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EMDR Therapy

EMDR is a proven therapy that aids in treating PTSD, addiction, and various other mental health conditions. It has been in practice for four decades and has shown to be more efficient than other forms of therapy, particularly in addressing trauma and addiction recovery.

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What Is EMDR Therapy?

A therapy known as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a successful method of psychotherapy for addressing and recovering from past trauma, PTSD, panic disorders, and anxiety. It was created by American psychologist, Dr. Francine Shapiro, in 1989, and initial clinical trials have shown that EMDR is quicker and more efficient than other forms of treatment.

EMDR helps patients process and recover from distressing emotional reactions (i.e., memories, triggers, etc.) by using specific eye movements to speed up healing. Over time, this side-to-side movement helps the brain reprocess these triggers so they no longer cause as much emotional 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
  • Triggers
  • Reprocessing and Repair

Adaptive Information Processing

Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) is a theory that suggests that your brain stores traumatic memories differently from non-traumatic ones. Whenever you recollect the trauma, your brain strengthens the associated negative emotions. The goal of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is to use this theory to help individuals properly heal these traumas and acknowledge that the danger has passed.

Triggers

Triggers are reminders of a traumatic event and can manifest as sights, sounds, smells, or specific situations. When triggers become too intense, some individuals may experience flashbacks, which means they are reliving the memory. Triggers often indicate unprocessed trauma, and EMDR aims to repair this trauma.

Reprocessing and Repair

During EMDR therapy, the therapist helps the patient revisit a traumatic memory to reprocess and heal it. The reprocessing may reveal that some aspects of the event were not accurately remembered by the patient. This process helps patients gain a better understanding of the event and replace negative thoughts with positive ones.

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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 involves eight phases and usually takes multiple sessions. It concentrates on each traumatic memory and any negative thoughts or emotions associated with it.

If the patient doesn’t complete the processing of the targeted memory in a session, the therapist will provide specific instructions and techniques to contain it and ensure safety until the next session.

The eight phases of EMDR treatment are:

  1. Patient history taking and treatment planning: Your mental healthcare provider gathers information about your past to identify your goals for this therapy
  2. Preparation and education: The therapist explains what to expect during EMDR sessions
  3. Assessment: Your therapist helps you identify distressing memories, negative beliefs, phobias, etc., to work on during EMDR therapy sessions
  4. Desensitization and reprocessing: Your therapist uses bilateral stimulation like eye movements, taps, or tones to activate your memory of specific themes or events
  5. Installation: Next, your therapist will have you focus on a positive belief to include as you finish processing a memory.
  6. Body scan: After installation, you will mentally scan your body for negative feelings or physical sensations. (Over time, symptoms will decrease until none remain.)
  7. Closure and stabilization: Your therapist will explain what to expect between sessions and ensure you feel calm and safe before closing the session.
  8. 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 Conditions 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:

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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

It’s possible for anyone to be affected by fear or phobias after experiencing trauma. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction or mental illness, EMDR therapy may be able to provide relief. Consider looking for specialists in your local area who can assist you.

Call (800) 662-4357 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 is a treatment that assists patients in reprocessing traumatic events that were not properly processed when they happened. During the therapy, patients talk about and confront distressing events while the therapist uses eye movements, taps, or tones on both sides of the body. This helps the patient become less sensitive to the strong emotions triggered by the memory, leading to less distress caused by the event in the future.

Is EMDR controversial?

Over the last 30 years, EMDR therapy has become a reliable and widely accepted treatment method, despite some initial controversy due to its newness. Nevertheless, EMDR has proven useful for many individuals dealing with trauma, addiction, PTSD, and other challenging issues. Many EMDR therapists believe that the therapy’s 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, PTSD, or other emotional distress aren’t good candidates for EMDR.

The main objective of EMDR involves reprocessing in the brain; if the patient has no issues to address (like PTSD or trauma, for instance), the therapy does very little for them.

What is the major difference between EMDR therapy and other forms of psychotherapy?

Most forms of psychotherapy involve talking about issues and addressing negative thought patterns. However, EMDR is different in that it involves physical manipulation and discussing sensitive memories to help desensitize the patient. The therapist may use tapping, tones, or specific eye movements to activate both sides of the body in the process.

Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. is a founder of Addiction HelpReviewed by:Kent S. Hoffman, D.O.

Chief Medical Officer & Co-Founder

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. has been an expert in addiction medicine for more than 15 years. In addition to managing a successful family medical practice, Dr. Hoffman is board certified in addiction medicine by the American Osteopathic Academy of Addiction Medicine (AOAAM). Dr. Hoffman has successfully treated hundreds of patients battling addiction. Dr. Hoffman is the Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer of AddictionHelp.com and ensures the website’s medical content and messaging quality.

Jessica Miller is the Content Manager of Addiction HelpWritten by:

Editorial Director

Jessica Miller is the Editorial Director of Addiction Help. Jessica graduated from the University of South Florida (USF) with an English degree and combines her writing expertise and passion for helping others to deliver reliable information to those impacted by addiction. Informed by her personal journey to recovery and support of loved ones in sobriety, Jessica's empathetic and authentic approach resonates deeply with the Addiction Help community.

  1. About EMDR therapy. EMDR International Association. (2023, January 9). Retrieved August 30, 2023, from https://www.emdria.org/about-emdr-therapy/

  2. American Psychological Association. (2017, July 31). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy. American Psychological Association. Retrieved August 30, 2023, from https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/treatments/eye-movement-reprocessing

  3. Maxfield, L. (2019, November 1). A Clinician’s Guide to the Efficacy of EMDR Therapy. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research. Retrieved August 30, 2023, from http://dx.doi.org/10.1891/1933-3196.13.4.239

  4. Shapiro, F. (2014). The Role of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy in Medicine: Addressing the Psychological and Physical Symptoms Stemming From Adverse Life Experiences. The Permanente journal. Retrieved August 30, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3951033/

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