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What Is EMDR, and Is It Good for Depression?

If you live with depression, you may have experienced traumatic and stressful life events. These painful events can cause feelings of low self-worth, loneliness, and despair. You may think the worst, lack confidence, or overreact to things.1,2

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) helps people reprocess troubling events. The therapy is known to work for trauma-related disorders. Research shows that EMDR also benefits people with depression.1-5

What is EMDR?

Commonly used for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), EMDR holds promise as an emerging therapy for major depression. EMDR helps connect current symptoms to unresolved trauma and past stressful events. The therapy reframes negative memories so you can process and release them.1-3

How does EMDR work?

Research shows that traumatic events play a role in developing depression. People who grow up with verbal or physical abuse or other adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) have higher rates of depression.1,2

EMDR can help you reprocess and resolve old or stuck memories. The therapy works on the brain and nervous system to resolve unhealed trauma and negative beliefs.1,2

EMDR works by targeting certain memories and events, including:1-5

  • Early childhood memories
  • Traumatic events
  • Abuse or neglect
  • Negative beliefs about yourself
  • Strong emotions
  • Body sensations
  • Current triggers

What is an EMDR session like?

EMDR therapy involves working with a trained therapist and can span several sessions. While recalling a memory, directed eye movements stimulate the brain's neural network to reprocess trauma.1

Your therapist will:1

  • Help you identify unresolved events from your past
  • Ask questions about the event
  • Ask about your thoughts, feelings, and body sensations
  • Guide you through following certain movements with your eyes (or hold tappers in your hands, self-tap, or listen to tones)
  • Encourage you to notice what happens with your body, thoughts, and feelings without judging them

After several sessions, the process takes away the raw nature of the memory. This reduces your reactivity to trauma and heals old wounds. EMDR also tackles and reframes negative beliefs, which contribute to depression.1

How does EMDR help with depression?

The research behind EMDR suggests that troublesome memories underlie various mental health disorders, including depression. These memories may be of trauma, negative life events, or early life adversity. Therapists use EMDR to help people work through depression by targeting the negative thoughts, beliefs, and experiences that trigger their symptoms.1,2,4

Researchers continue to study EMDR as a treatment for depression. It seems most effective for people with depression and a history of trauma or chronic depression.2-5

Is EMDR effective for treating depression?

People with depression often have repeated thoughts and negative beliefs that interfere with daily living. These mental patterns are self-defeating and untrue. As research continues, EMDR shows promise for improving symptoms of depression, particularly those of major depressive disorder.1,2

EMDR has the following benefits:1-3

  • Improves depressive symptoms
  • Reframes negative beliefs such as "People are better off without me," "I cannot do anything right," or "I am unlovable"
  • Addresses unprocessed trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)
  • Improves energy and mood
  • Creates a more positive understanding of the self and others

EMDR can complement other treatments for depression, such as:1-3

How to find an EMDR therapist

EMDR is a special kind of therapy that requires a skilled therapist. To find a therapist:1

  • Do your research or ask your doctor for a referral.
  • Make sure your therapist has EMDR credentials and experience.
  • Ask questions about how the process works.
  • Talk to your therapist about your needs, triggers, and goals.
  • Work toward trust with your therapist.
  • Make sure you can continue therapy over time.

EMDR treatment is generally short-term. It averages 6 to 8 sessions and can be done in person or with a therapist trained in online EMDR.1

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.