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Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR)

Have you heard of EMDR therapy for addiction? Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing is a sensory processing therapy technique that can help you heal.

Introduction to EMDR

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a form of therapy that uses sensory input to help you reprogram your brain.

We all have emotional trauma, and some of us block it off to avoid the pain of confronting those distressing experiences. This leads to maladaptive coping mechanisms, including addiction disorders.

During an EMDR session, you’ll think about traumatic moments and describe how they make you feel and believe about yourself. You’ll use rapid eye movements, hand tapping, and auditory stimulation to help you process the trauma without the emotional block.

The result is relief from emotional symptoms that are common with addiction, like:

  • Attention problems
  • Eating disorders
  • Panic attacks
  • Psychotic symptoms
  • Self-esteem problems

That all sounds a lot more complex than a typical psychotherapy session, but the evidence says that EMDR is safe and effective. In fact, the EMDR therapy success rate is surprisingly high in some studies. Up to 90% of PTSD patients had no symptoms after 3 treatments according to one study.

For over 25 years, therapists have used EMDR to treat anxiety, depression, psychotic disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Today, doctors are using it off-label as part of a complete treatment plan to treat addiction disorders.

EMDR for Addiction

Do you have addiction with co-occurring trauma? That might describe you without you even knowing it. The Adverse Childhood Experiences study found that traumatic experiences in childhood increase the likelihood that you’ll develop an addiction disorder.

Examples of trauma in this study include:

  • Abuse, including emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
  • Family trauma, including divorce, seeing your parents treat each other badly, household drug abuse, or household mental illness
  • Neglect, including emotional and physical neglect.

The ACE study found that two-thirds of people in the study had experienced at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE). People who had at least 5 ACEs were up to 10 times more likely to develop substance use disorders later in life.

There’s a clear relationship between trauma and addiction. If co-occurring trauma is a factor in your addiction disorder, then EMDR can help treat the root cause.

Over multiple courses of desensitization therapy, you’ll process the emotional blocks that led you to substance abuse and addiction. This can allow you to move on and accept your past without letting it control your present.

You can also undergo addiction-focused EMDR, which can help you treat:

  • Flash-forwards of relapse
  • Flash-forwards of sobriety (yes, these can be traumatic!)
  • Memories of cravings

EMDR always takes multiple sessions, and those sessions can be tailored to your needs. If you have addiction and trauma, your EMDR sessions might target both. However, it’s more common for EMDR sessions to treat the trauma first. Your clinician will help you choose the right approach for your needs and history.

As of 2020, EMDR is an off-label treatment for addiction, but its use is growing. More than 100,000 mental health professionals have EMDR training in the United States.

What is EMDR Therapy and Does it Work?

Wondering “What is EMDR treatment?” EMDR therapy is the use of bilateral stimulation to help process traumatic memories and thoughts. The evidence says that EMDR treatment works.

Most EMDR therapists use rapid eye movement as a form of bilateral stimulation, but others may use hand tapping or another form of stimulation. During a session, you’ll activate the memory and engage in guided eye movements or tapping while you focus on the memory.

The EMDR process takes place over 3 to 6 weeks (or longer). During treatment, you’ll attend sessions once or twice weekly until you progress through 8 phases, including:

  • History-Taking: during which your clinician will learn about your needs, history, and goals for treatment
  • Preparation: during which you’ll learn to practice the bilateral stimulation (such as eye movements), learn what to expect, and learn how to manage any negative reactions you may experience during treatment
  • Assessment: in which you think about the traumatic memory and answer control questions about how it makes you feel
  • Desensitization: during which you’ll receive bilateral stimulation while focusing on the traumatic memory
  • Installation: which helps reinforce positive beliefs and contradict negative beliefs
  • Body Scan: in which you’ll take note of how your body feels and where you’re holding somatic stress after the session
  • Closure: in which you’ll talk about how the session went and discuss goals between the current and next session
  • Re-Evaluation: during which your clinician will evaluate your total progress, your progress for the last session, and targets for the next session

The EMDR substance abuse protocol may involve different session focus than a trauma protocol. Your therapist will choose the session focus that works for you and your needs.

