sentiment.

These techniques are designed to help the brain process traumatic memories or negative emotions in a healthier way, reducing the intensity of the feelings and allowing the individual to move forward with their life in a more positive way.

It’s important to note that EMDR should only be administered by a trained and licensed therapist specializing in this type of therapy.

EMDR what to expect?

Treatment of trauma: EMDR is particularly effective for treating trauma, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other trauma-related conditions.

Reduces negative emotions: EMDR can help to reduce negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, and anger, which are often associated with traumatic memories.

Improves self-esteem: EMDR can help to improve self-esteem and increase feelings of self-worth, particularly for those who have experienced trauma or abuse.

Changes negative thought patterns: EMDR can help change negative thought patterns associated with traumatic memories or other negative experiences, leading to a more positive overall mindset.

Fast-acting: EMDR is often faster-acting than traditional talk therapies, with many individuals seeing significant improvement in a relatively short time.

Non-invasive: EMDR is a non-invasive form of therapy that does not involve medication or other medical procedures, making it a good option for individuals looking for a more natural approach to treatment.

Some studies have also compared EMDR therapy with medication treatment, with one study comparing EMDR with a drug called fluoxetine.

The patients who received psychotherapy, i.e., EMDR, showed more sustained progress in the reduction of PTSD and depression symptoms.

Why is CBT so popular?

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is typically used to treat anxiety disorders, depression, and eating disorders. It has also effectively treated post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

  • CBT works by helping the person identify negative thoughts and behaviors and replacing them with positive ones, leading to a more positive overall mindset.

EMDR, on the other hand, is often used to treat PTSD, trauma, and phobias. EMDR helps individuals process traumatic experiences by reprogramming the brain’s response to those experiences. It has also been effective in treating anxiety disorders and depression.

Several studies have compared the effectiveness of CBT and EMDR in treating individuals with PTSD. A Cureus study conducted in 2018 found that EMDR was more effective than CBT in reducing PTSD symptoms, particularly anxiety.

How to choose between EMDR and CBT? 

The answer is that it depends on your specific needs and goals. Both therapies are highly effective for treating various mental health conditions but have different approaches and techniques.

First and foremost, it’s essential to understand the specific issues you’re struggling with and how they may impact your life. CBT is typically used to treat anxiety disorders, depression, and eating disorders, as well as PTSD and OCD.

It focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns and behaviors, helping individuals to develop a more positive mindset.

So, the first step in choosing between CBT and EMDR is to consider the specific mental health condition you’re struggling with.

CBT may be the best fit for you if you’re dealing with negative thought patterns and behaviors. On the other hand, if you’re struggling with trauma or phobias, EMDR may be the better choice.

Remember that both EMDR and CBT can be used together or separately, depending on your individual needs.

It’s also important to consider your personal preferences and comfort level with each therapy. CBT is a talk therapy that involves discussing your thoughts and emotions with a therapist.

  • EMDR, on the other hand, may involve more physical movements, such as eye movements or tapping, which can be uncomfortable for some people.

Another factor to consider is the availability of therapists specializing in each therapy. CBT is a widely used therapy, and there are many therapists who specialize in it.

EMDR, on the contrary, may be less widely available, and it may take more effort to find a qualified therapist specializing in this therapy.

betterhelp promo 20% off on your first month of emdr or cbt therapy

Verdict: Both CBT and EMDR can be effective for various mental health conditions

Ultimately, the decision between CBT and EMDR will depend on your specific needs, preferences, and available qualified therapists in your area.

The most important thing is to find a licensed therapist with experience treating the particular condition you’re struggling with and feel comfortable and supported throughout the therapy process.

In conclusion, CBT and EMDR are effective therapies for various mental health conditions. Understanding the differences between the two and which might be the best fit for your specific needs can help you make an informed decision.

Remember, the most important thing is to find a therapist who can help guide you toward a healthier and happier life.

References

  1. American Psychological Association. (2017). What Is Psychotherapy? https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/patients-and-families/psychotherapy
  2. Mayo Clinic. (2021). Anxiety Disorders. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/anxiety/symptoms-causes/syc-20350961
  3. Hofmann, S. G., Asnaani, A., Vonk, I. J., Sawyer, A. T., & Fang, A. (2012). The efficacy of cognitive behavioral therapy: A review of meta-analyses. Cognitive therapy and research, 36(5), 427-440. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23459093/
  4. National Institute of Mental Health. (2020). Psychotherapies. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/psychotherapies

YouTube video
TED Talk: The effect of trauma on the brain and how it affects behaviors

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About the author

Helen Kaminski, MSc

Helen Kaminski, MSc

Mindful living for a happier, healthier you. I’m a writer and mental health advocate in Warsaw, Poland, with five years working as a therapist. I hold a psychology degree from the University of Warsaw. I specialize in writing about mental health, using my experiences and academic background to educate and inspire others. In my free time, I volunteer at a Disability Learning Center and go for nature walks. My writing aims to break down mental health stigma and help others feel understood. Social

18 thoughts on “EMDR vs. CBT: Which Is More Effective?”

