Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is psychotherapy that promotes healing from the emotional distress that traumatic experiences trigger. Studies on the therapy’s efficacy are quite promising, as they show it helps high percentages of the participants tested. Because many people with substance abuse disorders have painful memories, EMDR may be of value in addiction recovery programs, notes the Association of Addiction Professionals.
How Does EMDR Work?
The concept underlying EMDR is that, like physical healing, emotional healing occurs when any impediment to the recovery process disappears. To illustrate, a physical wound won’t heal well if debris is stuck in it. In fact, debris can cause the wound to become infected and swollen. However, once someone removes the debris, the wound heals. In the same way, traumatic memories can block emotional healing, and removal of the block clears the way for recovery to happen.
According to the EMDR Institute, the therapy has eight phases that involve attention to the past, present, and future. In essence, a clinician selects a memory to target and then asks the client to keep the incident in mind while tracking the clinician’s hand as it moves back and forth. This exercise causes the formation of internal associations, which helps clients start to process the traumatic memory and painful feelings linked to it.
When EMDR succeeds, the emotions tied to a bad memory transform from distress to a feeling of empowerment. To illustrate, a rape victim’s horror shifts to the belief that she survived and that she is strong. In other words, EMDR removes the emotional debris, which enables substance abuse individuals to move forward with their recovery.
When clients undergo traditional talk therapy, clinical interpretations give them insight that fosters emotional healing. In contrast, the benefits of EMDR stem from the client's accelerated emotional processing. This acceleration produces positive results much faster.
How Effective Is EMDR?
Research on EMDR is encouraging. Some studies reveal that 84 percent to 90 percent of single-trauma victims get complete relief from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after three 90-minutes treatments, according to the EMDR Institute. Another study found six 50-minute treatments led to the total alleviation of PTSD symptoms in 77 percent of multiple-trauma victims.
Individuals with substance abuse disorder have a high incidence of post-traumatic symptoms, which suggests that better outcomes of treatment are more likely if clinicians address the trauma. Studies on the use of EMDR in recovery programs are sufficiently positive to support its use in the disorder. A 2017 investigation published in Frontiers in Psychology comparing standard therapy with a combination of standard therapy and EMDR showed that the combination resulted in better outcomes. The authors concluded that although the findings were preliminary, EMDR may be an effective add-on recovery treatment.
While the public widely assumes that healing of severe emotional pain takes a long time, research indicates EMDR can dramatically shorten the process. This shortcut to healing is beneficial for individuals with substance abuse because it quickly removes one of the factors that impede treatment. Furthermore, EMDR promotes a more stable recovery and a lower risk of relapses. Although the evidence doesn’t prove its efficacy for every person, it may make a significant difference for many.