How Does EMDR Therapy Work?

It may sound weird to think about a traumatic memory while scanning your eyes back and forth or tapping on the sides of your head, but there’s neuroscience behind why the EMDR procedure works.

Experiencing bilateral stimulation while you think about a traumatic memory can reduce the emotional response evoked by that memory. An overactive emotional response to a memory can lead to the symptoms of PTSD and often substance abuse.

You may respond by pushing the traumatic memory further under the surface, but that actually reinforces the cycle. The harder you resist thinking about an experience, the harder it is to process that experience and forget it.

By reducing this response, you make it easier to think about the memory in its entirety. This helps desensitize the event in your mind, but more importantly, it lets you process and store that memory away where it can’t control your addiction.

What Are the Benefits of EMDR Therapy?

EMDR therapy has a wide range of benefits, and not just for trauma and addiction. The biggest benefit is its overwhelmingly strong effect as a trauma therapy, but reducing the effects of trauma has benefits of its own.

Research suggests that EMDR has benefits such as:

  • Reduced chronic somatic pain
  • Reduced depression and anxiety symptoms
  • Reduced self-harm
  • Reduced psychotic symptoms, like hallucinations and psychosis
  • Increased self-esteem

How Effective is EMDR Therapy?

Over 30 controlled studies have shown that rapid eye movement therapy is an effective treatment for many psychiatric symptoms, including addiction.

This is what recent studies had to say about EMDR as an evidence-based treatment:

  • EMDR is more effective than CBT for cases with co-occurring trauma
  • EMDR reduces the likelihood of relapse for 12 months after treatment
  • Most EMDR patients report “very positive outcomes” after 6-12 treatments

Compared to other types of therapy, there’s a shortage of quality research on EMDR for conditions that aren’t PTSD. More research could show even more applications for EMDR than we imagined.

What to Know Before You Try EMDR Therapy

It’s comforting to know what to expect before you jump into the EMDR therapy process. Your clinician will help prepare you so you’ll understand what’s happening at every step of treatment. Still, EMDR can be frightening if you’re afraid of activating traumatic memories.

What Happens During EMDR Treatment

During EMDR treatment, you’ll choose an image related to a traumatic memory. You’ll describe the negative beliefs and sensations that you experience when thinking about this memory. After, you’ll identify a positive belief to replace the negative one.

Then, you’ll focus on the traumatic memory while the clinician guides your eye movements left and right. This is called bilateral stimulation and it allows your brain to process the memories and leave the negative feelings behind. You’ll replace your negative feelings about the trauma with a positive belief.

Finally, you’ll undergo a body scan, where you pay attention to your body sensations from head to toe and describe how you feel. At the end of the session, your therapist will help you use self-control techniques to recover from the experience.

Side Effects of EMDR Treatment

EMDR is considered very safe for most people and it doesn’t cause many side effects. In fact, it causes fewer side effects than most psychiatric medications do.

During EMDR treatment, you may experience:

  • An increase of intrusive thoughts about your traumatic memory
  • Heightened emotions
  • Heightened physical sensations or jumpiness
  • Remembering new traumatic memories
  • Vivid dreams or night terrors

Sessions may trigger lightheadedness or dizziness in some people. Talk to your therapist about how you feel during and after sessions. They’ll be able to help you work through these troublesome symptoms, which often get better as treatment goes on.

Who is a Candidate for EMDR Treatment?

Most people with treatment-resistant addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and/or a history of trauma with co-occurring mental disorders are a candidate for EMDR.

Talk to your care team if you’re interested in EMDR treatment as part of your complete care plan. EMDR inpatient treatment gives you a recovery-focused environment between sessions at Bedrock Recovery Center. Call us today to learn how we can be part of your recovery.

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