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What is EMDR and How Does It Work?

“Most people come into therapy because they know something is wrong. There is an “I” that feels locked up and knows that there is a better way…EMDR can remove the block that is preventing the natural movement toward health. It can release you into the present you always wanted for yourself, a present where you can feel free and in control.” ~ Dr. Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., EMDR: The Breakthrough Therapy for Overcoming Anxiety, Stress, and Trauma It is generally accepted that one of the causal factors for substance abuse can be exposed to some past, in fact, traumatic experience. One form of psychotherapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) goes even further, postulating that ALL negative behaviors, feelings, and thoughts are the result of unprocessed memories – i.e., unresolved trauma.

What Is the Theory Behind EMDR?

EMDR focuses on the idea that disturbing memories are the cause of most psychopathologies – most often PTSD, but also substance abuse disorder – alcoholism and/or drug addiction – and other associated co-occurring conditions such as anxiety or depression. Sometimes, a sufficiently-traumatic experience, such as rape, child abuse, violence, or death of a loved one, can overwhelm a person’s normal means of coping. This means that the experience is incompletely processed and the memory – and any associated stimuli – are still remembered, usually on an unconscious level. What this means is that the person never really gets over or past that experience. As a result, they continue to suffer from the symptoms from PTSD, anxiety, etc. or they attempt to cope in dysfunctional ways such as substance abuse, compulsive gambling, or other addictive behaviors.

How Does EMDR Work?

Proper EMDR treatment has eight phases:

  1. History and Treatment Planning – This includes a history taken by the therapist detailing any painful memories, which will become the focus during sessions.
  2. Preparation – The therapist helps the patient develop relaxation strategies to cope with any difficult emotions that may arise between sessions.
  3. Assessment – The patient visualizes the traumatic event, represented by a single image. They then describe any negative thoughts that they associate with that image. They are then instructed to visualize a positive thought that can be associated with the same image and substituted for the negative one. Once again, they are asked to vocalize their emotions and to describe any distress on a rating scale from 0 to 10.
  4. Desensitization – Under the guidance of the counselor, the patient then is instructed to focus on that painful memory for approximately 30 seconds while also paying attention as the therapist introduces another stimulus, such as:
    • side-to-side eye movement (“follow my fingers”, for example)
    • tapping on the knees
    • pulsating lights
    • After every 30-second “set”, the therapist will guide the patient through the recollection of another aspect of the painful event, repeating this action many times during the session until the patient can think of the past experience without distress.
  5. Installation – Now, the patient focuses on the earlier positive visualization while the therapist continues with the stimulus. When the patient fully believes that positive visualization is true, then the next phase begins.
  6. Body Scan – While still focusing on the positive visualization, the patient “scans” their body by searching for any negative physical sensations such as tightness or tension. This phase is over when the patient can think or even talk about the past trauma – while focusing on the positive thought – without feeling distressed either emotionally or physically.
  7. Closure – Because not all trauma can be completely processed in one session, the patient will be guided through different techniques that can help with relaxation, tranquility, and emotional stability, and instructed on how to use these techniques whenever the need arises between sessions.
  8. Reevaluation – The patient’s progress will be re-examined at each new session, focusing upon (1) the work is done in the previous session, and (2) how well the patient handled negative thoughts and emotions between office visits.

How Effective Is EMDR Therapy?

Dr. Francine Shapiro, the American psychologist who developed EMDR, says this, “In most recent studies, 84 to 90 percent of the people using EMDR – victims of rape, natural disaster, loss of a child, catastrophic illness, or other traumas – have recovered from posttraumatic stress in only three sessions. Before EMDR, that was unheard of. Other psychological methods for healing trauma have achieved no more than a 55 percent success rate in seven to fifteen sessions.”

Are There Any Outside Organizations That Recommend EMDR Therapy?

One advantage to a therapy that has been around since the late 1980s is the extraordinary amount of supporting research and evidence signifying its effectiveness. As a result, there are a number of endorsements from several reputable organizations, including:

  • The World Health Organization
  • The American Psychiatric Association
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense
  • 24 different randomized controlled studies, and 12 nonrandomized studies

Ashwood Recovery – the premium drug and alcohol rehab program in the Boise, Idaho, area – incorporates EMDR therapy as part of their treatment strategy whenever PTSD or other related disorders co-occur with the presenting addiction. If you or someone you care about is struggling with any type of substance abuse disorder, contact Ashwood to begin your sober journey to restore health, hope, and happiness to your life.