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What is EMDR Therapy & How It Can Help in Addiction Treatment

by | Last updated May 26, 2021 at 9:01AM | Published on Sep 28, 2020 | Addiction Treatments, Trauma and Addiction

What is EMDR

Addiction is a complex chronic disease that can stem from many causes. One of the biggest triggers for addiction is trauma. However, this poses another layer of complexity in addiction treatment. When someone struggles with co-occurring disorders, it’s paramount to treat them simultaneously to guarantee that they won’t jeopardize each other’s progress. That’s when Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy comes in.

What is EMDR Therapy?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy is a psychotherapy technique that helps relieve psychological stress. It’s an effective treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and can help anyone recovering from trauma.

During EMDR therapy sessions, the patient relives traumatic or triggering experiences while the therapist directs their eye movements. During some of these phases, rapid eye movements help to link neural pathways and alleviate adverse cognitive reactions.

The idea is to recall distressing episodes focusing on an external stimulus, making them less emotionally upsetting. Over time, this form of therapy can help people experience these triggers and negative beliefs without unfavorable psychological responses or physical sensations.

What Can EMDR Treat?

What Can EMDR Be Used to Treat?

It’s worth noting that EMDR is not a silver bullet that will immediately cure these disorders. Instead, when integrated into the therapeutic process, it affects positive beliefs and overall mental health. Some of the conditions that EMDR can help include:

  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar disorders
  • Chronic illness
  • Depression
  • Dissociative disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Grief and loss
  • Pain
  • Panic disorders
  • Performance anxiety
  • Personality disorders
  • PTSD and other trauma and stress-related disorders
  • Sexual assault
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Substance abuse and addiction
  • Violence and abuse

How is EMDR Therapy Different?

There are many different therapies to process trauma. However, unlike other styles, EMDR doesn’t require discussing the issues or completing homework between sessions. Instead of focusing on changing the emotions or behaviors, it helps the brain resume its natural healing process.

The outstanding benefits of this therapy have made it the go-to choice for the Department of Defense and the VA.

EMDR therapy can help solve unprocessed traumatic memories in the brain. Trauma resolution may take years to achieve in traditional talk therapy and can be accomplished in weeks with EMDR. This is due to the neurological and physiological components of trauma, i.e., how it’s stored and accessed by the brain and body. It helps accelerate trauma resolution by:

  • Clustering similar traumatic memories and engaging/resolving them as one
  • Directly accessing and fixing “dysfunctional state-dependent material”
  • Engaging traumatic neural networks and also deciding them on a physiological level

How Does EMDR Work?

According to EMDR, our brains have a natural ability to recover from traumatic events. This form of therapy connects the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. These are areas of the brain that signal stressful events, assist with memories, and control behaviors and emotions.

Instead of hoping to erase memories or erase a traumatic image, EMDR helps the brain process these memories healthily. You will still remember the experience, but your fight or freeze response from the actual event will be resolved. So, you will no longer experience distress when reliving these disturbing events.

What to Expect from EMDR Therapy

What to Expect from EMDR Therapy?

The whole treatment takes approximately 12 EMDR sessions, which are broken down into eight different treatment phases. Each phase helps the patient understand the form of therapy to gain the benefits from each session effectively.

Phase 1: Treatment Planning

The first sessions will be more about reviewing the patient’s history. The evaluation includes talking about the traumatic experience and identifies any other unresolved traumatic memories.

Phase 2: Preparation

Once your therapist knows where you are in the treatment process, they’ll explain ways to cope with the emotional or psychological stress you’re experiencing. Techniques like practicing mindfulness or deep breathing can help with stress management.

Phase 3: The Assessment

This phase of treatment is when your therapist will identify the specific memories that you’ll target during therapy. They’ll assess the different components that play a role in this trigger to target them throughout the treatment.

Phases 4-7: Treatment

The following sessions are when you start engaging in EMDR therapy. Patients are asked to focus on a negative image, negative thought, or memory. Simultaneously, your therapist will ask you to follow specific eye movements.

After this, known as bilateral stimulation, your therapist will ask you to let your mind go blank and notice your feelings and emotions. Once you identify these thoughts, your therapist will have you refocus your attention on that traumatic memory or move to another.

Over time, the distress over particular memories or images should start to fade.

Phase 8: Evaluation

In the final stage of your treatment plan, your therapist will ask you to evaluate your progress. Simultaneously, your therapist will do the same to determine if you need more sessions.

How Effective Is It?

EMDR Therapy Statistics

Several studies celebrate the effectiveness of EMDR therapy for treating PTSD and other disorders. A small study in 2012 showed improvements in 77% of the participants with a psychotic disorder and PTSD. The research indicates that hallucinations, delusions, and anxiety symptoms were significantly improved after treatment. During treatment, these symptoms were not exacerbated during treatment, which is a common side effect of many therapies treating trauma.

Even the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recommends EMDR as a treatment for PTSD.

Another study in 2004 looked at PTSD patients receiving either standard care treatment or EMDR therapy. After a few months, the study found that EMDR was more efficient in reducing symptoms of PTSD. Even after six months, participants of the study maintained these benefits after treatment ended.

Similar results were also found for anxiety, depression, and traumatic stress conditions, with most patients showing a more substantial decrease in depressive symptoms. Of course, more research is needed to understand the effects of EMDR therapy fully.

How Can It Help with Addiction?

Estimates are that anywhere between 12-34 percent of those in substance abuse treatment have PTSD. At the same time, about one-third of people exposed to trauma develop PTSD. When someone seeks addiction help, not dealing with co-occurring disorders like the trauma is like putting a band-aid on a bullet wound.

Therapies like EMDR can help those in substance abuse treatments to heal their trauma and manage their PTSD symptoms to help them focus on their recovery better. As you might know, stress or trauma is often a trigger for substance abuse. Thus, dealing with both conditions simultaneously is paramount for long-term recovery.

Our specialized therapists at Lighthouse Recovery Institute incorporate treatment options like EMDR to help those in recovery health better. If you or someone you know is struggling with trauma and addiction, please contact us today.



Jessica is Lighthouse Recovery Institute’s Clinical Director. She has a Master’s Level Certified Addiction Professional, Licensed Mental Health Counselor, and has a Masters in Behavioral Science. Jessica’s education allows her to elaborate in-depth on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Narrative Therapy approaches to addiction treatment.
Medical Disclaimer:

Lighthouse Recovery Institute aims to improve the quality of life for anyone struggling with substance use or mental health disorder. We provide fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options, and their outcomes. The material we publish is researched, cited, edited, and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide in our posts is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It should never be used in place of the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider.

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