How Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Can Help with Clinical Depression

Updated on July 21, 2021

Medications and psychotherapy are well-known methods for treating clinical depression. However, one approach that is still reasonably new is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). While EMDR has gained wide popularity in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it’s also effective for some patients experiencing a major depressive disorder. 

We’ll discuss the use of EMDR in treating clinical depression and the effectiveness of this approach.

Understanding EMDR Therapy

In the late 1980s, a California psychologist, Frances Shapiro, developed EMDR as a treatment for PTSD. It helps to resolve psychological issues resulting from trauma in a nontraditional way. 

During the EMDR treatment session, the therapist moves their hands back and forth in the patient’s face. The patient then follows these hand motions with their eyes. At the same time, the therapist will make the patient recall the traumatic event in brief doses. The therapist then guides the individual to remember more pleasant thoughts.

The theory behind EMDR is that relieving distressing events during times of distraction is less emotionally upsetting. Over time, people can process traumatic memories into their standard thoughts and not experience strong psychological responses when recalling these events.

Furthermore, mental health practitioners are beginning to use EMDR in treating other psychological issues, like anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and phobias.

Treating Depression With EMDR

As stated earlier, EMDR helps to treat other psychological issues, including depression. However, its use in the treatment of clinical depression has only recently begun to receive attention. 

Using AI analysis and crowdsourced data as focal points, states that EMDR is one of the most underrated and less tried treatments. Moreover, from numerous member reports, EMDR proves as one of the most effective.

According to a study published by the BPS, EMDR is particularly helpful for clinically depressed patients with a history of trauma. Many individuals who have witnessed adverse life experiences and traumatic events usually have symptoms of depression. That means that trauma goes hand in hand with and can be a basis for depression.

For instance, trauma resulting from physical or sexual abuse, an accident, or witnessing a murder can lead to depressive episodes. The body and mind can become overwhelmed by these events and will naturally shut down emotions and feelings. In trauma-based depressions, EMDR can deal with the trauma and subsequently eliminate the depression. 

Additionally, EMDR therapy can be highly effective for patients suffering from depression that arises from prolonged stress. Typical candidates include individuals who grew up with alcohol and drug abuse, mental illness in their family, or extreme poverty.

How EMDR Therapy Works

Traumatic events can get frozen in the memory system of the brain. These memories can prevent the brain from processing information correctly. Thus, when individuals recall such thoughts, they experience anxiety as if they are reliving the experience again. 

The EMDR approach helps to unfreeze these memories such that the brain processes them correctly and integrates them into the individual’s life. People who have undergone EMDR may still remember the distressing event, but may feel less disturbed or experience no distress at all. 

The EMDR therapy consists of eight different phases as follows:

Phase 1: History and Treatment Planning

The therapist will review the client’s history and decide where they are in the treatment process. This evaluation involves the client talking about their situation to help the therapist identify what to treat and determine the patient’s ability to tolerate exposure to disturbing recollections. 

The therapist will then formulate a treatment plan based on his observation of the patient’s symptoms.

Phase 2: Preparation

The therapist will help the client learn different coping mechanisms for the emotional or psychological stress arising from the distressing memories. Some of these coping strategies include stress management techniques like deep breathing. The therapist will also educate the patient on EMDR therapy.

Phase 3: Assessment

In the assessment phase, the therapist will identify the specific traumatic memories and note them for treatment. All associated components of each target memory, such as the physical reactions when the patient recalls these memories, will also be identified. 

The client will then pick an image to represent each negative memory and identify a positive thought to replace them.

Phase 4: Desensitization

The process of desensitization involves reducing the client’s adverse reactions to the traumatic memories. These reactions may include physical sensations such as sweating or a rapid heart rate. 

During these sessions, the therapist will ask the patient to focus on the negative thought or image while simultaneously directing their eye movements with fingers. This bilateral stimulation can also include auditory tones or tapping, depending on the nature of the case.

Phase 5: Installation

During the fifth phase, the therapist will guide the client into installing the positive memories they identified in the third phase. After replacing those negative thoughts, the therapist will have the patient move to another traumatic memory to work on them. Over time, the disturbing thoughts should start to fade.

Phase 6: Body Scan

A body scan assesses the client’s body from head to toe to observe the physical sensations that arise during the EMDR therapy. The therapist will target these sensations for further processing. 

Phase 7: Closure

After each therapy session, the therapist will stabilize the patient using the coping strategies discussed in the second phase. They will also ask the client to record any future negative memories to treat them in the next meeting. 

Phase 8: Evaluation

In the final phase, the therapist and the patient will evaluate the progress and effectiveness of the treatment. If there are any other traumatic effects, the therapist will identify them for targeting. 

Combining EMDR with Other Treatment Options

A study as part of a multicenter randomized-control trial was conducted to confirm previous results that EMDR contributes to the management of depression. There were 30 patients receiving treatments for moderate to severe depression, who were divided into two groups. 

The first group had 16 patients receiving individual and group psychotherapy and antidepressant medications only, otherwise known as treatment as usual (TAU). The other 14 patients received both TAU and EMDR therapy. 

The study authors proposed that EMDR therapy produces an additional benefit over TAU in treating patients with acute depressive episodes. It was also hypothesized to increase the proportion of complete remissions. also reports that the effectiveness of EMDR in treating depression may result from a combination with other treatment options. 

Benefits of EMDR in Treating Clinical Depression

For some people, traditional treatments and medications may not work. Here’s where EMDR may be beneficial. Although it’s relatively new, it has been helping many patients with depression and gaining support from more mental health experts. 

According to the EMDR Institute, over 30 controlled outcome studies on EMDR therapy have shown positive effects. The result of one such study suggested that EMDR may be more effective than Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) in treating trauma. 

EMDR is a safe treatment option for treating trauma-based depression, with fewer to no adverse effects, unlike medications. It may also retain its effectiveness even after treatment ends, with one study showing that EMDR patients are less likely to experience relapse. 

Currently, organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO), the American Psychiatric Association (APA), and the Department of Veteran Affairs have recommended EMDR for treating PTSD. However, many of the studies on the effectiveness of EMDR in treating depression have small sample sizes. Therefore, more research into this treatment option is required. 

+ posts

Throughout the year, our writers feature fresh, in-depth, and relevant information for our audience of 40,000+ healthcare leaders and professionals. As a healthcare business publication, we cover and cherish our relationship with the entire health care industry including administrators, nurses, physicians, physical therapists, pharmacists, and more. We cover a broad spectrum from hospitals to medical offices to outpatient services to eye surgery centers to university settings. We focus on rehabilitation, nursing homes, home care, hospice as well as men’s health, women’s heath, and pediatrics.