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EMDR For Addiction: How it Helps

Clinically Reviewed

This page has been clinically reviewed by Jenna Richer, MSW, LCSW.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is quickly becoming a standard in treating trauma, and trauma can play a significant role in substance use disorders. EMDR therapy is a non-invasive trauma treatment that doesn’t require that you continually be retraumatized to achieve results. If you’re struggling with trauma symptoms and haven’t found relief from traditional approaches, EMDR therapy could be a game-changer for you.

EMDR For Addiction: How it Helps

How Does EMDR Work?

When you experience trauma, whether it’s a one-time event or an ongoing situation like abuse or neglect, your body responds by sending your system into fight, flight, or freeze mode. This is a survival instinct. It’s your body’s natural response to danger. Your system is flooded with cortisol, adrenaline, and other hormones. The body sends off alarms to do whatever you need to escape the danger right away, instead of spending a lot of energy processing what’s happening.

This is why years later, you can re-experience trauma symptoms. The brain and body may never have fully worked through the trauma. When something reminds you of the trauma, your central nervous system continues to act from a place of perceived danger, triggering the same feelings, thoughts, and physiological responses it did during the original trauma. Repeated exposure to trauma can disrupt neural connections that can have far-reaching effects on mental, social, and emotional functioning.

EMDR works on past trauma by focusing on the neural networks behind a traumatic memory. The process is guided by the adaptive information processing model (AIP). The AIP model posits 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 attempt 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.

EMDR therapy draws on your brain’s natural ability to heal from difficult experiences. It doesn’t eliminate the traumatic memory, but it can ease the distress and arousal that accompanies it. This works through rhythmic eye movements and bilateral stimulation of the eyes. When you engage in rapid eye movements, it keeps you more grounded in the present. In this state of mind, you’re able to reprocess the trauma from a point of emotional safety. Your body realizes it is not in the past re-experiencing the event, giving you the space to attach more realistic, empowering, and positive beliefs to the trauma. Little by little, you begin to feel “safer” when this experience is triggered, and your reaction warrants the actual danger of the situation.

EMDR is a relatively new therapy and research is still in its infancy, but the limited number of studies so far show promising indicators for treatment in:

For most of these conditions, the benefit lies in the relief EMDR can provide for underlying issues of trauma that can fuel compulsive and unhealthy coping behaviors.

What Is EMDR Therapy Like?

The number of sessions it takes to see improvement from EMDR varies by the individual. Sessions are generally held once or twice a week for a total of six to 12 sessions. Some people may see results after fewer sessions. There are eight stages of EMDR therapy.

1. History and Treatment Planning

In the first EMDR session, your therapist will review your history of trauma and any behavioral health and medical treatment. You’ll identify potential traumatic

memories or feelings to focus on. They’ll evaluate where you are in processing the trauma.

2. Client Preparation

You’ll discuss your treatment plan, and your EMDR therapist will teach you ways to cope with any emotional or psychological stress that comes up after an EMDR session. Methods may include deep breathing, journaling, and mindfulness.

3. Target Memory Assessment

This phase involves identifying specific memories to target and all the components of them, which include:

  • Body sensations
  • Images
  • Cognition
  • Affect

4. Desensitization Through Eye Movements

During this phase, you will talk about events, feelings, and beliefs associated with trauma and your EMDR therapist will ask you questions. They will guide you through specific eye movements, and you’ll talk about thoughts that emerge during this process. Your personal report will typically become part of the next round of eye movement or other bilateral stimulation (BLS).

Eye movements used in EMDR are saccadic — quick, jerky, back-and-forth eye movements that redirect your line of sight, so you fix your vision on a moving object. Other types of BLS may include light tapping on both sides of the head in an alternating pattern, tapping the fingers, or blinking. This process is repeated until you report that the memory is getting significantly less distressing.

5. Installation

Once you achieve positive or neutral feelings from the memory, the fifth stage strengthens that preferred positive thought in association with the memory. You’ll

practice getting in touch with the more helpful response to trauma when it comes up.

6. Body Scan

Once you have completed BLS and memory integration, your therapist will talk you through a body scan where you’ll observe your physical response while thinking about the traumatic memory. You’ll identify any residual somatic distress and report it to your therapist. This may indicate more work with BLS is needed.

7. Closure

Your therapist will end the session in a formalized way, so you can walk out of the space without much residual stress or without associating other parts of your life with traumatic memories. This also further strengthens positive cognition associated with the process.

8. Reevaluation

As part of closure, you may reevaluate, and you may continue reevaluation at the beginning of your next session. This is where your therapist:

  • Evaluates your current mental state.
  • Determines if there are any lingering effects from previous sessions.
  • Assesses if other associated memories have emerged since the last session.

Because phases four through seven 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. Some people may experience side effects from EMDR. Report any of the following occurrences to your therapist so they can help you manage them and adjust the course of your EMDR treatment if necessary.

EMDR side effects might include:

  • Increase in distressing memories.
  • Heightened emotions and physical reactions during sessions.
  • Lightheadedness.
  • Vivid dreams or sleep disturbances.
  • Surfacing of new traumatic memories.

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.

How Is EMDR Used For Addiction Treatment

According to some research, over 46% of people with PTSD meet the DSM-5 criteria for a substance use disorder. A significant number of people who struggle with drug or alcohol abuse have histories of childhood abuse or physical, emotional, or sexual assault. Substance abuse becomes a way to cope with the difficult emotions that come with PTSD or complex trauma. Many substance abuse treatment centers have started using EMDR for addiction to ease trauma associated with substance abuse. Therapists and medical professionals who use EMDR for addiction treatment offer it as a way for clients to address the root causes of their substance abuse. Research on using EMDR for addiction recovery is still in its infancy, but so far, reported benefits include:
  • Resolving present alcohol and drug triggers and managing potential future triggers.
  • Alleviating psychological stress from PTSD or trauma.
  • Easing physical symptoms associated with trauma.
  • Decreasing or eliminating distress from the disturbed memories.
  • Improving self-efficacy and self-esteem.
People may enter drug and alcohol addiction treatment programs with PTSD, so many rehab centers provide mental health evaluations during the beginning states of substance abuse treatment. The use of EMDR in addiction treatment can:
  • Improve adherence to other treatment therapies.
  • Increase retention in drug and alcohol addiction treatment and adherence to aftercare plans.
  • Serve as an effective relapse prevention tool by decreasing physical and emotional discomfort that may lead to self-medicating with alcohol or drug abuse.

Get Help For Trauma and Addiction

Footprints to Recovery is well-known for our trauma-focused approach to substance abuse treatment. Many of our addiction professionals are trained in EMDR and other trauma therapies, and all our treatment methods are steeped in a trauma-informed approach.

Levels of care and highlights of our addiction treatment centers include:

You deserve to live a life where you feel emotionally safe, and don’t feel the need to self-medicate your trauma symptoms with drugs and alcohol. We can help you heal the mental, emotional, and spiritual wounds of addiction and create a life that feels fulfilling. Contact our recovery centers today for a free, confidential consultation.

Questions about treatment options?

Our admissions team is available 24/7 to listen to your story and help you get started with the next steps.

David Szarka
Medically Reviewed by David Szarka, MA, LCADC