For some people, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) might sound like a daunting experience. Processing all those deeply-rooted feelings and having to confront them head-on? No thank you! Others might think EMDR is strange. It seems bizarre that watching a light move back and forth across a machine is an effective treatment. Even though the process is much different from other therapies used to treat mental illnesses like addiction, EMDR has helped many process their traumatic or triggering thoughts.
A Revolutionary Mental Health Treatment
Francine Shapiro, Ph.D, developed EMDR in 1987 after going for a walk in a park, when she realized her back-and-forth eye movements were easing her anxieties. Her insight into how eye movements help a person process thoughts led her to develop EMDR. Her treatment stimulates the brain’s natural ability to contextualize life events so that individuals can let go of the emotional distress connected to their past. It has an 80 percent success rate for PTSD and in patients seeking treatment for substance use disorder.
Many people can experience a distressing event or disturbing experience such as an addiction or a toxic relationship and have a hard time piecing it together afterwards. Unresolved memories and triggers can remain buried in the mind until it resurfaces weeks, months, or even years later, causing symptoms like anxiety attacks, flashbacks, insomnia, and urges to use substances. These distressing symptoms can cause intense feelings of self-doubt, self-hatred, and other negative beliefs that cloud someone’s perception of the world.
“Based on my experience, if there is a universal symptom found in any [mental health] disorder, it’s the negative beliefs about oneself,” says Anthony Nave, LCSW, a certified EMDR Consultant who has treated people with substance use disorder. “EMDR has been a great intervention to help clients have an internal shift that reshapes their negative beliefs into resilient beliefs—beliefs that don’t hold someone back but instead help progress them forward.”
How Does EMDR Work?
An EMDR appointment, which usually lasts an hour to an hour and a half, can be scheduled with a licensed clinician. Using a standard approach meant to stimulate memory networks in a client’s brain, trauma-informed therapists instruct clients to follow a guide with their eyes. The alternating motion is called bilateral stimulation, a rhythmic left-to-right pattern that causes both sides of the brain to work at the same time.
In initial sessions, the therapist will assess and work with the client to identify grounding skills that work best for them. After the therapist uncovers what triggers to focus on, they’ll create a treatment map to help guide the sessions. Then, reprocessing will begin as the client focuses on a target memory. The client and therapist discuss the negative belief associated with that memory. Once a memory network is activated, the therapist introduces bilateral stimulation. Therapists often use a visual cue, such as asking the client to follow the therapist’s finger or a light on a lightbar with their eyes, but sometimes use tactile or auditory cues instead.
Bilateral stimulation helps a client reconceptualize a past event, sensation, thought, or belief and commit this memory to long-term storage. When this happens successfully for a client, they can accept their experience, release their negative beliefs, and start managing their feelings with healthy coping mechanisms.
The overall treatment goal when using EMDR is for clients to feel present and empowered enough to navigate everyday life without feeling burdened by the past. What is appealing to some clients is that this process can feel less intimidating than other trauma-based therapies. In-between sets of bilateral stimulation, clients are not expected by the therapists to report every detail of what they are experiencing. Instead, therapists ask for just enough information to know if there are changes in what their clients are noticing and recalling.
The number of EMDR sessions are scheduled for as long as the client needs, and in an effort to make sessions less overwhelming for patients, usually, one memory or trigger is processed at a time. This means that someone who experienced many traumas may need to go for more sessions than others. Similarly, deeply-rooted issues can take several sessions before a therapist feels their client has had sufficient care.
Why Try EMDR?
EMDR can be used to help create and strengthen positive networks in the brain, providing reprieve for those who have tried other therapies for their illnesses but want to expand their efforts. Over 100,000 clinicians are EMDR-certified, and millions of people have attested to the benefits of EMDR treatment. Some health issues that people use EMDR for include:
- Chronic pain
- Sleep issues
- Self-harm and suicidal thoughts
- Traumatic memories
EMDR in Addiction Treatment
While EMDR is mostly associated with PTSD treatment, it can also benefit those who are seeking help for substance use disorder. Treatment for addiction and psychological disorders go hand-in-hand, as 38% of adults with substance use disorders also have comorbid mental illnesses. Common co-occurring disorders such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, personality disorders, and bipolar disorder have been treated with EMDR. Individuals who received EMDR sessions on top of addiction counseling were less likely to relapse than those who didn’t have any EMDR sessions.
The urge to use again is a difficult temptation to ward off, but EMDR treatment has shown promising results. It has helped people manage their cravings for “sugars,” a cheaper derivative of heroin; a study determined its test subjects were able to recognize how they were conditioned to crave sugars when triggered or experiencing strong emotions, and yet resist their urges. EMDR has been shown to help even those working on impulse control for internet addiction or processing the internalized shame associated with sex addiction. Whether someone is using sex, gambling, video games, drugs, or alcohol, these addictions are distractions, ways to numb difficult feelings. The frequency of clients recontextualizing why a craving is happening and being able to resist use speaks to the success of EMDR for addiction treatment.
There is no problem too big or too small to work on during EMDR sessions. Living with the memories of a traumatic event or negative beliefs can shift someone’s entire perspective of the world. Perceiving day-to-day life with pessimism and fear prevents someone from healing. But EMDR helps the brain to adjust its view of the world so that patients can have healthier perspectives and more positive thoughts moving forward.
If you want to learn more about the technique and its effectiveness, “The EMDR Revolution: Change Your Life One Memory at a Time (The Client’s Guide)” by Tal Croitoru is a great resource and starting point. You can also go to www.EMDRIA.org to find a qualified therapist in your area.