EMDR Trauma Therapy and Addiction Treatment

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EMDR was devised as a way to treat PTSD, such as that experienced by many veterans. (ShutterStock)
EMDR was devised as a way to treat PTSD, such as that experienced by many veterans. (ShutterStock)

People have different reasons for becoming addicts and alcoholics. Many are people who simply partied too much at an early age and found it difficult to stop. Others suffer from troubling co-occurring mental disorders such as depression or anxiety. Then, there are those who develop substance abuse disorders following major trauma. This is often the case with veterans, to the extent that one third of veterans recovering from substance abuse disorders have also been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. For those who have suffered such massive trauma that it has led them to abuse drugs and alcohol, one of the best recovery tools available is EMDR trauma therapy.

We are well aware that many are not aware of EMDR or what it entails, so we’ll take a moment to discuss this very matter. We’ll also talk a bit about its benefits, as well as how we are able to utilize EMDR at Amethyst Recovery. We hope that this information will benefit those who have come to know the struggles of addiction as a result of prior trauma.

What Is EMDR Trauma Therapy?

The secret to overcoming your painful past is, believe it or not, hidden within the eyes. (Laitr Keiows/Wikimedia Commons)
The secret to overcoming your painful past is, believe it or not, hidden within the eyes. (Laitr Keiows/Wikimedia Commons)

For those who have never heard of EMDR before, the EMDR Humanitarian Assistance Programs website contains some very valuable information. This highly informative website includes a brief history of EMDR and how it works, in addition to the history of how it was initially developed. Created in the late 1980s by American psychologist Francine Shapiro, PhD, EMDR stands for “eye movement desensitization reprocessing.” Shapiro created EMDR primarily to combat the type of psychological and emotional trauma commonly referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder. Since PTSD was a relatively new diagnosis at that point in time, it required an equally new form of treatment.

When Shapiro unveiled EMDR, it was seen as something of a breakthrough. Even though PTSD was a fairly new diagnosis, post-traumatic stress itself had been around for centuries. There was now a new way of handling a problem that had long been familiar to many. Even better, it actually seemed to work. As other therapists learned of EMDR, they began performing controlled studies. These studies were successful, pointing to EMDR as an effective form of trauma therapy. Today, there have been over twenty clinical trials, none of which have shaken the belief of the mental health community that EMDR can help patients to recover from traumatic stress.

Since the approach to EMDR (which we’ll discuss in more detail below) is a bit unconventional, there is some controversy regarding whether or not it truly works. This is largely because it relies on eye movements rather than traditional therapy. Popular health website WebMD cites the primary source of this controversy as the limited sample sizes of the studies. Critics within the health care community are generally of the belief that a truly effective study should consist of more participants than have been present during previous EMDR trials.

While this seems to be a valuable argument, EMDR continues to hold up against such criticisms. Since Shapiro’s trauma therapy was formally developed in 1989, there have been over twenty thousand trained specialists. Moreover, there have been no negative side effects identified in conjunction with this treatment. The safety of EMDR ensures that, whether effective or not, patients who undergo this form of therapy will have nothing to worry about. There is just about no chance of increasing the intensity of their psychological trauma or otherwise worsening their condition over the course of EMDR trauma therapy.

Still, there are some who continue to criticize EMDR and its effects. Many believe that EMDR is only effective due to a placebo effect. Shapiro has responded to this criticism by way of The New York Times, stating that sixteen clinical trials were performed comparing EMDR to other types of therapy. It was found that the treatment itself was the primary influence on patient conditions, not simply their expectations that treatment would be effective. While EMDR might be new, it is not headed in the same direction as phrenology or trephination. This is not humoral theory. EMDR is a well-established means of trauma therapy that has been embraced by countless members of the health care community. Like many other legitimate treatment methods, it just happens to have a few critics.

How Does EMDR Therapy Work?

The therapist leads the patient through several rapid eye movements while asking them to focus on the trauma they are attempting to overcome. (Photo via AwakeMind.org)
The therapist leads the patient through several rapid eye movements while asking them to focus on the trauma they are attempting to overcome. (Photo via AwakeMind.org)

EMDR therapy works by using rapid eye movements to help alleviate the stress and anxiety often associated with major trauma. The precise reasoning for EMDR’s success is somewhat elusory, although it appears that these eye movements allow the subject to relive traumatic memories without suffering the internal pain associated with them. This allows the patient to work through these memories in a desensitized manner so that they may finally learn to adjust their mentality and cope with the past.

There are eight stages to EMDR, which non-profit website HelpGuide.org has laid out in a handy PDF guide. The first stage, or phase, is to examine the patient’s history for information on the traumatic event in question. This will allow for a deeper understanding of what was felt at the time of the trauma, and why it has had such a long-lasting effect. The second stage of EMDR is the preparation phase. During this stage, the patient will learn a few rudimentary coping mechanisms. This will help prepare them for the intense emotions that they may feel when reliving the past. Note that these first two stages do not revolve around EMDR itself, but rather prepping the patient as well as the specialist for what is to come.

Phase three of EMDR is the assessment phase, which is much more in-depth than the two preceding phases. During this phase, the patient must identify a tangible image which is associated with the event in question. For veterans, such imagery might be weapons, as well as elements such as sand or fire depending upon the nature of their service. This image will be rated by the patient on a numerical scale designed to measure how disturbing or distressing they find this image. They must then identify both a negative belief about themselves. For instance, abuse victims might believe that they somehow deserved the treatment they received. The last thing to identify is a positive belief that they would prefer to hold about themselves. For veterans who feel guilty about things they have done during deployment, this positive belief may revolve around innocence. Abuse victims might wish to feel innocent as well, or at least deserving of love and good treatment. Patients are then asked to rate their perceptions regarding how true each of these negative and positive beliefs are.

