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Could EMDR Therapy be Effective for Addiction Treatment?

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Author: Shernide Delva

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy has been extensively researched and proven effective for the treatment of trauma and psychological stress. The therapy was originally developed by American psychologist Francine Shapiro  in the late 1980s primarily as a treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Since the therapy has been able to help millions overcome psychological distress, the focus is now on whether EMDR therapy could be utilized to help addicts overcome their addictions and progress further into recovery.

But What is EMDR?                                                                                    

EMDR therapy is an eight-phase treatment which implements special eye movements to identify experiences that have overwhelmed the brain’s natural resilience or coping capacity.  Often, people who go through traumas such as war, rape assault, sexual abuse and others, have generated traumatic symptoms and harmful coping strategies.

When a person experiences a trauma, they usually acquire traumatic symptoms such as flashbacks, anxiety and insomnia. They may engage in isolating behavior and self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. Through EMDR therapy, patients are able to learn how to reprocess traumatic information until it is no longer psychologically disruptive.

In EMDR therapy, there are several phases of treatment. The initial phase is going through a client’s history followed by a preparation stage. In the Rapid Eye Movement phase, the person focuses on a traumatic or troubling memory and identifies the belief they have about themselves in relation to that negative memory. An example would be a woman who associates the trauma of her being rape to her being dirty. The EMDR therapy wants to shift the thought of rape signaling the “I am dirty” response and shift it to “I am a worthwhile good person in control of my life” response. By teaching the brain how to respond in a different way to trauma, the patient learns how to shift their view on their traumatic memories in a healthier way.

To allow this to occur, the person must go over the memory repetitively and focus on the external stimulus that creates bilateral eye movement. Our brains naturally signal eye movements as a response to emotional stimuli. However, overtime, our body’s ability to cope with pain weakens.  In EMDR therapy, the therapist may guide the client’s eye by moving their finger.

After each set of bilateral movements, the individual is asked how they feel. The process continues until the memory is no longer disturbing. Each session lasts about an hour. Many patients see significant improvement after just one session. It is believed that EMDR therapy is effective because it by-passes the areas of the brain that have become stuck due to trauma and prevents the left-side of the brain from self-soothing the right side of the brain.

How EMDR Could Help With Addiction

During EMDR therapy, patients learn to “process” memories in a way that leads to a peaceful resolution. When it comes to addiction, often people try to cope with trauma or psychological issues through abusing substances. Jamie Marich, PhD., believes that EMDR is a complete therapy that can be used to combat issues such as addiction.

“If we accept that unhealed traumatic wounds play a major role in causing or at the very least exacerbating the seriousness of substance use and addictive disorders, yes, EMDR therapy can be very effective.”

Marich continues by explaining the EMDR can be an effective relapse prevention/recovery enhancement strategy that truly targets trauma. Unhealed PTSD and other trauma-related disorder pose a clear relapse risk.  By learning a series of EMDR protocols, therapists are able to teach their clients how to target cravings and feelings and let go of the addictive manifestations brought on from trauma.

“Since the beginning of my journey with EMDR in 2004, I’ve long viewed it as an effective relapse prevention/recovery enhancement strategy that truly targets trauma. It’s been clear to me from the beginning of my own journey with recovery, and as a treatment provider, that unhealed PTSD and other trauma-related disorders pose a clear relapse risk.”

If successfully implemented, EMDR can play a major role in addiction treatment. Many people come into addiction treatment with PTSD and EMDR is an effective method of treating PTSD. Addicts are often traumatized by their past or from traumas that relate to their drug use. EMDR provides tools to treat the underlying problems.

Learning how to process past traumas can be extremely beneficial for those trying to overcome addiction. Substances are often used as a way to cope with underlying psychological distress. Learning to overcome the distress can help prevent relapse and aid in successful recovery. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, please call toll-free 1-800-951-6135

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