EMDR Therapy For Substance Use Disorder

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Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is relatively new as an addiction treatment option, but initial study findings are very promising. It works especially well when combined with other common behavioral health treatment options.

EMDR Therapy For Substance Use Disorder

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR, is a mental health talk therapy that has been gaining increasing attention and popularity in recent years.

EMDR is primarily used to help people overcome traumatic experiences, but research shows that it is also effective in treating drug and alcohol addiction.

This is likely at least partly because many people with substance use disorders have experienced trauma.

More addiction treatment centers are beginning to incorporate EMDR into both inpatient and outpatient treatment programs as a tool for helping people achieve long-term recovery.

Learn more about other types of therapy used in addiction treatment.

What Is Eye Movement Desensitization And Reprocessing?

EMDR is a trauma-focused psychotherapy technique in which clients are instructed to do specific eye movements to stimulate the brain while discussing their traumatic memories.

The technique is often used to treat mental health disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, or anxiety disorders, but it can help anyone who has experienced trauma.

One of the root causes of addiction is trauma, and EMDR addresses this by helping people resolve difficult memories so that they don’t turn to opioids, stimulants, or other drugs to cope.

EMDR is a specialized form of evidence-based treatment, and only trained practitioners can provide it. Not all rehab programs offer this service.

How EMDR Works

Although researchers are still trying to understand exactly what makes EMDR effective, it is believed that following specific eye movement patterns, similar to REM sleep, helps the brain process trauma.

The eye movements cause bilateral stimulation in the brain, which can also be achieved with light bars, tapping, or vibrating hand devices, as the client talks about difficult memories.

The brain often struggles to move past painful, traumatic events, and EMDR helps by enabling people to finally process and work through those difficult experiences.

It takes an average of 10 sessions at a treatment center for clients to see the benefits of EMDR therapy. However, the number of sessions needed can vary based on different factors.

Trauma And Substance Abuse

Trauma is one of the most common causes of adult substance abuse. PTSD and anxiety disorders as a result of trauma are also pervasive in people with addictions.

People who have experienced physical or emotional abuse, war, and other devastating events may find themselves using drugs or alcohol to cope with the resulting negative emotions.

Unfortunately, addiction can lead to further trauma and worsening symptoms of any existing mental illnesses. Treating this trauma is often vital for recovering from alcohol and drug use.

The 8 Phases Of EMDR For Addiction Treatment

There are eight basic phases of EMDR that therapists use as a guide when treating clients. They may or may not use all eight phases in one session.

People can repeat this treatment as necessary until they have processed their trauma, which essentially means that they will no longer feel “stuck on” or disturbed by their memories.

1. Gathering Information

In the first phase, the client and therapist will discuss the needs of the client to find out what EMDR can help with the most.

The client will go over their mental health or addiction history as well as any events that may have influenced these issues. After that, a treatment plan will be developed.

2. Preparation

During preparation, the treatment provider will explain the EMDR process to the client and give them a chance to ask questions.

This is also a good time to go over coping techniques the client can use if anything particularly stressful or painful comes up in a session.

3. Assessment

This is the last stage of planning before reprocessing begins. Here, the client and therapist will target a specific event or memory to focus on during the EMDR session.

The client can list any emotions, images, or sensations that they associate with their trauma, which will help the EMDR therapist identify what to work on.

4. Desensitization And Reprocessing

Desensitization and reprocessing is the most active phase of EMDR therapy and will involve eye movements, taps, vibrations, or sounds while the client discusses the traumatic event.

The healthcare provider will guide the client by asking about their emotions, thoughts, and any physical sensations.

5. Installation

Immediately after stage four is installation, where the client focuses on a new, positive belief about the event until their past trauma feels less distressing to think about.

6. Self Body Scan

The self body scan gives clients a chance to assess how the combination of the traumatic memory and the new, more positive belief makes them feel.

If they still feel tension, emotional distress, or anxiety, stages 4 through 6 can be repeated as necessary.

7. Stabilization

Here, the client will return to a more calm, present mindset as the reprocessing ends. The healthcare provider can talk to them about their experience and gather information for future sessions.

Previously discussed coping skills from stage 2 can help guide the client to a more stable state of mind.

8. Reevaluation

Reevaluation is done at the end and beginning of each new EMDR session. The clinician and client can discuss whether or not the sessions have been effective and implement new strategies.

EMDR And Dual Diagnosis Treatment

EMDR is a highly effective treatment for people with co-occurring addiction and mental health disorders since it targets the source of both problems.

Up to 45% of people with a substance use disorder also have PTSD, making EMDR an even more viable treatment option for many people with addiction.

EMDR is considered one of the top therapy treatments for PTSD, along with cognitive processing therapy, a trauma-focused form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Also, many addiction services, such as medication-assisted treatment (MAT), only target the addiction itself. EMDR is able to treat co-occurring disorders simultaneously.

People who feel that they have processed their trauma are less likely to experience anxiety, stress, depression, and other common triggers and cravings to drink or use drugs.

Benefits Of EMDR Therapy For Substance Abuse Treatment

More than 30 studies have found that EMDR is very effective when done properly. On average, more than 85% of trauma survivors no longer displayed PTSD symptoms after trying EMDR.

Additionally, EMDR often works faster and involves less outside work and stress than other common forms of therapy.

It has relatively few side effects, with the main ones being strange dreams, periods of intense emotion, or occasional physical symptoms like headaches and nausea.

Is EMDR Right For Me?

EMDR therapy is not a solution for everyone. People whose substance abuse is not related to a traumatic event may not benefit from EMDR sessions.

The people EMDR treatment will likely help the most are those who have experienced traumatic events, prolonged substance abuse, or severe mental illness.

Although it can be intimidating to start any type of treatment, it can make the difference between coping in unhealthy ways or moving on from painful experiences.

Find Help For A Substance Use Disorder

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