AnxietyEMDRTherapyEMDR Therapy for Panic Attacks -

EMDR Therapy for Panic Attacks

For no apparent reason, your heart begins to race, you are sweating, your chest hurts and taking a breath seems labored or impossible.  Chills begin to rack your spine, the world seems far away, and you honestly think you might be having a heart attack, dying, or suddenly going off the deep end.  You can’t catch your breath and you might be choking. Your sight blurs and you think you might pass out. An intense fear grips you. Your brain and body tell you something is very wrong.  A few minutes pass, then a few more…you begin to calm and realize that must have been another panic attack. The mind begins to worry when it will happen again. Where will you be the next time?  Could it happen at work or school? While you are driving?

Panic attacks, or panic disorder, is a type of an anxiety disorder.  Anxiety disorders are very treatable conditions through the use of psychotherapy.  Panic attacks are usually sudden episodes of intense fear or distress that are accompanied by physical sensations.  These sensations are real and can be measured, such as rapid heart rate. These episodes last several minutes and can occur in a specific place or time or day, or without known cue or warning.  People who have panic attacks are usually worried that they will happen again, which can make the condition worse. It can be like a giant snowball in that worrying about having an attack can create an attack.  Sometimes people begin to avoid everyday places or situations in fear or concern that another attack will happen. This condition can be mild, or very serious causing significant difficulty in relationships, employment, or life satisfaction.  CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) has traditionally been the most effective treatment for panic attacks; however, EMDR research has shown that it is as effective as CBT, and can significantly reduce the number of panic attacks frequency than CBT (see Horst, 2017).  

EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) is an evidence-based non-traditional psychotherapy that can be used to treat panic disorder or anxiety.  During EMDR, a client will explore thoughts, feelings, sensations, and self beliefs related or associated with a negative event or a negative cognition. The therapist will either guide the client using eye movements back or forth, or some form of bilateral movement (tapping, lights, sounds).  While it is not necessary to verbalize all the details of the negative experience, the client will recall images or events that have been associated during processing. EMDR is thought to be effective at desensitization and reprocessing of negative events and beliefs because a client can explore these while in a relaxed and safe environment with a therapist.  

CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) is another evidence-based psychotherapy approach to treating panic disorder and anxiety, and is a traditional and heavily research modality.  CBT uses talk therapy to identify and explore the connections of thoughts, behaviors, and feelings. CBT aims to correct error irrational thinking, and identify antecedents of undesired behavior to shape actions to desired behaviors, and explores emotions and feelings.  CBT may use relaxation training to build coping skills, and use exposure techniques to gradually increase a person’s ability to withstand a feared place or object, or overcome fear or worry.

With EMDR therapy for panic attacks an element of desensitization is present as the fear or worry is explored.  In EMDR, this is mostly non-verbal exploration of experiences, sensations, or cognitions while safe within the therapist’s office.  In CBT, this may be imagined or actual exposure to identified triggers or cues to fear or worry.

EMDR is comparable to CBT for the treatment of panic disorders.  Yup, EMDR research shows it is just as effective as CBT. EMDR was as effective at reducing the symptoms of panic disorder and at increase quality of life factors as CBT for panic disorder.  EMDR treatment for panic disorder has also been shown to be better at reducing the frequency of panic attacks sooner.

Sometimes choosing EMDR therapy for panic attacks may be a client’s choice or comfort level.  Some clients enjoy talking and process verbally. If so, CBT may be the talk therapy for you.  Other clients experience intense emotional responses while talking about fears, worries, or concerns, or have already tried talk therapy approaches.  If so, EMDR may be the right therapy for you. Either way, please remember that panic attacks and anxiety are highly treatable conditions that are not your fault.  I encourage you to explore your options for treatment and take action so that fear, worry, or concern do not overrun your enjoyment and pleasure of life.

I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California, currently offering sessions at my office in beautiful Mission Viejo,  or distance sessions for residents of California. I provide both EMDR and CBT treatment options. If you are struggling with panic or anxiety, I invite you to contact me for a consultation to see if psychotherapy might help you reach your wellness goals.  I have experienced the true joy of clients released from the chains of anxiety to fully enjoy life again, their jobs, their relationships, travel, and explore new possibilities.


Horst, F., Oudsten, B. D., Zijlstra, W., de Jongh, A., Lobbestael, J., & Vries, J.D.  (2017). Cognitive behavioral therapy vs. eye movement desensitization and reprocessing for treating panic disorder: A randomized controlled trial.  Frontiers in Psychology, 8:1409.  doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01409

AM Nelson

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