EMDR Therapy Explained: A New Horizon in Addiction Treatment

What is EMDR Therapy?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a type of psychotherapy that helps people heal from emotional distress caused by traumatic life experiences. This treatment method is best known for its effectiveness in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But EMDR therapy is increasingly being used to treat other conditions, including substance use disorders (addiction to drugs or alcohol).

How is EMDR Therapy Different from Other Types of Therapy?

EMDR therapy is relatively new compared to methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and other conventional psychotherapy methods. The first clinical trial that investigated the efficacy of EMDR was done in 1989. Since then, dozens of studies and trials have shown that EMDR is effective and can help a person heal from traumatic experiences faster than other therapy methods.

A key difference between EMDR and other methods is in what EMDR achieves. Traditional psychotherapy helps you make sense of a distressing life experience by talking in detail about your feelings, thoughts, and emotions related to the event. In contrast, EMDR focuses on helping you process the trauma in a healthier way by changing the way the memory is stored in your brain. This helps to reduce or eliminate problematic symptoms associated with the memory.

What Happens During EMDR Sessions?

The Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing EMDR method involves working with a trained therapist in an office setting. During the session, you are guided to move your eyes in a certain way while you process traumatic memories or distressing life experiences. This may involve following the therapist’s finger in side-to-side eye movements. Newer methods involve following a light source. Some therapists use the sense of sound or touch to activate and reprocess memories.

Who Can Get EMDR Therapy?

EMDR therapy is recommended for teenagers and adults who have experienced a traumatic event that causes distressing symptoms. It can also help younger patients – there are therapists that specialize in EMDR for children.

EMDR Therapy is an Effective Treatment for PTSD

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or EMDR is best known for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is widely recognized by leading groups, including the American Psychological Association (APA) and World Health Organization (WHO), as an effective treatment for this condition. A success rate of up to 90% in PTSD patients has been reported by some researchers.

Studies have found that EMDR improves PTSD diagnosis, reduces PTSD symptoms, and is more effective than other treatments for trauma-related symptoms.

For example, people with PTSD experience flashbacks where something in their environment triggers traumatic memories. The distorted memory storage and networking in their brain results in an overpowering and uncontrolled response, making the person feel like they are reliving the traumatic event. EMDR therapy helps reprocess the memories, such that a person with PTSD no longer feels like they are reliving the event when triggered by something in their current environment.

What Conditions and Mental Health Problems Can EMDR Treat?

In addition to PTSD, mental health professionals and EMDR therapists are increasingly using EMDR for other conditions, including:

  • Major depressive disorder and depression symptoms related to other illnesses
  • Anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and phobias
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Dissociative disorders such as depersonalization or derealization disorder or dissociative personality disorder
  • Personality disorders such as antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, avoidant personality disorder
  • Eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder
  • Body dysmorphic disorder
  • Hoarding disorder
  • Gender dysphoria

Brain vs Mind: What’s the Difference?

To understand how Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) works, it’s important to distinguish between the brain and the mind. These terms are frequently used interchangeably, but they are different. The brain is a physical organ in the body. The mind refers to a collection of memories, thoughts, experiences, and beliefs that define you as a person. The structure of the brain affects how the mind works.

EMDR helps the brain heal naturally from trauma. The brain’s structure consists of networks of brain cells that communicate with each other. These networks make it easier for different parts of the brain to work together, for example, parts of the brain that build memories and those that process senses. That’s why a sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch can bring back vivid memories.

How does EMDR work?

The AIP Model

EMDR works on a principle called Adaptive Information Processing (AIP). This is a theory about how the human brain stores memories. The AIP model was developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro, the inventor of EMDR therapy. It essentially recognizes that the brain stores normal and distressing memories in different ways.

Normal vs Traumatic Memories

Normal memories are stored and networked smoothly so you can connect them to senses without experiencing distressing symptoms. Disturbing memories are stored with faulty networking. As a result, your brain fails to recognize that the danger is no longer present. Consequently, you experience upsetting or distressing symptoms every time the memory is triggered.

Additionally, new experiences get linked to the trauma experience, reinforcing the negative feelings associated with it. This happens with both remembered experiences and suppressed memories.

The result is a disrupted network of memories and senses. This causes certain sights, sounds, or smells to trigger upsetting memories and cause symptoms such as overwhelming fear, panic, anxiety, or anger.

You can think of normal memories as a wound that has healed and traumatic memories as a wound that continues to fester and cause suffering. EMDR therapy helps the “festering wound” in the brain heal by activating a natural healing process, i.e., reprocessing distressing memories.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Helps You Reprocess Memories

During EMDR therapy, you access disturbing memories in a specific way using guided instructions and specific eye movements. This helps you reprocess the traumatic memories and repair the brain “injury” associated with them. As a result, in the future, you no longer feel like you’re reliving the event. The symptoms associated with a distressing memory disappear or at least become far more manageable.

Is There Controversy Around EMDR?

There’s no controversy around EMDR in terms of its safety and efficacy. However, there is some disagreement about how EMDR works. This is because the creator of EMDR, Dr. Francine Shapiro, accidentally discovered the eye movement technique and only later developed the therapy method based on it.

How Many EMDR Therapy Sessions Do You Need?

The number of EMDR therapy sessions you need will depend on the type of traumatic experience you want to process. A single disturbing memory or event can typically be treated with 3-6 EMDR sessions. Longer-term traumas or more complex memories can take 8-12 sessions or more. Each EMDR session lasts 60-90 minutes.

Do you have a loved one struggling with addiction?