The next three phases are where the real meat of EMDR takes place. Phase four is desensitization, during which the patient must picture the distressing image they have identified while engaging in eye movements led by their therapist. Over time, their distress level should decrease drastically. Phase five is installation, during which rapid eye movements are practiced while trying to replace the negative belief the patient has identified with their preferred positive belief. Phase six is a body scan. The patient should have developed some internal coping mechanisms by this point, but the body scan serves to identify any remaining physical areas of tension.

The last two phases are also somewhat related. The seventh stage is meant for seeking closure. Between sessions, certain emotions related to the trauma in question may begin to arise. The patient should journal these feelings, so that their therapist may provide them with various meditation exercises and relaxation techniques to help ease their stress. This is similar to stage two, except that feelings have already been processed by this point. The last stage is then reevaluation, during which the patient will review their EMDR experience and determine whether or not the issue is truly laid to rest.

It should be noted that this is something of a simplification of the EMDR process. Nonetheless, all patients will undergo a similar series of events while undergoing EMDR trauma therapy. Once the eight-stage process has been completed, those who have suffered multiple traumas may wish to continue treatment. This will enable them to further strengthen their coping skills so that they may live a happy, healthy, and trauma-free life.

Benefits of EMDR Trauma Therapy

Even children from troubled homes are among those who might be spared the torment of their psychological trauma through the mental healing powers of EMDR. (ShutterStock)
Even children from troubled homes are among those who might be spared the torment of their psychological trauma through the mental healing powers of EMDR. (ShutterStock)

The website for EMDR Institute, Inc., lists a number of clinical applications for EMDR trauma therapy. Some of these are along the lines of what you might expect, while others are somewhat surprising. We won’t go over all of them in detail, but we’ll talk about some of those which are most likely to affect our patients here at Amethyst Recovery.

We have already made some references to the fact that EMDR can service veterans, as well as the children of traumatic households. In fact, EMDR is an effective form of trauma therapy for many who have been exposed to pain or violence in one form or another. Fire fighters, police officers, emergency room workers, victims of natural disasters and victims of sexual assault are some examples of people who might be traumatized by particularly gruesome experiences.

Even those who have undergone less violent traumas can be serviced through EMDR. For instance, those who have been traumatized by the loss of a loved one may learn to develop the coping mechanisms they need. Such loss can certainly be a trigger for addiction, as evidenced by a story we told in our article on addiction as a family disease, in which we discussed an entire family that succumbed to heroin addiction after losing their matriarch. Those who have experienced “loss” in the form of a dysfunctional and degenerating family dynamic may also be candidates for trauma therapy. Even those with general symptoms of depression can learn to cope while practicing stages 3-6 of EMDR.

Research has also shown that EMDR can benefit those with severe phobias or anxiety issues. Many addicts resort to drugs and alcohol because they feel these substances normalize them and help them to fit in amongst social settings. Others consider themselves to be functional alcoholics because they use their addiction to overcome performance anxiety at work. This may not sound like trauma at its purest, but the EMDR Institute’s research has shown that trauma therapy can still help to alleviate these issues.

Aside from the wide array of clinical applications, EMDR trauma therapy has other benefits as well. First of all, as previously mentioned, the body scan phase allows the patient to experience something of a physical recovery from trauma alongside their psychological recovery. They will find out where they are carrying most of their tension, and will be able to seek exercises that will help them to loosen up. They will also learn to process their memories differently, which will help them to develop coping mechanisms that will mitigate the impact of any future traumatic experiences.

These aspects of EMDR are great, but arguably the largest benefit is simply that EMDR does not require the patient to verbally rehash their traumatic experiences. This will be done briefly during the initial phases, but the patient will eventually be able to make use of their coping mechanisms without needing to relive their worst moments on a regular basis. The patient has already been traumatized once; effective therapy should not require sufferers of post-traumatic stress and other such issues to undergo psychological torture during every session.

EMDR Therapy at Amethyst

Those who enter our programs will therefore have access to EMDR, as well as the many other special services that we offer. Such services include Vivitrol treatment, access to our court liaison program, therapeutic outings and activities every weekend, and a potential stay in one of our sober living facilities once the patient has graduated from treatment. We even offer support services to parents and other family members who are learning to cope with a loved one’s addiction, and a free referral program to those whose budgetary constraints may not allow for treatment.

If you have any questions about EMDR, or any of the other services mentioned above, do not hesitate to contact us. We are always happy to answer any questions you may have. We are fortunate to have a staff that is well-trained in such a diverse array of treatment methods, and we hope that all prospective patients will take advantage of our services to the absolute fullest.

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5 thoughts on “EMDR Trauma Therapy and Addiction Treatment”

    1. It should. For a general anxiety disorder, there are also other forms of counseling and therapy that can help. Feel free to contact us with more information on the young man’s case, and we’ll talk a bit about our program and how he may benefit.

  1. I suffer from severe and chronic depression, anxiety PTSD! This is a result of an extremely abusive relationship that I remained in for five years that I literally ran from the state I was living in over twenty years ago…the abuse was all inclusive!! It was recently recommended that EMDR might be something that could help me! I have also suffered through alcohol and drug abuse! What do you think? I am currently not abusing any substance at this time!!

    1. EMDR isn’t exclusive to those who are currently in active addiction. Even if you are not abusing any substances at this time, you should heed the advice you’ve been given. If EMDR has been recommended to you, then it would be best to seek out such treatment. From the circumstances you’ve described, it certainly couldn’t hurt.

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