This treatment has primarily been used for people who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is now being applied to other forms of emotional or mental stress, including recovery from substance abuse.
EMDR was first developed in 1987 to treat PTSD in a specific number of sessions. Rather than long-term talk therapy, EMDR uses the adaptive information processing model and desensitization through eye movements.
Sessions are generally held once or twice per week for a total of 6 to 12 sessions. In some cases, a participant benefits from fewer sessions. Sometimes, they benefit from going through this process over several consecutive days.
The adaptive information processing model believes that most PTSD symptoms come from past disturbing experiences that continue to cause distress because the memory has not been processed appropriately. Since the memories have been partially processed, the brain continues to reprocess certain emotions, images, thoughts, or beliefs associated with the traumatic event. When these disturbing partial memories are triggered, the mind and emotions can be flooded with reexperiencing the event.
Previous treatments using cognitive behavioral therapy focus on talking through feelings and memories as a method of reprocessing and managing the trauma. EMDR focuses on the memory directly. It uses outside stimuli to change how the memory is stored in the brain, reducing or eliminating symptoms of trauma or stress that come up.
Rhythmic eye movements and bilateral stimulation are methods of reducing the vividness and emotional pain associated with the memory, forcing the brain to reprocess the physical experience associated with the event.
Because phases 4 through 7 occur in the majority of sessions, they are often lumped together. However, it is important to understand them separately because the order in which they occur is critical to the success of EMDR.
It is possible to experience negative side effects during EMDR treatment. These should be reported to your therapist so they can be managed, and the course of your EMDR treatment can adjust to your new needs.
Side effects might include:
While these symptoms may resolve as treatment continues, discuss them with your therapist. You can learn new coping strategies and change the focus of your treatment if needed.
Multiple independent studies have found that EMDR is an effective treatment for trauma, especially PTSD.
A study in 2012 involving 22 people found that EMDR helped 77 percent of the individuals with psychological disorders and PTSD.
Hallucinations, delusions, anxiety, and depression all eased significantly after the treatment program. Symptoms were not exacerbated during treatment, although participants were asked to recall traumatic memories.
A 2004 study found that EMDR is effective not just in the short term, but also in long-term management of trauma symptoms. The study evaluated participants after they received standard care (SC) for PTSD and compared them to those participating in EMDR therapy. Researchers found that those who participated in EMDR therapy experienced less psychological stress. In follow-ups at three and six months, researchers found participants maintained these benefits.
EMDR is being expanded for use in other psychiatric treatments. One study involving 32 people undergoing inpatient depression treatment found that 68 percent of the group benefitted, experiencing a reduction in symptoms or full remission after treatment. However, the small sample size suggests larger studies are needed.
Addiction treatment is adding EMDR therapy as a method of easing trauma associated with substance abuse. People who struggle with drugs or alcohol may have histories of childhood abuse or physical, emotional, or sexual assault as adults.
These traumatic events may have occurred prior to substance abuse, with addiction stemming from self-medication of stress from the trauma. Traumatic events could have occurred while the person was intoxicated, so the memories are even less processed. Therapists who use EMDR during addiction treatment approach the client’s experience with the trauma-focused lens, allowing the client to address the root causes of their substance abuse.
While using EMDR during addiction treatment is still in the early stages, reported benefits include:
People may enter treatment for an addiction with diagnosable PTSD, so many treatment programs are integrating mental health evaluations during the first stages of admitting a new client. Adding EMDR to treat PTSD during the rehabilitation process can improve adherence to other types of therapy, improve retention in the rehabilitation program and to aftercare plans, and reduce the risk of relapse due to decreased physical and emotional discomfort.
There are several approaches to managing co-occurring mental illness and substance abuse. Detox and rehabilitation programs involve therapy to help you overcome cravings for substances and understand behaviors that may trigger relapse.
When other treatment approaches, like cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness, are added to treatment programs, the added support can help you maintain focus on sobriety and long-term health. EMDR is one option that may work for you, promoting complete recovery on all fronts.
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How EMDR Therapy Heals Trauma and Addiction. (October 2018). Psych Central.
What Is EMDR and Is It Effective for Addiction Treatment? (November 2015). The Fix.