EMDR Therapy and How it Works to Heal Addiction

Mental Health

EMDR Therapy and How it Works to Heal Addiction

What is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy has become all the rage. It’s the latest and greatest, super cool, “it” thing therapists are performing on patients in their sincere attempt to help us all get right in the head. Thank God. Some of us could use a little help!

Developed way back in 1989 by Francine Shapiro, EMDR is only now starting to gain popularity across the United States as a reliable treatment method for healing addiction. Internationally, more than 100,000 clinicians already use EMDR sessions for the treatment of anxiety, PTSD, depression, and other mental disorders. And, in the past 25 years, millions of patients have received EMDR treatment for a variety of reasons and the numbers are climbing. It’s surprising that addiction experts have taken so long to follow the trend.

EMDR Treatment – a Newly Popular Method for Healing Addiction

The real question is, does EMDR work for healing addiction? We have seen some proof that it works for people with post-traumatic stress, but what about those of us who have struggled with chemical dependency issues for years? After swinging round the revolving doors of 12-Step groups and traipsing in and out of rehab every few years, those of us who are serious about staying clean want to know more about EMDR Therapy.

Addiction experts and recovery researchers are feeling positive when it comes to using EMDR treatments as a means for healing addiction. There is not enough statistical data available as proof EMDR sessions work for addiction. But, there is substantial evidence this therapy works for other disorders, like anxiety. Word on the street is this process could be revolutionary when treating people who battle substance abuse problems as well.

So…. What is EMDR Therapy, Exactly?

When explained from a clinical perspective, EMDR Therapy can sound quite complicated. Let’s skip all the psychobabble and complex mumbo jumbo, shall we? Basically, EMDR treatment is the implementation of rapid eye movements in conjunction with past memory recall. There are eight phases to a complete EMDR cycle, which happens over the course of several sessions spanned across a few weeks.

EMDR treatments offer a unique type of integrative therapy unlike any of the traditional “talk therapies” that have become so common in recent decades. In the past, the typical model for dealing with issues like PTSD, anxiety, or depression has involved a patient talking through his or her issues with a therapist or licensed psychologist, a process also known as “psychotherapy.” Talk therapy is often used in conjunction with psychiatric medication.

Why is EMDR Better than Traditional Psychotherapy?

The typical psychotherapy process includes delving into the past and grappling with painful memories of past experiences by recalling these events through conversation. The therapist then offers solutions to perceiving these situations to alleviate suffering caused by the trauma associated with them.

The problem is, this type of therapy has always proven to be slow-going. Anyone who has ever seen a therapist knows how long psychotherapy can take. It can be years (and thousands of dollars) before you even begin to see any real progress.

EMDR, although classified as a type of psychotherapy, is quite different. This process was designed to quiet the distress caused by painful memories after just a few 90-minute sessions. According to the EMDR Institute, “one of the main goals of EMDR therapy is to produce rapid and effective change while the client maintains equilibrium during and between sessions.”

EMDR treatment has been called “a powerful tool for trauma resolution” because it works on the brain in a profound way. It reformulates negative beliefs through a unique type of brain stimulation. Just like with other types of psychotherapies, EMDR includes delving into the past and grappling with painful memories by recalling events. The big difference is that EMDR involves the use of rapid-eye movement exercises where other therapies do not.

How Do EMDR Sessions Work?

In a typical EMDR Therapy session, the therapist will have you focus on some kind of external stimuli – his or her finger, perhaps. This would be several inches from your eyes. As you focus on the object, he or she will move it back and forth very quickly from left to right to create a bilateral (side – to – side) eye moment that stimulates both the left and right hemispheres of your brain.

During this rapid-eye movement, you will complete a guided mental process whereby you recall traumatic events or perform other intentional exercises. For example, you may focus on a troubling memory, and the belief associated with that memory, and replace it with a new and empowering belief.

EMDR Retrains the Brain to Process Trauma Differently

This, in effect, is what Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is all about – retraining the brain to think about trauma. By connecting the left and right sides of the brain, in theory, the brain becomes “unstuck” in regards to how it connects with a paralyzing event. It becomes desensitized to it and processes it differently.

Where the mind could only previously identify with the trauma, after EMDR; it is able to soothe itself with a new perspective. This is all evoked by reprocessing in the brain caused by rapid-eye movement therapy.

People who have undergone EMDR treatments say there is no way to explain them with words. You simply have to experience them for yourself, they say. It is not like sitting on the proverbial shrink’s couch and talking about your childhood.

According to those who have experienced EMDR Therapy, the rapid-eye moment stimulation does something to the brain. Some say it “repairs a loop.” Where there was once a negative, circular pattern of thinking – a “stuck point” – there is now no longer an issue.

