The Efficacy of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) for Addiction Treatment

Can Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) be successfully utilized as a part of addiction treatment? We think it shows promise. For more, read here.

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Trauma Freezes the Brain

When we are involved in or witness a traumatic event, the brain might be unable to process these information normally. So, in some cases, a distressing memory becomes somewhat “frozen” on a neurological level. Many people who have experienced disstressing past events will repetitively re-experience vivid images of what they:

  • Saw
  • Heard
  • Smelled
  • Tasted, or
  • Felt

…just by thinking about those events. In effect, they can relive the trauma over and over again.

Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) can help reduce the distress caused by memories of different kind. But, can EMDR help people in addiction recovery? How useful is it and what are the expected outcomes?

Join us as we review what EMDR is, what the treatment process includes and whether EMDR works to treat addiction. At the end, we invite your comments or questions about the efficacy of EMDR treatment for addiction.

What is Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR)?

Adverse and stressful life experiences contribute to both psychological and biomedical pathology in people. In other words, we can become sick in body and mind as the result of a traumatic event. And healing the wounds of the past is exactly the focus of EMDR therapy.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy is an empirically validated treatment for trauma, and an efficient treatment approach with a wide range of applications.

Instead of focusing on talk therapy, counseling sessions or medications, EMDR uses the rapid and rythmic eye movements for treatment.

EMDR therapy is guided by the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) model. This model is based on the premises that you health is supported by positive and successful life experiences. Such experiences prepare you to cope with new challenges and equip the brain with the needed mechanisms for managing and processing difficult or unpleasant situations.

Medical records show that people who’ve been treated with this therapy rapidly show positive therapeutic outcomes. The ability of EMDR therapy to treat unprocessed memories of traumatic life experiences has multiple applications, because such memories have been identified as the basis for a wide variety of clinical symptoms (including addiction dissorders and PTSD).

What is the outcome of EMDR?

The goal of EMDR is to help people resolve traumatic memories and process then emotionally and cognitively. EMDR basically opens a new window on reality, and allows people to see solutions within themselves that they were unaware of. So, after successful EMDR treatment, a person is expected to feel:

  • Relieved feelings of distress.
  • Reformulated negative beliefs.
  • Reduced stress associated with memories.

What are the benefits of EMDR?

Recalling distressing past experiences in a safe and therapeutic setting, and then gaining new understanding of those distressing events with the help of EMDR has many benefits for your physical and psychological well-being. Here are some:

  • Being less depressed and detached.
  • Being less tense, stressed, irritable, and on-guard.
  • Coping with traumatic memories and reminders, instead of avoiding them.
  • Concentrating on activities.
  • Decreasing the feelings of anxiety, panic attacks, worry, fear, and phobias.
  • Enjoying pleasurable activities and feeling optimistic about the future.
  • Feeling more able to be emotionally involved in relationships.
  • Increasing the sense of self-esteem and self-confidence.
  • Reduced level of traumatic feelings while recalling troubling events.
  • Sleeping restfully.

What is EMDR like?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is an integrative psychotherapy approach guided by a certified EMDR therapist. Sessions usually last for up to 90 minutes, while the time required for the treatment process to be completed depends on the history of the person.

Here is what an EMDR therapy session typically looks like:

  1. While moving the index finger back and forth in front of your face, your therapist will ask you to follow their hand motions with your eyes (some therapists use music tones or tapping sounds instead of the hand motion).
  2. Then, you are asked to recall a past traumatic event, and then you are guided to shift to more pleasant thoughts.
  3. By repeating this technique, the level of discomfort and stress from your disturbing memories is expected to become less disabling.
  4. To track progress and positive change, you are asked to rate you level of distress at the start and at the end of your EMDR treatment.

Applied to Addiction Treatment

As a part of addiction treatment, EMDR may be used to:

  • Aid in dealing with present or future crises
  • Assist in learning more adaptive behaviors
  • Encourage noncompliant patients
  • Guide those in recovery who are ambivalent about abstinence
  • Help with physical cravings
  • Improve the effects of memories that feed the dysfunction
  • Incorporate new coping skills
  • Prevent potential relapse triggers

Does EMDR work to treat addiction?

Yes, EMDR does show promise in the treatment of substance use disorders.

Although EMDR is a relatively new psychological methodology, it has been applied to a wide range of psychological disorders. Clinical reports over the years indicate that EMDR is an important addition to the treatment of substance use. This type of therapy offers a structured, client-centered model that integrates key elements of change to:

  • behavior
  • body or physical healing
  • cognition
  • interactional approaches
  • intrapsychic balance

In fact, treatment effects can be quite rapid. Even during an individual session, the therapist may witness accelerated processing of information involving a shift of cognitive structures (including the assimilation of positive beliefs) along with the desensitization of attendant trauma. The application of EMDR apparently helps people process the memories of experiences that are causing problems by allowing them to get in a state of learning and digest those memories and experiences properly.

How effective is EMDR for addiction?

EMDR therapy is fairly effective in helping people recover from addiction. Indeed, research has shown that processing memories of adverse life experiences results in the rapid amelioration of negative emotions, beliefs, and physical sensations. EMDR therapy can support the addicts, their patients and family members.

Also, EMDR therapy allows the medical personnel to quickly determine the degree to which distressing experiences are contributing to the addiction problem. With this knowledge, then they can efficiently address the problem through memory processing, which that can help facilitate psychological and physical resolution.

Moving Forward

Traditional models of addiction treatment and relapse prevention fail to consider the role that unresolved trauma plays in an addicted person’s recovery experience. Implementing Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) into the treatment process offers a potential solution to this problem. EMDR treatment is credited as a crucial component of people’s addiction continuing-care processes, especially in helping with emotional core access and perspective shift.

Your questions

We managed to cover the key facts about EMDR treatment for addiction. But, if you still have questions related to EMDR therapy after reading the text, please leave them in the comments section. We try to respond to all legitimate inquiries with a personal and prompt answer.

Reference sources: NCBI: Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing: treating trauma and substance abuse
NCBI: Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing in addiction continuing care
NCBI: The Role of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy in Medicine
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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