EMDR Therapy in the Treatment of Addiction

EMDR Therapy uses eye movements to directly affect the way the brain processes information and commits it to memory. How can EMDR be used to address substance use disorders? Learn more about EMDR and its application for addiction treatment here.

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By Cara McLeod, Enterhealth Therapist

What is EMDR Therapy, and How Does it Work?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an effective psychotherapy technique which has helped an estimated 2 million people of all ages by relieving the symptoms of many types of psychological distress. EMDR seems to do this by using eye movements to directly affect the way the brain processes information and commits it to memory. This allows the patient to become desensitized to the negative emotions associated with a traumatic event and reprocess those memories into something more positive.

Q: How can re-training the brain help people address drug addiction?
A: Basically, EMDR can help resolve our feelings about a specific past event so that we no longer compulsively use drugs to cope with the memory.

When a person is very upset, the brain does not process information normally. This means that remembering a traumatic event, no matter how long ago it happened, can feel as upsetting as the event itself. This distressing experience can overwhelm the brain’s natural ability to cope with emotional stress, which often leads the person to adopt harmful coping strategies, including

  • Flashbacks
  • Insomnia
  • Isolating behavior
  • Self-medicating with drugs or alcohol

When treating someone for addiction to drugs or alcohol, EMDR helps to reprocess traumatic information so that the memory no longer triggers the types of coping mechanisms which may lead to a relapse from sobriety.

What Does an EMDR Session Look Like?

As traumatic memories are not processed normally, EMDR therapy allows the patient to access and reprocess these events to change the way the memory affects them both emotionally and physiologically. During a session:

1. The patient calls to mind the disturbing memory, along with the sensations such as what was felt, heard, thought, etc. and what views and beliefs they currently hold about the event and how it is connected to them.

2. The therapist then facilitates bilateral or side-to-side movement of the eyes or other dual-attention stimulation of the brain while the patient focuses on the memory.

3. At this point, the therapist guides the patient to help them formulate and focus on positive beliefs about the memory and themselves while continuing the bilateral eye movements.

4. Sets of eye movements are continued until the memory becomes less unsettling and is associated with positive thoughts and beliefs about one’s self (i.e., “I did the best I could”).

The goal is to set up a learning state for the patient to replace negative thoughts from the event with positive beliefs about themselves. When this is achieved, the traumatic memory no longer distresses the patient or controls behavior.

While many types of therapy have similar goals, EMDR appears to do this by closely mimicking what happens naturally during sleep when the brain enters Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep.

During an EMDR session, the patient may experience intense emotions, but by the end of the session, most people report a significantly reduced level of disturbance. Following a successful EMDR session, the brain returns to normal processing and the patient no longer feels like they are reliving the event when it is brought to mind. The patient still remembers what happened, but the memory is less disconcerting.

EMDR Therapy as an Effective Treatment for Trauma

Studies have shown that EMDR is an effective treatment for the following:

  • Addiction
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Post-traumatic stress
  • Overwhelming fears
  • Childhood trauma or abuse
  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Eating disorders
  • Dissociative disorders
  • Body dysmorphic disorders
  • Low self-esteem
  • Relationship problems

The American Psychiatric Association, the World Health Organization, and the U.S. Departments of Veterans Affairs, Defense, and Health and Human Services recognize EMDR as an effective treatment for trauma.

Approximately 20 controlled studies have investigated the effects of EMDR therapy, and they have consistently found that EMDR effectively decreases or eliminates the symptoms of post-traumatic stress for the vast majority of patients. Additionally, patients often report improvement in other associated symptoms, such as anxiety or grief. Research has also shown EMDR to be an efficient and rapid treatment.

Why Enterhealth Utilizes EMDR Therapy

The Enterhealth Outpatient Center of Excellence provides a medically-based, holistic approach to the treatment of addiction. To achieve lasting recovery, all underlying causes of the addiction must be treated, including trauma. If trauma goes untreated, the reason behind one’s addiction persists, and true recovery remains out of reach. This is why EMDR therapy is an extremely effective form of treatment for patients suffering from drug or alcohol addiction and why it is so often a part of our comprehensive treatment plans.

EMDR is a physiologically-based therapy which helps heal people from the symptoms and emotional distress which result from negative life experiences. It allows them to process trauma they recoveryhave experienced which helps promote resolution of the emotional disturbance. By using EMDR, therapists at Enterhealth help to free patients from distress caused by trauma, making recovery more attainable.

To help educate people regarding EMDR therapy and how Enterhealth utilizes it to improve patient outcomes, Enterhealth therapist Cara McLeod MA, LPC, EMDR-Trained Clinician will discuss EMDR therapy in a webinar held Friday, July 7, 2017 from 12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. CST. To sign up for the webinar, please visit: http://www.enterhealth.com/webinars/community-healthcare-professionals-patients-families-thought-leadership-alumni/emdr-one-of.

EHT_HEADSHOTS_CARA MCLEOD_smlAbout the Author: Cara is a Licensed Professional Counselor specializing in the treatment of addiction and trauma. She has more than 15 years of experience in the fields of mental health and addiction. Prior to joining Enterhealth, Cara was licensed in Colorado and worked with adolescents struggling with substance abuse issues. She is a certified Multisystemic Therapy (MST) clinician and participated in a research project which utilized this therapy approach at the University of Colorado. Previous to this, Cara was licensed in New Hampshire and worked in community mental health where she completed extensive training utilizing both DBT and CBT therapy modalities.
Cara earned her undergraduate degree at Baylor University and Master of Arts in Counseling at Colorado Christian University. Cara completed her EMDR basic training in 2015. Since that time, she has acquired EMDR DeTUR Protocol certification as well as additional training and supervision for EMDR certification.
About the author
Headquartered in Dallas, Texas, Enterhealth offers a science-based alcohol and drug addiction treatment program created by a dedicated team of addiction experts determined to dramatically improve treatment outcomes. Based on the latest National Institutes of Health research identifying addiction as a chronic brain disease, this program is implemented by a full-time staff of addiction-trained physicians, psychiatrists, nurses and therapists, beginning with a thorough medical and psychological assessment designed to create a personalized treatment plan for each patient. Enterhealth Ranch is nestled on 43 scenic acres just 30 minutes north of Dallas/Fort Worth and features 40 beds, private rooms and bathrooms, chef-prepared meals, housekeeping service, a luxurious pool, a gym and more. Enterhealth Outpatient Center of Excellence, an outpatient treatment facility, is located in the Park Cities, just north of downtown Dallas, and provides ongoing addiction management care and support. For more information, visit http://www.enterhealth.com/.
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