Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) has grown in popularity, particularly for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But recent research shows that EMDR can also help with addiction and other mental health conditions.
EMDR is still relatively new, so long-term effects still require study. However, early research shows EMDR has a clear edge over other psychotherapies regarding trauma-focused events and recovery.
What Is EMDR Therapy?
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) is an effective psychotherapy technique for confronting and healing from past trauma. Developed in 1989 by American psychologist Dr. Francine Shapiro, early clinical trials proved EMDR was faster and more effective than many other methods.
EMDR helps patients process and recover from traumatic memories by using specific eye movements to speed up the healing process.
Over time, this side-to-side movement helps the brain reprocess distressing memories, so they no longer cause as much pain.
EMDR Core Principles
Dealing with unprocessed traumatic experiences can disrupt a patient’s life and well-being, so EMDR relies on specific principles to ensure the patient’s safety throughout the process.
Specially trained EMDR therapists walk a patient through confronting disturbing events or distressing memories in a safe, supported environment. Patients may feel vulnerable while processing these adverse life experiences, so working with an EMDR-trained specialist is critical.
The core principles of EMDR include the following:
- Adaptive Information Processing
- Reprocessing and Repair
Adaptive Information Processing
Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) is a theory based on the idea that your brain stores traumatic memories differently than non-traumatic ones. Each time you recall the trauma, your brain reinforces the attached negative emotions.
Using the theory of Adaptive Information Processing, EMDR aims to help patients heal these traumas properly and accept that danger has passed.
Triggers are reminders of a traumatic event and can present as sights, sounds, smells, or particular scenarios. Some triggers become so intense certain individuals may experience flashbacks (reliving the memory) because of the trigger.
Triggers often indicate unprocessed trauma, which EMDR seeks to repair.
Reprocessing and Repair
In the careful setting of EMDR, a therapist guides the patient back to a traumatic memory for reprocessing and repair. Often through this reprocessing, patients may discover parts of the event didn’t occur as they remember.
By reprocessing the memory, patients can better understand what happened during the event and replace negative beliefs with positive ones.
How Does EMDR Differ from Other Types of Therapy?
EMDR follows a set structure and specific steps in a specific order, which differs from other psychotherapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).
For instance, CBT and other “talk therapy” methods emphasize talking about feelings. EMDR instead emphasizes confronting feelings through physical movements, sounds, taps, and mental scanning for tension in the body.
In addition, EMDR typically has a start and end point of a few weeks, while CBT may be ongoing for several months or years.
How EMDR Therapy Works
EMDR consists of eight phases and typically spans a series of sessions, focusing on each traumatic memory and any negative thoughts or emotions.
If the patient does not fully process the targeted memory in the session, the therapist will use specific instructions and techniques to provide containment and ensure safety until the next session.
The eight phases of EMDR treatment are:
- Patient history taking and treatment planning: Your mental healthcare provider gathers information about your past to identify your goals for this therapy
- Preparation and education: The therapist explains what to expect during EMDR sessions
- Assessment: Your therapist helps you identify distressing memories, negative beliefs, phobias, etc., to work on during EMDR therapy sessions
- Desensitization and reprocessing. Your therapist uses bilateral stimulation like eye movements, taps, or tones to activate your memory of specific themes or events
- Installation. Next, your therapist will have you focus on a positive belief to include as you finish processing a memory.
- Body scan. After installation, you will mentally scan your body for negative feelings or physical sensations. (Over time, symptoms will decrease until none remain.)
- Closure and stabilization. Your therapist will explain what to expect between sessions and ensure you feel calm and safe before closing the session.
- Reevaluation and continuing care. Depending on your feelings, follow-up sessions may be helpful; you may also adjust your goals for future EMDR sessions.
What Does EMDR Help Treat?
EMDR therapy’s most common use is to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The United States Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs consider EMDR the gold standard for treating veterans with PTSD.
However, many healthcare providers have found uses in other mental health conditions that commonly feature high rates of trauma as a symptom or cause.
EMDR can also be used to treat:
- Substance use disorders
- Behavioral addiction
- Mental illness
- Trauma outside of PTSD
EMDR and Addiction
Therapists using EMDR therapy approach a patient’s addiction from a trauma-informed perspective.
EMDR aids in addiction treatment because a lot of addiction stems from past trauma. By treating this trauma, the person living with addiction will have less of a compulsion towards the unhealthy escape substances provide.
EMDR and Mental Illness
Since many mental health conditions form or can be worsened by traumatic experiences, individuals with various mental illnesses can benefit from the effectiveness of EMDR treatment.
EMDR has been highly successful with the following mental health conditions:
- Anxiety disorders (e.g., generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobias, social anxiety)
- Depression disorders (e.g., major depressive disorder, persistent depressive disorder, illness-related depression)
- Dissociative disorders (e.g., amnesia, depersonalization disorder, derealization disorder)
- Eating disorders (e.g., anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder)
- Gender dysphoria
- Obsessive-compulsive disorders (e.g., obsessive-compulsive disorder, body dysmorphic disorder, hoarding disorder)
- Personality disorders (e.g., borderline personality disorder, avoidant personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder)
- Trauma disorders (e.g., acute stress disorder, PTSD, adjustment disorder)
- Substance use disorders (e.g., alcohol use disorder, binge-drinking disorder, opioid use disorder)
Other Issues EMDR Can Address
EMDR treatment isn’t restricted to only individuals with substance abuse issues or diagnosed mental illnesses. A person of any gender, age, race, background, or upbringing might experience trauma.
If you think EMDR could help you find freedom from a traumatic experience that makes day-to-day life difficult, you might be a good candidate for EMDR.
Unfortunately, EMDR works exclusively for trauma and cannot treat unrelated issues or genetic conditions not caused by traumatic experiences.
Find EMDR Therapy Options in Your Area
Anyone can find themselves haunted by fear or phobias due to a traumatic experience. If you think EMDR could provide relief to you or a loved one battling addiction or mental illness, there might be specialists in your area who can help.
Call 1-877-726-4727 or visit SAMHSA’s online treatment locator at https://findtreatment.gov to locate an EMDR specialist near you.
FAQs About EMDR
What does EMDR therapy do for patients?
EMDR therapy works by helping patients reprocess traumatic events that weren’t processed in a healthy way when they occurred.
Patients discuss and confront upsetting events while the therapist uses eye movements, taps, or tones on either side of the body. Through this process, the patient becomes desensitized to the intense emotions the memory causes and less bothered by the event moving forward.
Why is EMDR controversial?
The controversy towards EMDR therapy comes from the fact that it’s still relatively new. Because EMDR hasn’t been around long enough to have long-term studies done, there could be adverse effects we don’t know about.
That being said, EMDR helps many people with debilitating trauma. Many EMDR therapists believe the controversy is unwarranted, and the benefits far outweigh any potential adverse effects.
Who is not a good candidate for EMDR?
Individuals who don’t experience issues due to traumatic events aren’t good candidates for EMDR. The main objective of EMDR involves reprocessing unresolved traumas; if the patient has no trauma to address, the therapy does very little for them.
What is the major difference between EMDR therapy and other forms of psychotherapy?
Other psychotherapy forms usually involve discussing issues and addressing certain negative thought patterns. Very rarely do these other psychotherapies require more than just talking.
On the other hand, EMDR follows a strict process involving physical manipulation while talking about sensitive and upsetting memories to desensitize the patient to them. A therapist may use tapping and tones or have the patient do certain eye movements that activate both sides of the body.