EMDR stands for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. EMDR is a type of therapy that was developed for people who have experienced traumatic events in the past. It is usually used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). More recently, it has been looked at as a treatment for depression. EMDR involves thinking of traumatic events that have happened in the past while moving the eyes to follow the therapist’s fingers as they move them back and forth. Other stimuli might be used in place of following fingers, like listening to beeps on alternating sides of the room.
It is thought that traumatic or stressful events may trigger the onset of depression in some people. EMDR practitioners believe that traumatic memories can get “stuck” in people’s minds and cause them distress when thinking about the memory. EMDR is said to help the person process this memory so it does not cause this distress anymore.
EMDR has not been widely researched as a treatment for depression. One experiment treated people who were in rehabilitation for mild to moderate depression with either just their usual treatment (e.g., antidepressant medication) or EMDR along with their usual treatment. Those who were treated with EMDR experience a greater reduction in their depression symptoms. However, there were problems with the study design and only a small number of people participated. More studies of better quality are needed to understand the effectiveness of EMDR for depression.
Thinking about traumatic events can cause distress during the therapy, however the therapist and patient work together to develop ways to manage this. EMDR may involve seeing a therapist weekly for several months which can be expensive. In Australia Medicare provides rebates for visits to trained therapists (see below).
EMDR is provided by therapists such as clinical psychologists, psychologists or counsellors who have been specially trained to provide this therapy (see Psychologists and other therapists). In Australia, Medicare provides rebates for visits to some therapists under the Better Access to Mental Health Care scheme. EMDR may also be covered by some private health insurance funds.
There is not enough good evidence at this stage to recommend EMDR as a treatment for depression.
Last reviewed and updated: 1 December 2016