  1. I would like to thnkx for the efforts you have put in writing this blog. I am hoping the same high-grade blog post from you in the upcoming as well. In fact your creative writing abilities has inspired me to get my own blog now. Really the blogging is spreading its wings quickly. Your write up is a good example of it.

    Reply
  2. As someone who has struggled with PTSD following a traumatic event a few years ago, I’ve been interested in understanding the differences between two therapies often used to treat trauma – EMDR and CBT. This article clearly laying out the key characteristics of each approach was really helpful for me as I decide which route to pursue in my healing process. I liked how they explained both EMDR and CBT in easy to understand terms, as well as the typical formats for treatment sessions. Learning that EMDR employs eye movement and bilateral stimulation to process memories was intriguing to me. While CBT’s goal of changing thought patterns also made sense.

    It was hard for me to discern which modality might be the most effective just from my own research, so having the writer compare and contrast them directly has given me much food for thought. The suggestion that hybrid protocols taking the best of both therapies have emerged was heartening too. I feel better equipped now to have an informed discussion with therapists about which methodology would be the best fit for me as I continue recovering from the aftereffects of trauma. Thank you for taking the time to educate readers on this vital decision making process!

    Reply
  3. I tried both CBT and EMDR for my anxiety issues. CBT was useful for identifying unhelpful thought patterns, but EMDR seemed to help me process the root causes of my anxiety on a deeper level. In the end, I felt I needed both therapies to fully manage my anxiety. It’s not necessarily one or the other.

    Reply
  4. I tried EMDR for my PTSD but found it too intense and distressing. The eye movement techniques brought up memories I wasn’t ready to process. CBT has been gentler and given me tools to manage my anxiety and trauma symptoms. EMDR may work for some but CBT is a better fit for me.

    Reply
  5. This article relies too heavily on the perspectives of therapists in assessing EMDR and CBT. The opinions and experiences of real patients who have undergone these therapies should have been highlighted more. Without the patient viewpoint, the information feels incomplete.

    Reply
  6. As someone with OCD, I have found little success with CBT alone. Adding EMDR to my treatment plan has been crucial to processing the root causes of behaviors tied to my obsessions and compulsions. Using CBT with EMDR has been key for me.

    Reply
  7. This article had a clear bias towards EMDR over CBT which I disagree with. CBT has been well studied and validated for many conditions. While EMDR shows promise, more research is needed to support its broad application. I worry those without expertise may try EMDR prematurely with clients. We need standards to protect patients.

    Reply
  8. I really related to the point about finding a therapist you vibe with. You gotta feel comfortable opening up for this to work. Don’t be afraid to “shop around” till someone clicks! The right match matters big time.

    Reply
  9. As someone who struggled with PTSD after a traumatic event, this breakdown of how EMDR works was really interesting. The explanation of how it reprocesses memories makes sense based on my experience with it. I’m grateful to have found such an effective treatment.

    Reply
  10. I appreciated how clearly the author explained the different techniques used in CBT therapy. Learning about things like cognitive restructuring and exposure therapy gives me a better idea of what to expect if I decide to pursue it for my anxiety issues.

    Reply
  11. This was a well-balanced comparison of CBT versus EMDR! I liked that the writer covered how CBT builds long-term coping skills while EMDR gives faster relief for specific traumas. The differences help me understand which approach might be better for my needs.

    Reply
  12. As someone considering therapy for the first time, the overview of conditions each one treats was really helpful. Now I understand that CBT may work well for thought pattern issues like depression, while EMDR targets processing traumatic memories more directly.

    Reply
  13. This gave me a much clearer idea of what EMDR therapy entails. I didn’t realize it uses eye movements and other techniques to help reprocess trauma. It sounds like it could be a good option for healing from difficult life events.

    Reply
  14. As someone who has done both EMDR and CBT, I found the comparisons here to be spot on based on my experiences. EMDR worked faster for specific trauma, while CBT gave me coping tools I still use. Nice to see the nuances explored.

    Reply
  15. Glad to learn EMDR is non-invasive and avoids medical procedures. For those looking for a natural therapy option, that’s an important point to highlight and probably author should have discussed more on.

    Reply
  16. As someone who has done both CBT and EMDR, I gotta say this article nailed it. The part about how CBT gave me useful skills I still use really resonated. But EMDR was like magic for processing old grief I carried. So I’d tell folks: try both! See what works for you.

    Reply
  17. I never realized EMDR uses eye movements and stuff to reprogram the brain around trauma. That actually makes total sense based on how powerful our other senses are for memory. I’d be open to trying it after reading this. Seems legit.

    Reply
  18. As someone with hella anxiety, I appreciated the part explaining how CBT techniques help calm thoughts and reduce stress. Learning to challenge my negative brain spirals sounds super useful. Imma look into CBT ASAP!

    Reply

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