How Could EMDR Work to Heal Addiction?

More and more in-patient rehabilitation facilities are incorporating EMDR sessions into their treatment plans. While most rehabs currently offer Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) as the first choice for treating addiction (in conjunction with detox and process groups), many are now considering EMDR as an automatic option for treating incoming patients.

The main reason addiction experts believe EMDR treatment is effective when treating addiction is because trauma seems to play a major role in addiction related issues. Because EMDR has been proven to be effective for treating trauma, it stands to reason that an addicted person would most certainly benefit from this treatment.

When You Treat Trauma, You Also Treat Addiction

Studies show that most people who have addiction problems are also trauma victims. Many believe the addiction and the trauma are somehow connected. Perhaps the addicted person is addicted because he or she is looking to numb the pain of the trauma.

Trauma may have happened early in life and the drug use and subsequent addiction developed as a direct result of that trauma. Trauma may have also occurred throughout the course of one’s addiction. Assault, robbery, police brutality, and rape are all very real consequences of using illegal drugs. In either case, it is important to recognize that trauma and addiction are a co-occurring phenomenon.

The idea here is that if the trauma is healed, there will be no continued need for substance abuse. By getting to the core of the addiction, and reprocessing it through EMDR Therapy, theoretically the brain can be rewired. Where there is no trauma, there is no addiction.

The Connection Between PTSD and Trauma

We can’t talk about trauma without talking about Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Where you have trauma, you will most likely have PTSD. And, where you have PTSD, you will most likely have addiction.

PTSD is a stress disorder brought on after the survival of a trauma.  It can result from physical assault, a serious car accident, a hurricane, or any experience that causes the brain to be confronted with sudden and overwhelming stress.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is a mental health disorder resulting from the experience of trauma or sudden injury. While PTSD is often associated with combat veterans who fall victim to the condition after serving in wartime, PTSD affects millions of Americans who have never set foot on the battlefield.

It is important to recognize that PTSD and addiction usually go hand-in-hand. These are often co-occurring disorders. People with PTSD will turn to alcohol and drugs like heroin, cocaine, and prescription medications to numb the pain caused by the symptoms of PTSD.

How EMDR is Helping Those Who Suffer with PTSD Heal from Addiction

More and more often, people with PTSD are undergoing EMDR sessions and experiencing positive results from the treatments. Not only are these patients benefitting in terms of their post-traumatic stress, they are also seeing positive changes as it relates to their addiction. When the PTSD is under control, the addiction is under control.

EMDR has gotten high marks from some big names in recent times when it comes to treating PTSD. The American Psychiatric Association has promoted EMDR Therapy as an effective treatment for those who suffer PTSD and the Department of Veteran’s Affairs “strongly recommends” EMDR for combat veterans with PTSD.

These informal endorsements have gone a long way in promoting this treatment across the country for those who suffer with this affliction. It’s no wonder. One report indicated that 77 percent of all combat veterans who completed twelve 90-minute EMDR Therapy sessions experienced freedom from their PTSD symptoms.

The Pros and Cons of EMDR Therapy

While EMDR sessions are being applauded across the therapeutic community, many say there is no real evidence to support this as a viable treatment option for substance abuse. Others insist that EMDR is a miracle treatment that should be offered to everyone with an addiction problem.

Let’s talk about some of the pros and cons of EMDR Therapy:


  • There is no medication involved. This means no nasty side effects.
  • Significant evidence shows EMDR treats trauma, which many argue is at the core of addiction
  • Does not require a significant time commitment
  • Is relatively inexpensive when compared to typical psychotherapy
  • Is covered by medical insurance


  • Some say the rapid-eye movement is uncomfortable and awkward
  • Many say the memory recall is extremely painful
  • Many complain of extreme exhaustion as a side effect
  • Hasn’t been used long enough to draw conclusions about its long-term effects
  • Some mental health care professionals say this should only be used as a last resort

As a general rule, EMDR seems to be a healthy treatment for healing addiction and trauma. There seems to be no significant negative effects.

Learn More About EMDR Therapy

If you’re interested in learning more about EMDR Therapy, you can do a search to find a specialist near you. If you are considering in-patient treatment, find out if EMDR Therapy is right for you before you select a facility. Not every rehab offers this specialized type of treatment and you’ll want to make sure you hook up with the right place if you choose to go the EMDR route.

EMDR treatment shows real promise when it comes to healing addiction. If you continue to struggle with addiction issues, you may want to check it out.

Have you completed EMDR Therapy? Share your experience here.

2020-01-30T16:49:07+00:00October 7th, 2017|0 Comments

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