EMDR for Addiction Treatment

Addiction is a complex disease involving structural and functional changes in the brain. Trauma is an emotional wound that develops when someone is exposed to a mentally or physically challenging event. 

Although some people can have a few drinks or use recreational drugs without any adverse consequences, people with these brain changes have an increased risk of developing a physical dependence on substances, making it more difficult to function as the addiction worsens.  After traumatic events, some people recover quickly. Their symptoms resolve naturally and without any long-term effects. In contrast, some people are so affected by traumatic events that they go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder.

Addiction has many underlying causes, but the link between trauma and substance use is particularly strong. As a result, some addiction treatment professionals recommend EMDR therapy in certain circumstances.

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Trauma and Substance Abuse

People with traumatic memories also have an increased risk of developing substance use disorders (SUDs), which are mental health disorders that make it difficult for people to control their drinking or drug use. The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies offers the following statistics on the role of trauma in substance use:

  • Anywhere from 25% to 75% of people with a history of traumatic experiences report problem drinking behavior.
  • Approximately 10% to 33% of people who experience trauma related to disasters, accidents or illnesses report problem drinking behavior.
  • Adults with a history of sexual abuse have higher rates of SUDs than adults with no such history.
  • Adolescents with PTSD are nine times more likely to develop a dependence on hard drugs than adolescents without PTSD.

What Is EMDR Treatment?

EMDR is an acronym for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, one of many therapeutic techniques used for treating trauma. EMDR is based on the adaptive information processing model, which views PTSD and related disorders as the result of traumatic memories that have not been processed thoroughly. The lack of processing allows the brain to store disturbing thoughts, beliefs and emotions about the event, triggering the symptoms of PTSD under certain conditions.

EMDR therapy is quite different from other forms of therapy used to treat mental health conditions. While many therapeutic approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, focus on changing the way a person thinks, EMDR therapy focuses on memory. EMDR work aims to change the way a person stores the traumatic memory, reducing or eliminating symptoms of PTSD.

EMDR Therapy for PTSD and Substance Abuse

Although the EMDR therapy approach was initially developed to help people with PTSD, it’s also proven helpful for people struggling with addiction. As a form of addiction treatment, EMDR may reinforce positive treatment outcomes, make people less sensitive to their addiction triggers and help people shift from negative states to positive ones. EMDR therapy also helps people with drug and alcohol addictions address past traumatic events, making them less likely to use substances to cope with PTSD symptoms.

What is PTSD?

PTSD causes a blend of symptoms across four broad categories: re-experiencing, arousal/reactivity, cognition/mood and avoidance. Reexperiencing involves thinking about past events over and over again. It may involve flashbacks, nightmares or other symptoms. Arousal/reactivity symptoms have physical and emotional effects, such as difficulty sleeping and sudden outbursts of anger.

When someone with PTSD displays cognition and mood symptoms, they may have trouble remembering details about the event or lose interest in activities they normally enjoy. Avoidance symptoms occur when someone with past trauma alters their routine to avoid reminders of the traumatic event. They may suppress their feelings about the traumatic memory or avoid people and places that remind them of the pain caused by the event.

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How Does EMDR Therapy Work?

EMDR treatment occurs over eight phases, from initial assessment to final evaluation. During the initial assessment, a therapist experienced in EMDR takes a thorough history. The aim of this phase is for the therapist to understand the patient’s traumatic experiences and any challenging beliefs that could make the therapy less effective. After taking a history, the therapist prepares the client for EMDR by explaining the treatment, going over what will happen during the EMDR session and making sure the patient has the ability to manage their emotions during EMDR therapy.

The assessment phase is when the therapist activates the traumatic memory for the patient. During this phase, the therapist asks the patient to follow an object with their eyes. At the same time, the patient is thinking or talking about a specific aspect of the traumatic memory. EMDR sessions help patients process their traumatic memories, lessening the emotional impact of these memories over time.

In phases four through six of EMDR therapy, the patient continues moving their eyes while focusing on the stressful memory. They track their emotional responses until the memory causes less distress. The patient also works to improve their cognitive responses to distressing memories and may work with the therapist to address any physical symptoms. At the end of each session, the therapist and patient discuss what went well and what needs to be addressed during the next session.

Is EMDR Therapy Right for Everyone?

It’s important to understand that EMDR therapy isn’t right for everyone. EMDR involves triggering a person’s trauma, so it’s not an appropriate treatment for someone who isn’t far enough along in their recovery to engage in self-soothing. If someone participates in EMDR sessions before they’re ready, they won’t be able to reprocess their memories in a healthy way. Once a memory is triggered, the therapist must have enough time to control it. Therefore, eye movement desensitization therapy isn’t a one-and-done form of addiction treatment. Each patient must participate in multiple sessions to ensure it has the intended effect.

It’s also important for people with PTSD and substance abuse to understand that going through the standard EMDR protocol doesn’t eliminate the need for other types of treatment. A patient who participates in EMDR therapy must continue to address their trauma with a skilled therapist and work through the other issues contributing to their substance use. Many people have a history of trauma, but not all of them are ready to use eye movement desensitization reprocessing therapy.

Types of Trauma EMDR Could Help With

Traumatic symptoms can develop in response to type one trauma or type two trauma. Type one trauma is defined as a traumatic experience that happens without any warning. Examples include a violent attack, medical trauma, severe injury, mugging or the traumatic death of a loved one. What these events have in common is that they all happen suddenly.

Type two trauma stems from traumatic experiences that occur repeatedly over many months or years. In many cases, these events are caused by a family member or close friend. For example, someone can develop type two trauma after being subjected to physical assault or emotional distress by a spouse. Childhood sexual abuse, sibling abuse, bullying and abandonment are also examples of type two trauma.

Comprehensive Substance Abuse Treatment

Recovery at the Crossroads offers general outpatient and intensive outpatient programs for treating addiction. The general outpatient program allows patients to live independently without giving up the structure they need to recover from mental disorders and focus on healing addiction. For patients who need even more support, the intensive outpatient program offers several services to treat trauma and addiction, including counseling, group therapy, music therapy, art therapy and help finding employment or educational opportunities.

Our staff members have extensive experience treating co-occurring disorders, or the combination of a drug or alcohol addiction with at least one other mental health condition. 

At Recovery at the Crossroads, we focus on helping patients address negative beliefs and dysfunctional behaviors, giving them the greatest chance at a long-term recovery. Patients who meet the criteria for EMDR therapy work directly with Ann Marie Bescherer, PhD.

Recovery at the Crossroads also has an addiction treatment program designed to meet the unique needs of women struggling with substance use. Using a trauma-informed approach to care, RACNJ treatment professionals help women understand that it’s okay to put themselves first, especially when they need to recover from drug and alcohol addiction, PTSD and other mental health conditions.

Begin Your Recovery Today

Addiction can have lasting physical and emotional consequences, but you don’t have to struggle alone. Recovery at the Crossroads has general and intensive outpatient programs to help you start your recovery while maintaining some of your independence, helping you learn how to meet the demands of daily life without turning to alcohol and drugs. Begin your recovery today by calling (888) 342-3881.