Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapy that was developed in the U.S. to treat trauma, particularly people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Since then, EMDR therapy has proven to be successful at helping patients manage symptoms of mental health disorders and past traumas who may feel overwhelmed or triggered by certain stimuli, thoughts, or memories, which cause intense emotional and physical reactions.
What is EMDR Therapy
EMDR is an integrative psychotherapy approach offered at DreamLife Recovery based on the adaptive information processing model, which posits that memories from traumatic events can cause intense agitation emotionally, physically, and mentally and are thus stored dysfunctionally in the brain. Each time the memory is recalled by an experience happening in the present, the reaction can be intensified and compounded, resulting in symptoms of anxiety, depression, distress, or particular behaviors.
EMDR treats symptoms of trauma and other behavioral and mental health disorders by trying to retrain the brain to reduce the impact of intense emotions and sensations associated with these dysfunctionally stored memories. In a session, which may last around 90 minutes, a therapist asks the patient to talk about the traumatic or emotive experiences in short bursts while directing eye movement with their hands. The back and forth eye movements help the patient to integrate these memories that evoke intense arousal into their regular store of memories, which they react to normally.
The theory behind EMDR is that it is less painful to recall these intense or traumatizing memories when attention is being diverted, thus lessening the impact of the emotions and physical sensations that arise when thinking about or talking about the memories.
How Does EMDR Work
EMDR therapy has multiple phases and will require a series of sessions with the therapist to cover the entire course of treatment. You will begin by doing several sessions for assessment and preparation for treatment. You will discuss your trauma history and treatment goals with the therapist, as well as any specific issues or traumatic memories you want to address.
As you get closer to starting EMDR treatment sessions, you will also decide what physical triggers to address like sounds, types of touch, smells, or sights that can cause you to re-experience the intense arousal, trauma, and/or anxiety from the past.
You will also learn techniques to manage intense emotions that arise when encountering a trigger or reliving a traumatic event like deep breathing and mindfulness.
Once you begin treatment sessions, your therapist will have you talk about the traumas and memories you have decided to treat while directing your eye movements back and forth. This will be repeated until your therapist stops and asks you to let your mind go blank and share any thoughts that arise.
You may go through multiple memories or triggers in each session, but if at any point, the sensations you experience are overwhelming or too distressing, you will stop and decompress, either taking a break before restarting or ending the session.
Once you complete the course of treatment, you will do an evaluation with your therapist to see where you are at, how well the treatment worked, and where you can go from there.
Benefits of EMDR Therapy
EMDR can be effective at reducing symptoms of addiction, anxiety, and mood disorders, while reprogramming the cycle of heightened emotions and reactions to triggers and disturbing memories and thoughts. People may find that after an EMDR treatment course, the traumas of their past or distressing thoughts have less control over them and that they feel some level of liberation from the fear of being triggered.
People who can benefit from EMDR therapy include those suffering with:
- Panic attacks
- Disordered eating
- Chronic pain
Many studies from the EDMR Institute in California, which conducts EMDR training for psychotherapists, suggest that most of those receiving EMDR therapy see improvements within six to 12 sessions. A 2015 study published in Brain and Behavior journal found that the effects of EMDR therapy continue over the long-term and that EMDR therapy is as effective or more effective as CBT.
EMDR has few side effects, which makes it a safe treatment modality. Adverse reactions are similar to those a person may experience during traditional talk therapy, such as an increase in emotions or physical sensations during a session, vivid dreams, and new traumatic memories resurfacing.
EMDR Treatment for Addiction
Intense or traumatic memories and psychoactive substance use are processed in similar ways in the brain, and the intense arousal caused by memories of substance use function like vivid flashbacks in PTSD. As a result, psychotherapists and neuroscientists have found that EMDR can be readily and effectively adapted to treat addiction.
In addition to reducing the intensity of the memories of being “high” on a substance whether positive or negative, EMDR can also treat underlying traumas and mental health disorders that may be co-occurring with the substance use disorder. By minimizing the power of these memories over the individual, EMDR can help to reprogram the brain and central nervous system to stop overreacting to triggers associated with the memories.
This can be effective for treating addictions because it can help to curb the power of triggers and cravings by reducing the impact of high-arousal, vivid memories from using, as well as addressing traumatic memories that the person may have been trying to escape through substance use in the first place.