Typically, common forms of therapy, such as psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, are used to help people recover from addiction. However, EMDR therapy for substance abuse is gaining popularity, proving to be especially effective in helping people overcome addiction. EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, has been around for several decades, but it has only recently been applied to addiction treatment. To understand how it helps treat substance abuse, it may be helpful to learn more about the therapy in general.
A Brief Overview of EMDR Therapy
As far back as the 1980s, Francine Shapiro developed a new kind of psychotherapy, which was based on the way the mind processes eye movements. Specifically, she discovered that specific eye movement patterns caused the brain to inhibit the intensity of stress, which was caused by distressing experiences. She began studying how specific eye movements benefited mental health and, by 1989, she published her findings in Journal of Traumatic Stress.
During her research, she found that the eyes moved more rapidly and darted to and fro, when an individual was having a disturbing experience or thought. Using herself as a test subject, Dr. Shapiro tried to consciously control her eye movements, while experiencing distressing thoughts. As a result of calming her eye movements, she found that the anxiety she felt over the distressing thought was also reduced.
From there, Francine began applying this new therapy to the treatment of patients with PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder. While this wasn’t a controlled study, the practical application of her EMDR therapy supported her claim that eye movement affected the mental state. By teaching her patients to control the movement of their eyes, while experiencing a traumatic memory, the various symptoms of the disorder were reduced. Over time, EMDR therapy has been found to be just as effective as cognitive behavioral therapy in treating many disorders.
EMDR Therapy is More Intensive Than it May Seem
To fully experience the benefits of EMDR therapy, you must go through the entire treatment course, just as is true of any other type of therapy. This involves several phases, each of which helps the individual to cope with specific traumas. Additionally, the phases of treatment teach the patient coping mechanisms for dealing with future distressing experiences.
The first phase of treatment is a type of intake session, during which the patient discusses his, or her, past traumas. This helps to identify issues that can spark distressing thoughts for the patient. The next phase involves teaching the patient ways to cope, during stressful thoughts and memories. One popular method is to teach the patient to visualize a “safe place,” where he can retreat during traumatic episodes. This will help the patient stabilize himself in future desensitization sessions.
For the assessment phase, the patient is evaluated for negative symptoms, while holding a specific traumatic thought or memory in their mind. After the therapist has recorded the physical symptoms produced by the memory, the patient can move into the fourth phase of treatment. In the fourth phase, eye movement control, taps, and sounds are all used to help reprocess the patient’s mind. By helping to desensitize the patient, he can be prepared for the fifth phase of EMDR therapy.
This next phase involves teaching the patient to replace the traumatic memories with positive, or pleasant, memories. As the patient perfects this process, a sixth phase, called the “body scan” phase, is initiated to evaluate how well the therapy has affected the patient. If the process has been successful, the therapist should not a reduction, or an absence, of the physical symptoms caused by the trauma. If progress is considered insufficient, the therapist will probably suggest restarting the treatment program from the beginning.
Addiction can be treated with EMDR therapy, because traumatic events often cause, or result from, the abuse of drugs or alcohol. For instance, abused children often turn to alcohol or drugs by the time they enter their teens. Also, the National Institute of Health reports that nearly half of all reported rapes involve the consumption of alcohol, either by the victim, by the rapist, or by both. Addressing these traumatic incidents often helps the individual cope with the triggers that cause them to turn to drugs or alcohol. When incorporated into a fully comprehensive detox and addiction recovery program, EMDR therapy can be especially effective for treating co-occurring addictions.