We know how hard that can be. Give us a call to find out what options you have.

Someone is standing by 24/7 to help you

Phases of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy

EMDR is an 8-phase therapy that takes place over multiple sessions. Some sessions involve using more than one phase of EMDR. Most patients will use phases 1 and 2 in the early sessions and progress to phases 3 through 8 in later sessions. Here is a brief overview of the eight EMDR phases:

Phase 1: Patient History

Phase one is the information gathering phase of EMDR. During this visit, the therapist will determine if EMDR can be beneficial for you. They will obtain a detailed history and ask you about the disturbing event or memory that you want to focus on, as well as your goals and expectations from the therapy.

Phase 2: Preparation

The second phase involves educating you about EMDR so you know what to expect during the sessions. Your therapist will also talk to you about what you can do to feel more secure. They will share tools to help you manage your emotions.

Phase 3: Assessment

During the third phase of EMDR, your therapist will work with you to identify the specific memories or events you want to focus on and reprocess. This sets the theme for the EMDR therapy and helps you identify the negative feelings and beliefs you want to change and the positive ones you want to replace them with.

Phase 4: Desensitization and Reprocessing

During the fourth phase of EMDR therapy, your therapist will activate your memory by identifying the thoughts, feelings, sensations, or images associated with a traumatic memory or event. They will help you gain insight, reprocess disturbing memories, and notice how you feel with new and positive thoughts and feelings.

Phase 5: Installation

The fifth phase of EMDR therapy consolidates and reinforces the positive beliefs you want to build into your memory. These are the positive beliefs you identified in phases 3 and 4.

Phase 6: Body Scan

The sixth phase of EMDR therapy focuses on physical symptoms. Your therapist will ask you to focus on how your body feels when you recall the disturbing event or memory. This phase also helps to monitor your progress in EMDR therapy. Over time, you should experience less severe symptoms, and ultimately, none at all.

Phase 7: Closure and Stabilization

The penultimate phase of EMDR therapy consists of bridge sessions that help you learn to stabilize your thoughts and feelings between sessions. The goal is to end a session when you are feeling calm and safe. Stabilization also involves identifying any unprocessed memories or events that can be addressed in future sessions.

Phase 8: Reevaluation and Aftercare

The final EMDR phase is an assessment of your progress. It can help determine the need for further sessions. Additionally, your EMDR therapist will help you explore ways to handle yourself outside of the therapy sessions using what you’ve learned about your past trauma and yourself.

Can EMDR Therapy Be Done Without a Trained EMDR Therapist?

EMDR therapy is a specialized form of psychotherapy that is not amenable to a do-it-yourself (DIY) approach or virtual (online) therapy sessions. To get the maximum benefits from EMDR therapy, it’s important to chooses a trained EMDR therapist.

Common Misconceptions About EMDR Therapy

The following common myths about EMDR are not true:

  • EMDR is a quick fix (the truth is it takes 3-12 sessions or more to get results).
  • EMDR does not involve talking about the experience (your therapist will ask you about the traumatic experience in the early phases of EMDR).
  • EMDR is a form of hypnosis or mind control (it is in fact a form of reprocessing distressing memories).
  • EMDR completely wipes out traumatic memories (in reality, EMDR helps you reprocess traumatic memories so you don’t experience overwhelming symptoms when they are triggered).

Pros and Cons of EMDR Therapy

The advantages of EMDR therapy are that it is very effective for mental health symptoms related to traumatic events. Additionally, EMDR works faster than some other forms of therapy. You may see improvement much sooner – in weeks to months instead of years. Some people prefer EMDR because it involves less homework outside of the sessions. Also, there are few side effects, if any. EMDR is less stressful than other therapy methods that involve describing or reliving the traumatic events in detail. Instead, EMDR focuses on moving past the trauma and reprocessing the memories associated with it.

The disadvantages of EMDR therapy are that it is only successful for mental health conditions linked to past trauma. Additionally, experts are unsure exactly how EMDR works, which has led to some controversy surrounding the method. Also, EMDR is relatively new and has been studied less than other forms of therapy that have been around much longer. Lastly, side effects of EMDR include increased stress and heightened emotions as you process past traumatic events. Physical side effects can include lightheadedness, headaches, fatigue, and vivid dreams. New distressing memories that were suppressed can emerge during EMDR sessions.

How Can EMDR Therapy Help in Addiction Treatment?

EMDR addiction treatment may help people with substance use disorders that originated from past trauma.

Interestingly, studies have found almost half of all patients with a substance use disorder also have PTSD. Clearly, there is a need to treat PTSD in people who are in recovery from drug and alcohol use.

EMDR is proven to be effective for PTSD with success rates of up to 90%. Integrated treatment of PTSD and substance use disorders can yield better outcomes for patients with both conditions.

Key Takeaways

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a relatively new form of psychotherapy that is particularly effective in helping people heal from traumatic life experiences and distressing memories. EMDR is widely used in people with post-traumatic stress therapy (PTSD). EMDR addiction treatment is a less common application. It can however play a role in people with substance use disorders arising from distressing experiences. EMDR also can help people with dual diagnosis PTSD and substance abuse.

More Information On Our COVID19 Response Plan

Learn more about our programs

learn more

Verify Insurance

At Discover Recovery, we work with a wide variety of health insurance providers so those in need can get access to the treatment they need. That means you (or your loved one) won’t have to worry about covering the cost of treatment. Instead, all of your energy and focus can be spent where it’s really needed, which is on overcoming addiction.

Available to help 24/7

Call Us Today