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What Is EMDR?

What Is EMDR?

EMDR stands for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. It’s a form of psychotherapy developed specifically to help clients process and overcome trauma. EMDR is a targeted form of therapy that uses bilateral movements, such as side-to-side eye movements, to mute the intensity of traumatic memories.

For cases of simple trauma in adulthood, this can often be accomplished in only a few sessions, compared to months or years of traditional therapy. A course of EMDR therapy usually takes between six and 12 sessions, with clients attending one or two sessions per week.

Why EMDR Is a Great Tool for Addiction Treatment

EMDR was originally developed to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and it is still primarily used for that purpose. Trauma is a factor common to many, perhaps even most, people who struggle with substance use issues. There have been many studies examining the connection between PTSD and substance use disorders and these have found that among people seeking treatment for substance use disorders, between 20 and 50 percent also have a lifetime diagnosis of PTSD and between 15 and 40 percent met the criteria for PTSD in the past year.

Childhood trauma is an especially large risk factor for developing substance use issues as an adult. Adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, include things like being abused or neglected, witnessing domestic violence, having a parent get arrested, and other experiences that make a child feel threatened or unsafe. The more ACEs someone has, the greater their risk of negative outcomes such as substance use and mental health issues as adults.

According to an article published in the North Carolina Medical Journal, each ACE increases your risk of developing a substance use disorder by two to four times and as many as two-thirds of people who struggle with addiction can trace their problems to ACEs. For these reasons, identifying and treating trauma should be a top priority for any addiction treatment program and EMDR is a targeting way of doing that. What’s more, it delivers quick results, making it perfectly suited to the context of an intensive addiction treatment program.

How It Works

The big idea behind EMDR is that the mind will heal itself, given the chance. Just as your body will heal a cut or a broken bone on its own, your mind has its own way of healing from trauma. This becomes apparent when you consider that PTSD is actually surprisingly rare. According to the US Department of Veteran’s Affairs, about 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women will experience trauma in their lives but only about four percent of men and 10 percent of women will develop PTSD.  

That indicates that trauma is necessary but not sufficient for developing PTSD. Something is preventing the mind from healing itself in the normal way. Often, this happens when the brain is still developing at the time of the trauma or the trauma is repeated.

The idea behind EMDR is to help the client change the way the trauma is stored in the brain so it can be processed in the normal, healthy way. The exact mechanism by which this works is not exactly clear but we know from many clinical trials that it does work. Part of it has to do with re-experiencing the trauma in a safe, controlled environment. Often, people with PTSD are unable to access certain aspects of the experience and part of EMDR therapy is to bring those into conscious awareness.

There is also a hypothesis that the bilateral stimulation, such as eye movements, mimic the process your brain uses during REM sleep to consolidate new memories. The effect is that you change the way you think of the traumatic memory at a deep level. Some people describe it as forgetting to let the traumatic memory – or things related to it – bother you.

What to Expect From EMDR Therapy

EMDR is delivered in an eight-phase process. How long this process takes varies by individual and depends on factors like whether you’re treating a single trauma or complex trauma, when you experienced the trauma, and how severe it was.

In phase one of treatment, the therapist will take your history, decide whether EMDR is a treatment approach that makes sense, and develop a treatment plan. You will work with the therapist to identify possible targets for processing. These may be traumatic memories from your past or even recurring situations you are currently dealing with.

During phase two, you will work with your therapist to develop interim strategies for coping with emotional stress. Since the process will take at least a few weeks to work, it’s important to have ways of coping with stress in the intervals between sessions. These might include imagery or relaxation techniques.

Phases three through six are when you identify and process target memories. You will start by identifying three things: an image related to the memory, a negative belief about yourself, and emotions and bodily sensations related to the memory. You will also develop a positive belief.

During the processing phase, you will be asked to focus on the negative image, thought, and emotions, while simultaneously engaging in the bilateral stimulation. You might be asked to follow the therapist’s hand side to side with your eyes, follow a light, or tap with your fingers. The therapist will then ask you to notice whatever spontaneously happens. When you no longer have negative emotions associated with the memory, your therapist will ask you to recall your positive belief.

In phase seven, you will be asked to keep a log for a week to remind you of the calming techniques you used in phase two and to note any additional issues that come up. Phase eight is about evaluating the progress you’ve made so far.

EMDR is becoming increasingly popular because it is a focused, time-limited, and effective way to process traumatic memories. Instead of changing your thoughts or beliefs around a trauma, you change the way that trauma is stored in your brain. At The Foundry, we understand that trauma is the driving force behind most addictions and we use a number of methods, including EMDR, to help our clients heal. To learn more about our methods and programs, explore our website or call us today at (844) 955-1066.

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