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Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) for Addiction Treatment

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Gerardo Sison, Pharm.D

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is when a person works to heal past trauma through visual stimulation. This form of therapy has shown to be effective in treating addiction as well as PTSD. In combination with other treatments, EMDR may reduce drug use and relapse rates.

Eye Movement Desensitization

Trauma is often a contributing factor to the development of drug or alcohol addiction. In fact, an estimated 45 percent of individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) will also suffer from a substance use disorder. Even individuals without PTSD who struggle from addiction often have some form of trauma in their pasts.

Because trauma is a significant risk factor for addiction, some addiction treatment centers use Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy to address this trauma. EMDR helps people cope with and heal from past trauma and may improve recovery rates.

What Is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on resolving the distressing emotions surrounding past trauma through visual stimulation. This type of therapy is based on the belief that a person’s eye movements are related to the way a traumatic memory is interpreted.

EMDR was originally developed to treat PTSD and has done so very successfully. Over time, this therapy method proved to also be useful in helping people with substance use disorders as well as other mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.

Therapists who practice EMDR will have their patients recall traumatic memories while simultaneously stimulating the patients’ vision. This can help the person to reprocess how he or she recalls the memory in the future. By doing this, people can change the negative emotions surrounding past traumatic events.

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How Does Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy Work?

The primary goal of EMDR is to change the way the brain has stored a past traumatic memory. While no one knows exactly why EMDR is successful, there is evidence that this form of therapy successfully works in many cases of PTSD and other trauma-related conditions like an addiction.

There is no medication used in EMDR. However, some therapists may use the equipment during an EMDR session. While the exact way in which a therapist performs EMDR may vary from facility to facility, most treatment providers focus on eight major phases.

The phases of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy include:

  • Phase I — History And Background: During the initial phase of EMDR, the therapist will gather information about the patient’s history and background. The therapist and patient will work together to identify the specific traumatic memories that will be focused on. They will also decide on the goals the patient has for treatment.
  • Phase II — Preparation: The second phase is when the therapist will explain the process of EMDR and what the patient can expect. The therapist will also go over some coping mechanisms that the patient can use outside of sessions. These techniques may include relaxation, breathing, and other methods of coping with stress and trauma.
  • Phase III — Assessment: During this phase, the therapist and patient will explore the specific “targets,” or traumatic memories, and evaluate the impact they are having on the patient. The practitioner will also help the client identify any images or negative beliefs surrounding the target.
  • Phase IV — Desensitization: This phase is when the actual technique of eye movement desensitization is used. The patient will recall the traumatic memory while the therapist performs the desensitization practice. Additionally, as negative emotions are explored, the therapist will help the patient replace them with positive emotions.
  • Phase V — Installation: This phase continues the reprocessing of past traumatic memories while focusing on installing more positive emotions surrounding the memories. It also focuses on helping the patient develop positive beliefs regarding how he or she copes with everyday life.
  • Phase VI — Body Scan: This phase involves going over any remaining past traumatic experiences that the patient may feel tension towards. If any negative tension still exists, the patient and therapist will continue to work on those specific targets to reprocess emotions surrounding them.
  • Phase VII — Closure: This phase involves reassessing the patient’s reactions to past trauma and ensuring that he or she has successfully overcome the painful emotions associated with the trauma.
  • Phase VIII — Reevaluation: During the final phase, the therapist and patient will go over the initial goals of treatment to determine if they have been met. If not, the therapist will continue to perform the appropriate phases until the patient has fully healed.

EMDR sessions are performed on a one-on-one basis with the therapist and patient. Most EMDR treatment will last several weeks or six to 12 sessions. Patients usually attend sessions once or twice a week, and each session usually lasts between 50 and 90 minutes.

Finding A Treatment Program That Offers EMDR For Addiction

More and more treatment facilities are beginning to offer EMDR as this psychotherapy technique grows in popularity. EMDR is most often used in conjunction with other types of therapy to provide a comprehensive approach to addiction recovery. The Bluffs and Swift River, two of Addiction Campuses’ treatment facilities, offer Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy to help patients overcome substance use disorders.

If you would like to learn more about EMDR for addiction or want to find a treatment facility that offers this form of therapy, contact an Addiction Campuses’ treatment specialist today.

American Psychological Association - https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/treatments/eye-movement-reprocessing

Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3122545/

Psych Central - https://psychcentral.com/lib/how-emdr-therapy-heals-trauma-and-addiction/

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Gerardo Sison, Pharm.D
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