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What is EMDR Therapy and How Does it Relate to Addiction?


EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing and is a way to help people work through traumatic life events. WebMD explains it’s a nontraditional therapy that’s growing in popularity, especially for treating PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder, which people can experience after military combat, physical assault, rape, or car accidents.) Note that because it’s non-traditional, it’s also controversial. 

How Does EMDR Work?

WebMD explains that EMDR involves using a patient’s own rapid, rhythmic eye movements to “dampen the power of emotionally charged memories of past events….[A]  therapist will move his or her fingers back and forth in front of your face and ask you to follow these hand motions with your eyes.” While this is going on, the EMDR therapist asks you recall a disturbing event and what you were feeling. “Gradually, the therapist will guide you to shift your thoughts to more pleasant ones. Some therapists use alternatives to finger movements, such as hand or toe tapping or musical tones.”

According to the article, the technique is supposed to lessen your negative feelings. It’s also used to treat panic attacks, eating disorders, addictions, and anxiety, such as discomfort with dental procedures. There’s an International EMDR Association here, with research reports and case studies.

Link between EMDR and Drug & Alcohol Addiction

EMDR relates to addiction in a specific way–through trauma. Experts have found that a number of people (many of them suffering from substance use disorder) have experienced trauma, or adverse childhood experiences, in their life, and if it was trauma in childhood, the effect of that can’t be underestimated. Researchers have found that these experiences can result both in several illnesses, as well as in a lowered immune system, in adulthood. EMDR is being tested as a potential treatment option for those who are undergoing professional drug and/or alcohol rehabilitation processes.

Addiction and Adverse Childhood Experiences

The Kaiser Permanente health system conducted research with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on this trauma, or these adverse childhood experiences. Wikipedia provides their background and findings: If a child was physically, emotionally, or sexually abused or neglected, or if there was mental illness or substance abuse in the house, there was a good chance they might end up with a substance abuse disorder. Not only that, they may have a co-occurring disorder (such as a mental disorder and a substance abuse disorder.)

To summarize, EMDR is a type of therapy that many believe helps with past trauma. Trauma in childhood often involves neglect, abuse, or living in a home with a person who has substance abuse disorder or a mental illness. In turn, if a child experiences conditions like this, he or she may go on to drink or abuse drugs him or herself. Some experts believe as adults, these people are good candidates for EMDR. That’s not to say they don’t need treatment, however. Also, it’s used in conjunction with other counseling.

The Association for Addiction Professionals’ website says “Unfortunately, many individuals with substance use disorders also have experienced one or more traumas. Treatment for these co-occurring disorders should be integrated and the use of EMDR can be helpful for some people.” There’s a free webinar on EMDR on the website available.