What Is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR Therapy (sometimes called simply EMDR) stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Initially used to treat acute anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), EMDR has become an acceptable treatment for many disorders, including alcohol use disorder (AUD) and substance use disorder (SUD). It is used to treat incorrectly processed or unprocessed harmful memories. Since negative events, memories, and emotions are triggers for those struggling with an AUD or SUD, it makes sense that EMDR can be used to treat many of the myriad causes of substance use.

The EMDR Process

If a client has a particularly troublesome negative memory, EMDR can help them distance themselves from it and analyze it more objectively. This works when the mind is also focused on another task. In most cases, eye movement from side to side (mimicking REM sleep) is employed, often with an object that is passed from one hand to the other. In other cases, a therapist may have the client tap one hand on part of the body, like the wrist or shoulder. Though experts are unsure what mechanisms are at work during EMDR, many studies have shown it provides clients with emotional relief, enhanced analytical skills, and a decreased fixation on prior negative experiences.

The Theory Behind the Practice

One of the greatest factors in both trauma and AUDs/SUDs are preoccupation with the past. EMDR engages the mind and body and activates several parts of the brain at once, theoretically allowing these areas to work in tandem to process memories with a lessened sense of anxiety, guilt, panic, or sadness. Eye movement and rhythmic motions are essential to the encoding of memories, positive or negative. EMDR helps provide a connection to the present moment while the client accesses the troublesome memories, thus minimizing the harm those memories can cause. Over time, the client becomes desensitized to the memories and is able to integrate them into the narrative of their life.

EMDR and Substance Use Disorders

Drug and alcohol use and dependence occur for a number of reasons. One of the major initial triggers are events, memories, or behaviors that the client cannot cope with. This is why EMDR is an effective form of therapy for those struggling with an AUD and/or SUD. It helps the client to cope with their negative triggers and develop substance-free coping skills that are usable in everyday life.

EMDR Steps

EMDR therapy usually takes place over several sessions lasting 60-90 minutes. While some therapists vary in their approach, EMDR usually occurs in 8 stages.

  • First, a history is taken with special attention paid to triggers and substance use behaviors. Next, the therapist develops a treatment plan.
  • Then, the therapist will help the client describe which particular triggers, behaviors, and memories led to the alcohol or drug dependence. After that, the therapist will ask the client to focus on a trigger while performing bilateral eye movements as instructed by the therapist. The eye movement is usually followed by deep breathing.
  • The therapist then helps the client develop a positive outlook or belief when it comes to the triggering event or memory. After, the therapist will perform a \”body scan,\” looking for physical manifestations of distress as the client again describes the trigger or triggers.
  • Next, the therapist will work with the client to develop daily techniques that reduce distress. The client may be asked to keep a journal that describes when and how triggers occur. Finally, the therapist will evaluate the client\’s emotional reaction to their triggers and determine whether additional sessions are needed.

Does EMDR Therapy Really Work?

While different clients will react to a form other therapy in different ways, testimonial evidence shows that EMDR is effective in treating AUDs and SUDs. It is especially helpful when the client has comorbid disorders (ones that occurs in tandem with the AUD or SUD) like PTSD, depression, bipolar disorder, or a personality disorder. Accordingly, the therapist will often employ a series of different techniques to help a client cope with substance use triggers. These might include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), virtual reality (VR) therapy, or other relaxation techniques like meditation or positive visualization.

How to Start EMDR and AUD/SUD Treatment

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