Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR, is a type of psychotherapy in which a therapist guides the patient through a series of eye movements as he or she recalls traumatic memories. It’s used to treat PTSD, stress, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. The technique allows the brain to reprocess traumatic memories in a way that eases their emotional impact, and allows patients to gain new knowledge and insights from their difficult experiences.
Scientists aren’t yet sure exactly how EMDR works to treat addiction, but they know that it does. Substance abuse disorders are often rooted in deep emotional pain and trauma. EMDR allows recovering addicts to get to the root of that trauma. Best of all, it works quickly, so it can be useful even in the limited time frame facing most residents of an inpatient drug rehab for men or women.
How EMDR Was Developed
EMDR is the brainchild of Dr. Francine Shapiro. During her doctoral studies in clinical psychology at NYU in the 1980s, Dr. Shapiro noticed that a specific set of eye movements helped her cope with her own disturbing memories and thoughts. She told The Fix, “When…upsetting thoughts came to mind, my eyes started moving rapidly as an internal brain mechanism to deal with the disturbance. And when I brought those thoughts back, they didn’t have the same charge they once did.”
Thinking that the eye movements might be similar to those that occur during REM sleep, when the brain processes information and experiences, Dr. Shapiro put together the first randomized clinical trial of 22 trauma victims, which appeared in the Journal of Traumatic Stress Studies in 1989. The study participants had experienced emotional traumas ranging from the Vietnam War to childhood sexual abuse, assault and emotional abuse, and suffered from PTSD symptoms including intrusive thoughts, low self-esteem, relationship problems, flashbacks and sleep problems.
The study found that a single session of EMDR desensitized the participants to their traumatic memories and allowed them to gain a new perspective on the trauma. Notably, the therapy also led to changes in behavior and improvements in the study participants’ initial psychological and emotional problems. Since that study, 40 more published studies have been found similar results.
EMDR for Addiction
Because the roots of addiction often grow in the soil of emotional trauma, EMDR has been used very successfully as a fast-acting therapy for substance abuse disorders. Unpleasant memories and the emotions connected with them tend to haunt addicts and non-addicts alike, and they can bring with them frightening and uncomfortable physical symptoms. Many addicts first turned to substance abuse in order to cope with the ongoing aftermath of emotional trauma. When they sober up, they need to find a new way to cope.
Before beginning EMDR, the therapist and client will discuss the client’s history and come up with a treatment plan. A few sessions will be devoted to preparing the client to cope with emotions that may come up during EMDR. The rest of the process involves the work of desensitization and reprocessing. During this process, the client will focus on disturbing memories —perhaps talking about them, if he or she is comfortable — and the feelings that occur with those memories.
Simultaneously, the therapist guides the patient through a series of eye movements. Hand-clapping and tapping have also been used to help with reprocessing, particularly in blind patients. Ideally, EMDR should be used in conjunction with other therapies, like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).
Most patients begin to see improvement quickly, within a few sessions. In one 36-month study involving non-violent drug offenders going through the Thurston County, WA drug court program, 91 percent of those who received EMDR as part of their therapy graduated from the 12-month program, compared to 62 percent of those who did not.
The study’s lead researchers, Sara Gilman and Susan Brown, designed the study as a randomized trial, with half of the drug court offenders receiving EMDR in addition to the court’s normal psychotherapy program. Just a few months after beginning, however, the women were forced to offer EMDR to all the study participants, because, according to Dr. Shapiro, “The people who weren’t getting EMDR were upset since the people who received it were doing so well in moving forward with their recovery.”
EMDR is a form of therapy that helps people come to terms with traumatic emotions by triggering the brain’s inherent reprocessing abilities. It can be immensely helpful to people struggling with addiction, PTSD, depression and anxiety. If you’re in recovery from addiction, EMDR could be just the thing to help you move on and protect you from relapse.