EMDR

Our rating
 Question mark: This treatment has not been properly researched. It is not possible to say whether they are useful or not.

What does this rating mean?

The rating system

  • 3 smiliesThese treatments are very useful. They are strongly supported as effective by scientific evidence.
  • 2 smiliesThese treatments are useful. They are supported by scientific evidence as effective, but the evidence is not as strong.
  • 1 smileyThese treatments are promising and may be useful. They have some evidence to support them, but more evidence is needed to be sure they work.
  • No smiley On the available evidence, these treatments do not seem to be effective.
  • Question markThese treatments have not been properly researched. It is not possible to say whether they are useful or not.
  • These treatments are not recommended and could be dangerousSafety or other concerns have been raised for the use of these treatments.

What is it?

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 is a type of therapy delivered by trained therapists, such as a psychologist.

EMDR involves thinking of traumatic events that have happened in the past while moving the eyes to follow a 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.

How does it work?

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.

Is it effective?

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.

Are there any disadvantages?

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).

Where do you get it?

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.

Recommendation

There is not enough good evidence at this stage to recommend EMDR as a treatment for depression.

Key references

  • Hase M, Balmaceda UM, Hase A, Lehnung M, Tumani V, Huchzermeier C, et al. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy in the treatment of depression: a matched pairs study in an inpatient setting. Brain and Behavior. 2015; 5(6): e00342.

Last reviewed and updated: 1 November 2019