It’s well known that the Covid-19 pandemic has had an impact on the mental health of
millions around the world and increased demand for therapy. Yet lockdown, one of the very
conditions which was exacerbating or even creating those problems, also prevented people
from seeing a therapist face to face. Being together in person was widely assumed to be
best practice and even vital to the healing process, yet now there was no choice but to take
EMDR was considered one of the most difficult therapies to transfer to the digital realm
because it involves side to side eye movements – following the therapist’s hand or a stick –
or other kinds of bilateral stimulation, such as holding a device which taps each hand
alternately. Also, some clients would be suffering from severe trauma such as post-
traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – would it be safe to work with them remotely?
In the first study of its kind, a team of researchers, led by Dr Iain McGowan of Queen’s
University, Belfast, carried out an evaluation which found that EMDR therapy online did
work, and was as effective as seeing a therapist in person.
Dr Justin Havens of EMDR UK, co-author, says:
“Digital was a little used or explored way of working for all therapists, including EMDR
practitioners, until the pandemic hit. From my own practice and the EMDR community at
large, I knew we were adapting and finding success. The results of the evaluation are
encouraging, showing a very high positive outcome for clients.”
Ninety-three people receiving online EMDR between May-December 2020, experienced a
reduction in the effects of common mental health problems including anxiety and
depression, and there was also a reduction in the impact of complex psychological trauma
such as PTSD, regardless of age or gender. The evaluation also found that the therapist’s
level of experience didn’t influence their ability to work effectively online.
The evaluation mentioned ways EMDR therapists have got around the practical challenge of
bilateral stimulation working remotely. Some clients used a smartphone app delivering
alternate clicks via earphones – in fact this gave them more control to go faster or slower;
other therapists adapted by using an online app showing a moving dot on a split screen.
Vitally, therapists were able to keep their clients safe by following a new online protocol for
the five step process of EMDR.
Dr Havens comments:
“There are limitations to this evaluation, for example it is small, and did not involve a
control group, so we look forward to the results of clinical trials which are ongoing.
Meantime, many people are choosing to continue to have EMDR therapy remotely, even
though they can now be seen in person, because it’s convenient and cost effective for them.
As long they are safe and making progress, EMDR and other kinds of practitioners will
continue to see clients online. It seems that in the world of therapy as in so many other
professions, the pandemic has changed the way we work forever.”
The evaluation was published online in BMC Psychiatry. You can read it here: