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What Is EMDR and How Is It Used for Addiction Treatment?
Addiction is a complex and challenging condition that can have devastating consequences for individuals and their families. There are many approaches to addiction treatment. Therapy and medication can be effective, but some individuals may require alternative approaches to achieve and maintain recovery.
One such approach gaining attention is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR is a type of psychotherapy that has been found to be effective in treating trauma, anxiety, and depression.
What Is EMDR?
EMDR is an experiential therapy that asks patients to focus on a traumatic memory while a therapist guides them through bilateral stimulation. This treatment was originally developed in 1987 as a way to minimize symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
It is based on the understanding that emotions, physical sensations, and beliefs remain stored within the unprocessed memories of a traumatic event.
Unlike traditional forms of therapy, EMDR doesn’t try to change the emotional reaction or understanding of past events through talking. EMDR works directly on the memory, changing the way it is stored in the brain. The hope is that EMDR can reduce and even eliminate unwanted symptoms.
Whether it is being used for addiction treatment, PTSD, or other reasons, the format of EMDR follows eight specific phases.
Phase 1: History Taking
The therapist and client identify the past memories that will be targeted for treatment.
Phase 2: Preparation
The therapist explains the treatment and procedures to the client.
Phase 3: Assessment
The therapist and client activate a targeted memory. The memory is measured so that progress can be evaluated. Two scales of measurement are used, the Subjective Units of Disturbance (SUD) scale and the Validity of Cognition (VOC) scale.
Phase 4: Desensitization
While the client focuses on the memory, the therapist will engage them in different types of bilateral stimulation. The stimulation may include eye movement, tapping, and other methods. The bilateral stimulation is repeated until the client feels some relief from the distress of the memory.
Phase 5: Installation
The installation phase begins associating positive emotions with the memory. For example, instead of thinking, “I was abused because I was weak,” the client may be encouraged to think, “I am strong because I survived being abused.”
Phase 6: Body Scan
During the body scan, clients are asked to notice any physical sensations they might be having while focusing on the incident. If negative responses are present, the therapist will repeat bilateral stimulation until the physical distress is relieved.
Phase 7: Closure
The SUD and VOC measurement scales are considered once more. If the targeted memory wasn’t processed fully (measuring a 0 on SUD), the therapist might give some recommendations for homework for continued improvement.
Phase 8: Reevaluation
After the first session has been completed, all continuing sessions will begin with a reevaluation. This lets the therapist know how the treatment is working and helps the client identify any new targets that need to be addressed.
Therapists who have undergone specialized EMDR training may alter the exact forms of bilateral stimulation, but following the eight-phase approach is key.
Why Is EMDR Used in Addiction Treatment?
Though originally developed for treating PTSD, EMDR is also effective for addiction treatment. The National Institutes of Health confirms there is a strong bidirectional relationship between trauma and substance misuse. Trauma often leads to the development of a substance use disorder, and people with substance use disorders experience high levels of trauma.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a well-researched form of therapy. It is also foundational in most addiction treatment programs. However, one study found EMDR was more effective than CBT for reducing substance abuse and PTSD symptoms in people who have co-occurring disorders.
EMDR may help addiction treatment clients:
- Reduce PTSD symptoms
- Reduce anxiety
- Decrease depression
- Manage triggers and avoid relapse
- Improve self-esteem
- Improve coping skills
In addiction treatment, EMDR is not used as a stand-alone therapy but is included as part of a comprehensive treatment plan.
Benefits of EMDR in Addiction Treatment
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy is highly effective and offers clients many benefits. Some of those benefits include:
- Effective cross-culturally
- Effective in individual and group settings
- Effective in treating trauma related to other mental health conditions
- Provides results faster than other types of treatment
- Works well as a complement to other treatments
- Effective in decreasing symptoms of chronic pain (which can lead to prescription medication addiction)
- Does not require patients to talk at length about distressing or painful events
There aren’t many risks involved with EMDR. It is still a relatively new form of treatment, so some experts believe more research is needed before the full impact of EMDR can be fully understood. However, no studies have found the therapy to be harmful or have a negative impact on addiction treatment.
Can Any Therapist Offer EMDR?
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy is a specialized form of therapy that requires certification. EMDR therapists must hold a clinical license before training in EMDR. As with any type of health care, working with an experienced professional offers the best chance for positive results.
Consider Adding EMDR to Your Addiction Treatment Program
EMDR is an effective type of therapy for people with co-occurring conditions. Though it does require patients to recall traumatizing events, it does not require them to spend endless session hours talking about painful experiences.
Though some experts feel more research is needed on using EMDR for conditions besides PTSD, current studies support its use for minimizing symptoms of depression and anxiety. EMDR has also been found effective in helping those with substance use disorders manage their triggers and decrease the risk of relapse.
If you or someone you care about is struggling with an addiction, including EMDR in your treatment plan could help you heal the traumas that contributed to or were caused by addiction.