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Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing Therapy

It’s often thought that in order to recover from severe emotional pain or a traumatic experience that you need, at a minimum, a couple years of logging hours in your therapist’s office, agonizing over each detail of the distressing event. However, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy offers a promising new solution. Repeated studies demonstrate its effectiveness in helping individuals recover from the negative symptoms of trauma that so often go hand-in-hand with addiction, and find their way back to health. 

EMDR focuses on the role of the body in reprocessing traumatic experiences, and specifically the potential for bilateral stimulation to help reduce distress. Through the integration of both aspects, in addition to focusing on the specific negative memories, EMDR shows that the mind can heal from psychological injury much as the body recovers from physical ones. 

What is EMDR?

EMDR therapy was initially developed in 1987 by Francine Shapiro for the purpose of treating posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It enables people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress that often are the result of disturbing life experiences, such as those related to deployment in the military, an unwanted sexual experience, physical or psychological abuse, or even a vehicular accident.

If one’s emotional system is “blocked” or thrown off balance by the impact of a disturbing event, left unaddressed, this can lead to intense suffering. Often, individuals attempt to cope with their trauma by turning to a substance or allowing the drink in their hand to numb the pain away. However, once the block is removed, the experience can be processed, and healing resumes. This is the work of EMDR therapy, to help unblock the system, and to allow individuals become desensitized to repeated, but brief exposures to their trauma. 

The foundational belief on which this theory is built, is that past disturbing experiences that continue to cause distress in the present moment, do so because the memory of the event was not adequately processed. These unprocessed memories are theorized to contain the emotions, thoughts, beliefs and physical sensations that occurred at the time of the event. Understandably so, future exposure to similar stimuli triggers flashbacks to the original event, as well as leading to the development of other symptoms of PTSD or related disorders. 

Among other symptoms, this lends itself to an experience of hypervigilance in the present, meaning that after exposure to trauma, you may become preoccupied with the potential for danger and more reactive to your surroundings. By working with a clinician to target and alter the way that these adverse memories are stored, through the process of bilateral stimulation, EMDR gives its participants a chance to recover without spending hours reviewing tedious details connected with the trauma. 

What is Bilateral Stimulation?

In classic EMDR therapy, after the clinician and client have worked together to determine which memory to target first, while the participant focuses on different aspects of the event, the clinician will move their hand back and forth across the client’s field of vision in a rhythmic left-right pattern. This technique demonstrates that, for reasons believed to be connected with the biological mechanisms involved in Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, the process will lead to less psychological arousal, and individuals can work through disturbing memories and feelings in the present moment.

Continued research has shown effectiveness in using other methods of bilateral stimulation besides only visual cues, and even auditory (alternating tones) or physical alternatives (tapping the therapist’s hands) have seen similar success.  By pairing one’s recall of the trauma memory and incorporating their simultaneous experience of bilateral stimulation, the vividness and emotions associated with the memory are greatly reduced, and individuals can continue on in their lives, less haunted by the experiences of their past. 

How Long Does Treatment Last?

As an individual therapy typically delivered one to two times per week for a total of 6-12 sessions, EMDR therapy is traditionally offered in a much more abbreviated format than its counterparts.  The length of treatment, however, does depend upon the scope and depth of the individual’s trauma, as well as the age at which symptoms began. Typically, those with single event adult-onset trauma can experience near-complete healing in under 5 sessions.  Those with more complex or multi-incident trauma may require a greater length of treatment. However, compared to other treatment modalities, EMDR still offers healing at a faster rate. 

What Makes EMDR Different?

Unlike other treatments that focus primarily on the problematic emotions, thoughts and reactions to traumatic experiences, EMDR therapy focuses directly on the memory. It’s intended purpose is to change the way that the memory is stored in the brain, and to create new associations with the imagined and experienced stimuli. 

 EMDR offers something different from other trauma-focused treatments in that it does not rely on extended exposure to the distressing memory, detailed discussions of what happened, homework assignments, or depend on the therapist to take on the role of challenging dysfunctional beliefs directly. By following detailed protocols and procedures, trained clinicians lead their clients through the treatment process to activate their own natural healing systems.

Is EMDR Effective?

EMDR is recognized by both domestic and international organizations as an effective treatment for trauma, and a substantial body of research has backed its claims. 

  1. Of the twenty-four positive controlled outcome studies, many indicate that EMDR has been more effective than trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, or that it achieved results at a quicker pace. 
  2. Of particular importance is a study completed by Kaiser Permanente that indicated that after an average of six 50-minute sessions, of the single-trauma victims, 100% no longer met criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD, and a similar effect was observed for 77% of those with more complex trauma. 


It is for good reason that the gold standard of addiction treatment requires trauma-informed care, as the link between substance use and incidences of trauma is well established. Taking the time to address the distressing memories that often fuel addictive patterns is crucial in complete and lasting recovery. You may find that EMDR works well as a supplement to the other therapy modalities offered by 310 Recovery, and can be a springboard into your recovery journey. For more information about whether EMDR is right for you, contact one of our friendly staff members today!

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