EMDR Therapy for PTSD and Addiction

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EMDR Therapy for PTSD and Addiction

Trauma and addiction are linked for many people. Substance abuse is often a way for people to numb the pain of a hard past and ignore feelings that otherwise feel like too much to deal with. That is why there is so much more to the recovery journey then simply the act of quitting your use of a particular substance.

The recovery process also means dealing with your stresses, traumas, and internalized pain, showing you how to face it and live your life in freedom. There are a variety of therapies and treatments that offer possibilities in helping support your recovery, and EMDR has been shown to have some potential in treating both trauma and addiction.

What EMDR is:

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, and involves the use of exercises moving the eyes in a variety of controlled positions as a way to help process traumatic events and painful memories. These exercises and behaviors are alongside thinking about these unprocessed past events, dealing with them to reduce the amount of control those events have on your unconscious thoughts and behaviors. For many people, even experiences that may seem insignificant, such as being lost or bullied as a young child, can produce feelings of not being “good enough.”

The EMDR technique was developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro, a psychologist who discovered that moving her own eyes back and forth while on a walk helped unpleasant memories to recede when they became overwhelming. By bringing these memories to the surface for processing, you learn more about yourself and learn ways of dealing with the pain more directly. Substance abuse is one of the more harmful ways in which people try to push down the feelings of shame, fear, or anxiety rather than deal with the triggering causes.

EMDR allows for a gentle way to process the past instead, and truly heal from it. In an EMDR treatment, you may be asked to remember both a pleasant memory, and an unpleasant one, all while following a light with your eyes. Switching back and forth between the hard memory and the pleasant one while doing eye exercises creates a desensitizing effect, so that negative emotions lose their power over you.


In several studies, EMDR has been shown to be effective for people suffering from PTSD, but one of the first studies looking at people who also had a substance use disorder involved its use among court-ordered drug treatment in Thurston County, Washington, between 2004 and 2007. It found that people who received EMDR had a 91 percent success rate, graduating from the program after 12 months sober, compared to 62 percent who only underwent conventional psychotherapy. While EMDR might not necessarily be “better” than other therapeutic methods, some people have experienced it working much faster than traditional talk therapy.

If a painful memory feels too overwhelming to deal with directly, EMDR can be helpful in creating a space to work through memories and gain resiliency earlier in the recovery process. The brain’s memories are produced through neural pathways, that can be triggered, causing us to “flashback” or feel like we’re back in a traumatic situation. It is thought that the use of light and eye movement can cause the memories to be “rewired” to the physical motions, where they can be dealt with anew, from a more neutral position.

With something so complex and all-encompassing as recovery from addiction, no one treatment is going to solve every problem. It is likely that you will have to try from multiple things to determine what works for you, and the full potential of any one method may only be fully unlocked because of work in another area. EMDR might very well be an effective part of learning how to be set free from the pain of your past.