Toby Barron Therapy

Toby Barron Therapy

EMDR as a Treatment for Depression: How Effective Is It?


According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depression is a leading cause of disability, affecting about five percent of the adult population. This means that more than 280 million people across the globe live with major depression and have to address its effects.

While there are numerous conventional treatments and protocols, they don’t always work for those combatting chronic depression and traumatic experiences. There’s a simple reason why such conventional approaches may sometimes fail to deliver the anticipated results – they don’t always the root cause of the problem (especially in the case of people whose long-term depression stems from unresolved trauma).

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is an empirically validated protocol for trauma that offers an alternative to conventional treatments. But is EMDR going to work in the case of chronic depression and major depressive episodes? Here are the essential details.

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How is EMDR used to treat depression?

EMDR works by using eye movements to desensitize a person to the memories related to a traumatic occurrence.

To put it in simple terms, EMDR aims to modify the way in which the brain stores traumatic memories. When the memory is processed adequately, a person can remember stressful life events without going through the intense negative emotions and side effects linked to the experience.

EMDR therapy is especially well known for the role it plays in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). New research, however, suggests that the scope of effectiveness could be much broader than that.

EMDR has a number of important benefits over conventional therapeutic approaches:

  • Often beneficial for people with anxiety disorders, PTSD, addiction, OCD, eating disorders, and panic disorder
  • Doesn’t require extensive discussion of emotional trauma and past traumatic episode
  • Often faster results than traditional talk therapy 
  • Delivers ongoing self-improvement and an enhanced sense of self-esteem
Man with Major depressive disorder

Can people with depression benefit from EMDR?

While a lot of the current research focuses on the effectiveness of EMDR for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, there is evidence this form of therapy can be used successfully to treat symptoms of depression, including major depression stemming from childhood trauma, emotional abuse, and other traumatic events.

The results of one comprehensive study published in Psychology Research and Behavior Management in 2020 support the idea that EMDR can treat depression. In the experiment, 70 people with major depressive disorder (MDD) were assigned to a therapeutic group (going through EMDR) and 70 to a control group.

In the intervention group, EMDR therapeutic sessions occurred eight times (90 minutes per session). Results were collected using the WHO Quality of Life-BREF instrument (a questionnaire consisting of 26 items used to assess life quality and a person’s perception of it).

The participants who underwent EMDR reported a significantly improved quality of life in comparison to members of the control group.

A study published in Frontiers of Psychology in 2022 reached a similar conclusion. Not only did it demonstrate a significant improvement immediately after EMDR therapy, but 74 percent of the patients also stayed depression-free 12 months after the clinical trial.

Examples of EMDR interventions for the treatment of depression

There are numerous examples of EMDR being used to treat depression-related mental disorders. 

Major depressive disorder and EMDR

The clinical trials listed above paint a very good picture of EMDR’s effectiveness in the treatment of MDD. Based on adaptive information processing, EMDR tries to “reprogram” the brain’s response to negative life events. Very often, the brain may “reach” a conclusion following a traumatic experience that will lead to feelings of worthlessness, anxiety, sadness, and depressive episodes. By targeting the negative responses, EMDR can prevent the recurrent depression linked to the trauma.

Reactive depression and EMDR

Reactive depression is triggered by stressful life events such as a divorce or the loss of a loved one. Because reactive depression is linked to singular, specific events, EMDR can deliver results. The reprocessing of memories and desensitization to the event can significantly reduce the occurrence of reactive depression symptoms.

Postpartum depression and EMDR

Statistics show that one in seven women will develop postpartum depression after the birth of her child. Postpartum depression can be a particularly debilitating condition at a time that’s already characterized by major life adjustments. Luckily, EMDR therapy may be used to effectively treat postpartum depressive episodes. EMDR can help with many causes of depression, like birth trauma, infant loss grief, pregnancy/childcare fears, fertility issues, and PTSD related to the pregnancy and the birth.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and EMDR

A change of seasons can trigger depressive episodes in many people. Lethargy, sleep changes, irritability, antisocial behavior, irritability, and even appetite changes are all common SAD symptoms. Fortunately, many of these symptoms can be relieved through EMDR sessions. The therapy can help patients to stop feeling triggered by particular events or life changes that can bring on the symptoms of SAD.

Is EMDR effective for any type of depression?

EMDR is an effective form of therapy for adults with depression who have experienced trauma. In such cases, there is a specific memory that needs to be addressed and reprocessed to stop the triggering of symptoms.

While most people who suffer from some type of depression have experienced trauma in the past, severe depression can also be unrelated to traumatic life events. Thus, EMDR’s effectiveness is heavily dependent on the individual’s adverse life experiences. This is true for all psychological and therapeutic interventions.

To deliver good results, EMDR has to be administered under the right circumstances. Hence, it’s very important to undergo a thorough initial assessment and start working with the right therapist to find a treatment for depression that works for you. A personalized, tailored approach is the one most likely to deliver consistent, long-lasting results.

emdr treatment

Starting any therapeutic journey can feel intimidating at first. EMDR comes as a useful alternative to psychological therapies that involve talking about past trauma or taking medications – two things that many people may not be keen to do. At the same time, there’s a growing body of specialized literature that has investigated the efficacy of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing and revealed its potential as an often successful treatment of depression.

If you’re plagued by a traumatic memory that you’d like to address, it’s a good idea to speak to a therapist and find the most effective treatment for your mental health condition. Together, you can decide if EMDR is a viable tool to learn how to manage and overcome your depression.