What Is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a structured treatment regimen that uses rhythmic, left-right (bilateral) stimulation to help reduce the vividness and emotion associated with trauma. EMDR therapy is generally used to treat trauma and post-traumatic stress, however it has also been found to be beneficial for individuals under treatment for substance use disorders (SUD), among other things.

EMDR therapy was developed in the late 1980s by Dr. Francine Shapiro, who found a link between eye movement and persistent, traumatic memories. It differs from other common forms of psychotherapy that typically focus on addressing and modifying the emotions, thoughts, or behaviors that manifest themselves as a result of trauma. This evidence-based therapy seeks to go to the root of the issue and help individuals to work through unprocessed traumatic memories and initiate a natural healing process in the brain. This is both a physiological and psychological treatment that taps into and aids communication between the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex. While the original traumatic event is still remembered, EMDR therapy enables individuals to turn off the “fight, flight, or freeze” response which oftentimes can lead a person to feel trapped in a moment in time. 

EMDR therapy consists of eight phases of treatment and can be used to treat individuals of all ages. It is believed that EMDR therapy can offer individuals a way to heal from the distress surrounding disturbing life experiences in far less time than traditional psychotherapy treatment. Just as the body can heal from physical trauma, EMDR therapy can help the brain to heal from emotional and psychological trauma. Through unblocked information processing, the brain can repair pathways and lead to a healthy mental state. Having a healthy mental state can help in the addiction recovery process for those overcoming substance abuse

What does Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy involve?

EMDR therapy does not require talking in detail about the distressing issue or

completing homework between sessions. Rather than focusing on changing the emotions, thoughts, or behaviors resulting from the distressing issue,  EMDR therapy allows the brain to initiate its own, natural healing process.

EMDR therapy is designed to resolve unprocessed traumatic memories in the brain. For many clients, EMDR therapy can be completed in fewer sessions than other psychotherapies. This therapy is done in progressive phases:

  • After reviewing client history and treatment planning, the therapist will decide which target is most suitable for use in treatment for each individual, taking into account their past and present trauma and triggers, and their future goals.
  • During preparation, the therapist and client build a relationship and set expectations, with the aim of helping the individual to understand what treatment involves. This trust helps to ensure that the individual is open and honest when reporting the effects of both trauma and treatment.
  • Assessment involves client and therapist working together to identify the target memory that will be used for a specific session, and bilateral stimulation (BLS) begins. The Validity of Cognition (VOC) scale and Subjective Units of Disturbance (SUD) scale are used to evaluate changes in emotion and cognition. Clients do not need to be very specific when naming a trauma that needs to be processed.
  • During desensitization, the client works with the chosen disturbing event with a goal of  changing the trauma-related reactions and associations, implementing eye movements or other forms of BLS.
  • The installation phase consists of the therapist attempting to begin replacement of negative cognition with positive ideas, strengthening the preferred positive cognition.
  • In the body scan phase, an individual will pay attention to their body’s response when thinking of the traumatic event, with a view to processing and minimizing negative reactions.
  • Closure is the next phase, used to end the treatment session and bring a person back to a state of equilibrium. Expectations are set for time between treatment and a client is instructed on how to contain and safely hold any unprocessed memories that will need to be worked on in the next session.
  • Re-evaluation is the final phase, but also the beginning of the following session, wherein the therapist evaluates the treatment’s effect on the client, and works with them to identify any additional memories that may have come up and now require processing.

EMDR therapy begins with the individual being instructed to remember the most meaningful image associated with the traumatic memory and to share the negative beliefs they hold. The therapist then introduces positive beliefs that can lead an individual towards contradiction and eventual reassessment. During the entirety of the treatment, the treating therapist is always nearby, instructing the individual and noting key emotional and physical reactions that may be associated with a traumatic memory. The end goal is to change the way that a traumatic memory is stored in the brain, releasing the individual from perpetual, relived trauma.

If at any time during treatment an individual becomes distressed or stuck, the therapist will help to redirect and get the client back on track. As with any form of treatment, specific details will vary by case–feel free to reach out and discuss EMDR therapy with our healthcare professionals.

How long does Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy last?

EMDR is a highly individualized therapy. Just as varied as specific sources of trauma can be, so the treatment is likewise tailored to the person. Typical treatment sessions may be one to two times per week, over a span of 6-12 sessions. That said, some individuals may need less, others more. Some who have received as few as one to three 90-minute sessions have been able to work through their trauma. For others, six 50-minute sessions made a measurable difference. Twelve sessions were found to best suit those with perhaps more intense trauma. In general, the length of treatment is often dictated by the number of traumatic memories that an individual needs to process, paired with the age of post-traumatic stress onset, with more deep seated trauma requiring proportionally more treatment.

Depending on the individual’s schedule, progress, and tolerance level, treatment sessions can be conducted on consecutive days. Regardless of the number of sessions, the above-mentioned eight stages of treatment will always be completed, with a typical EMDR session lasting roughly 60-90 minutes, and a client has the right to stop the therapist at any point if necessary. Bilateral movement techniques will then be employed until the event the individual is working though is perceived as being less disturbing. 

The end goal of EMDR therapy is always to process traumatic experiences to the point that they are no longer causing an individual distress. A three-pronged approach works to effectively process past memories, present distress, and potential future actions. Because of the nature of this and any therapy, healing, not speed, is the ultimate goal, and the individual sets the pace. Once inappropriate emotions, beliefs, and body sensations are discarded and a person is equipped with tools to build healthy and useful behaviors and interactions, their therapy has achieved its end.

How does Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy help individuals with substance use disorders?

With a targeted treatment plan to address an individual’s past trauma, present distress, and future well-being, they can take feelings of worthlessness, powerlessness and hopelessness–along with insecurities stemming from trauma–and learn practical ways to control these negative emotions and find healthy ways to process them mentally. This is vital for individuals who have a substance use disorder, since negative feelings and emotions stemming from trauma are often at the heart of why they use. Processing these negative thoughts and traumatic experiences can be an invaluable tool in the healing process and a first step toward sobriety both now and in the future. With increased knowledge and a newfound sense of control, individuals with substance use disorders can better manage their lives and change their behaviors.

EMDR therapy is also valuable because it is centered on truth and the Validity of Cognition (VOC) scale. Positive affirmations cannot simply be agreed with, they have to be adopted and believed, and an individual undergoing treatment has the final say in what they deem to be true. Therefore EMDR therapy has a permanence in a person’s life post-treatment, and is not a passing, feel-good approach to treating deep-seated trauma.

Work With Lake Area Recovery Center for Effective Addiction Treatment in Ohio

At Lake Area Recovery Center in Cleveland, OH, we understand that living with the trauma from past experiences is not just difficult, it can lead to an unhealthy mindset and potentially destructive behaviors. Overcoming these ingrained ways of coping with trauma can feel impossible, but with the right treatment, it can be achieved. EMDR therapy stands out as a tried and tested way to process past trauma and to heal. Our Ohio addiction recovery center specialists and trained therapists can help you to identify and deal with the issues that lie at the heart of your unresolved trauma. There’s no reason to try and manage it on your own. Our team is ready to help you build and maintain a healthier future–get in touch today!