Can EMDR Help with Addiction Recovery?


EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a form of psychotherapy designed to help people cope with distressing symptoms and heal from their trauma. It is a widely-researched and evidence-based form of care, and many people report promising results after just a few sessions.


Can EMDR help treat addiction? Can it coincide with other forms of treatment in providing a comprehensive recovery plan? And how do you know if this method is right for you? Let's get into it.


Understanding EMDR

EMDR consists of eight phases of structured treatment. It is a popular mode of trauma-based therapy, and the World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes it as an appropriate treatment approach for children and adults who experienced trauma.


Unlike in other forms of treatment, clients do not need to provide extensive histories to participate in EMDR. Similarly, a therapist does not need to know every last detail of a client's life before assessing and intervening.


Instead, EMDR captures how neurobiology reacts in response to unprocessed trauma. Research shows that trauma can inherently impact brain structure- but, it's also important to note, that appropriate treatment can reverse such effects.


How Does EMDR Work?

The first part of EMDR consists of intake, history-taking, and treatment planning. Because trauma can be such a sensitive subject, both you and your therapist need to be on the same page with deciding to proceed.


EMDR works by combining bilateral stimulation with verbal expression. For example, you will review your target (the specific issue creating distress) while your therapist engages in bilateral stimulations (tapping, moving their fingers).


It's normal to feel triggered when engaging in this work. Your therapist will teach you various relaxation strategies to use both during and after sessions. It's paramount that you use these strategies when you feel overwhelmed, anxious, or angry.


The overarching goal of EMDR is to feel desensitized to your target. You will eventually replace negative associations with more positive, self-assured beliefs. EMDR is considered "complete" when the target no longer brings you any physical distress. How long this takes depends on the particular situation and your history.


EMDR therapists require additional certification to provide this treatment to their clients. Therefore, in addition to being licensed and maintaining good standing by their state board, therapists must undergo extensive EMDR clinical training.


How Does EMDR Treat PTSD?

PTSD is a complex condition characterized by symptoms of hyperarousal, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, and avoidance behaviors. PTSD can last for several months or years. However, without treatment, symptoms tend to worsen progressively.


In some cases, clients benefit from EMDR as a standalone treatment. They meet with their therapist once or twice a week until trauma symptoms subside.


In other cases, clients participate in EMDR along with other therapies or holistic approaches. Because trauma can be so complex and insidious, many people benefit from an integrated care model- they may attend therapy, take medication, participate in support groups, and make a conscious effort to engage in new lifestyle habits.


EMDR can effectively treat single-target traumas (referring to one specified incident) or more complex traumas (referring to a combination of numerous traumas without a defined beginning or end).


Can EMDR Treat Addiction?

As you likely know, trauma and addiction often go hand-in-hand. Many people turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate unpleasant trauma symptoms. At the same time, the "lifestyle" of addiction (medical issues, relationship problems, illicit activity) can inherently be traumatic.


While EMDR is not intended to treat addiction, it can be a beneficial component in achieving sustained recovery. For example, by treating trauma (which is often a key trigger), you may experience fewer cravings to drink or use.


That said, EMDR is not appropriate for everyone. It is not a replacement for psychiatric medication or the need to make overall lifestyle changes. EMDR is not the appropriate choice for people:

  • in acute psychosis.

  • actively under the influence (or immediately detoxing)

  • who report active suicidal plans (they often require immediate stabilization

  • with certain medical conditions

Similarly, it is not usually recommended for people in the early stages of addiction recovery. Because any trauma-related work can be inherently challenging, most professionals advise waiting until you have established a consistent, sober routine (with adequate social support) before delving deep into the past.


With that in mind, you can always consult with your treatment team if you have more questions or concerns about this work.


Final Thoughts

EMDR is a promising therapy treatment that can make a tremendous impact on your mental health. Often touted as the gold standard for trauma recovery, EMDR may be worth considering if your past continues to adversely impact your present functioning.


At The Mental Health House, we offer expansive clinical services to our clients. We understand that mental health needs are unique and multifaceted, and we are here to support you and your loved ones. Contact us today to learn more!


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