Here’s What You Need to Know About EMDR Therapy

patient having eye exam

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, and the therapeutic approach is more common than you might think. On TV shows, it’s typically the following scene: A therapist talks to the client as the client looks directly into a light while following the therapist’s hand.

Simply put, EMDR is designed to help a person overcome issues related to trauma using eye movement during therapy.

While EMDR therapy isn’t for everyone, the following rundown will provide you with key information about the treatment approach. For those struggling with substance use disorders and trauma, EMDR has proven effective.

What is the Purpose of EMDR Therapy?

image of eye indicated EMDREMDR is a type of therapy originally designed to alleviate the emotional stress of trauma. The idea is that EMDR therapy allows you to access and process traumatic memories to reach a resolution more quickly than standard talk therapy.

The type of event or memory processed during EMDR therapy may include experiences contributing to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), childhood trauma, and addictive behavior.

EMDR may be utilized for individuals who experienced a single traumatic event or multiple traumatic events.

EMDR is an effective trauma treatment by:

  • Relieving trauma-related stress
  • Reframing negative and false beliefs
  • Reconditioning emotional responses

How Does EMDR Work?

EMDR therapy works by incorporating eye movement into therapeutic sessions. The clinician first identifies a problematic memory to focus on. The client then follows the therapist’s hand movements with their eyes while they consider different aspects of that event. Researchers believe that the EMDR process uses similar mechanisms as REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.

EMDR uses an 8-stage approach to maximize results:

  • Phase 1: History-taking session(s). During this phase, the therapist assesses the client’s readiness and develops an individualized treatment plan. This plan includes identifying distressing events/memories to address during EMDR. At this point, the therapist explains the potential benefits of EMDR.
  • Phase 2: This phase involves teaching a client how to cope with emotional distress, preparing them for sessions. This instructional phase is also designed to teach clients how to cope in between sessions.
  • Phase 3: Assessment. In this phase, the client identifies traumatic events to reprocess. When identifying these events, the client may be asked to recall images, feelings, sensations, and beliefs.
  • Phase 4: Desensitization. During this phase, clients engage in eye movement techniques as the therapist guides them through their traumatic memories.
  • Phase 5: Installation. This phase creates a positive belief associated with the traumatic event and strengthens the belief until the client accepts it as true.
  • Phase 6: Body scan. Like phase 4, the client will recall the event, together with their new positive belief, while the clinician scans the body to check for any disturbance.
  • Phase 7: Closure. This phase is about achieving a state of calm and neutrality about a traumatic event. The clinician asks the client to complete a log during the week to note any thoughts, feelings, beliefs, or sensations that arise. The log can remind the client of their new self-calming skills gathered in phase 2.
  • Phase 8: Reevaluation. This stage reviews the progress made during the patient’s EMDR journey so far.

One way to put these phases into perspective is to imagine a dartboard sequence—targeting the outer rings before moving to the interior rings.

Can EMDR Help with Addiction Recovery?

There is a strong link between addiction and trauma. More than 70 percent of people with substance use disorders have experienced a type of trauma.

In fact, most people struggling with addiction also exhibit symptoms of PTSD. Substance use is a survival strategy for many people suffering from the pain of trauma.

Therapists described the relationship between trauma and addiction in the evolving landscape of EMDR therapy. “Addiction can be seen as the smoke that comes from the fire of trauma. As long as the fire is burning, there will be smoke.”

“When there is an addiction, there is pain beneath it – pain from the trauma and pain caused by the experience of living with an active addiction. Addiction is a symptom of trauma that can often instigate more traumatic experiences. Recovery-focused treatment doesn’t focus on temporarily clearing the room of smoke. Instead, the objective becomes putting out the fire, while simultaneously building good fire-fighting skills.”

EMDR can help treat people in recovery. Therapists have considerable experience dealing with trauma and its relationship to addictive behaviors. This type of therapeutic intervention can help a person with substance use disorder by desensitizing the triggers for relapse.

This type of therapy also reinforces positive thoughts and beliefs.

EMDR and Addiction-Focused Therapeutic Approaches

When EMDR therapy is used to treat addiction, several acronyms might apply.

Here’s a quick rundown:

  • DeTUR: Desensitization of Triggers and Urge Processing Protocol. This works to reduce cravings and focus on a positive treatment goal. Some terms related to DeTUR:
    • LoU: Level of Urge to use or cut out
    • LoUA: Level of Urge to Avoid targeting ambivalence about letting go of the substance use
    • PTG: Positive Treatment Goal that the client wants to work toward
  • CravEx: Reprocessing the Memory Until the Craving is Extinguished
  • FSAP: Feeling-State Addiction Protocol identifies the part of addiction that feels good but ultimately still part of the addiction
  • PEIA: Palette of EMDR Interventions in Addiction provides a framework for understanding EMDR and addiction recovery treatment aims
  • AF-EMDR: Addiction-Focused EMDR which centers around reducing cravings, tackling fears, and creating stability

How Effective is EMDR Therapy for Those With Trauma?

soldier in therapy EMDR therapy is recognized by the World Health Organization, the American Psychiatric Association, and the Department of Defense as an effective treatment for trauma.

Studies show that up to 90 percent of single trauma victims report overcoming PTSD after three 90-minute sessions. Another study indicated that 77 percent of multiple trauma survivors no longer had PTSD after only 6 sessions.

A separate study evaluating combat veterans found that 77 percent of participants no longer struggled with PTSD after 12 sessions.

If you or someone you love is experiencing a substance use disorder, help is available. Call 800-963-1579 (Who Answers?) today.


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