Traumatic events leave a deep emotional wound that can cause emotional suffering for years if left unresolved. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a unique type of psychotherapy developed to relieve symptoms associated with psychological trauma and process the experience itself. By following the therapist’s instructions, a client can start to move past these emotional blockages and improve their mental health.
Who Can Benefit From EMDR?
EMDR was designed to treat patients suffering from symptoms caused by traumatic experiences and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) <link to new PTSD page>. For instance, those who have had near-death experiences, suffered childhood abuse, or witnessed the tragedies of war may be struggling to process these events years later.
A person can develop anxiety disorders or depression as a result of trauma. Their quality of life may start to suffer, putting them at risk for substance abuse and suicide.
Scientists are still uncovering how EMDR works, otherwise known as its “mechanism of action” in the brain. Nevertheless, EMDR has been found to be very effective in treating these conditions, and the prevalence of EMDR in clinical practice continues to grow.
How Can Addiction Be Treated With EMDR?
Unresolved trauma is often the motivating force for substance abuse. Research shows that psychological trauma experienced as a child can lead to both PTSD and addictive behaviors later on in life. Among patients with a drug use disorder, up to 80%-90% of them had some kind of disturbing encounter in childhood.
People start using alcohol and drugs to calm the stress and anxiety associated with these events. Others are looking to numb overwhelming feelings of guilt, shame, and fear. Perhaps they feel responsible for what happened long ago or are paranoid that it could happen again. These emotions can be so uncomfortable that the individual struggles to keep a job or have a healthy social life.
In some cases, recovery from addiction requires a person to heal from traumatic experiences.
Stimulating the Brain to Recover
Re-processing emotions and memories by stimulating the brain’s natural healing mechanism is a core activity in EMDR. This method is used in phases 4, 5, and 6, as discussed in the following sections. This method is in contrast to the exploration of one’s inner psyche through discussion and clinical interpretation like in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) <link to new CBT page>.
During a session, the client will be asked to recall a negative memory or belief about themselves and the emotional and physical sensations associated with it. As they explain, the client follows a stimulus (usually two fingers) with their eyes. The therapist will quickly move the stimulus back and forth across their line of vision. These eye movements are a form of bilateral stimulation. Afterward, the therapist and client go over the experience.
Some researchers propose that bilateral stimulation can serve as a distraction and help desensitize a person to negative thoughts through familiarization in a safe and controlled space.
The Connection to REM Sleep
You may be wondering how tracking your therapist’s fingers could help you. Overall, scientists are not entirely sure how EMDR works. Multiple theories may all hold some truth. Nevertheless, it is generally believed that bilateral eye movements can induce the same neurobiological processes that occur while a person is in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.
The neurobiological processes that occur during REM sleep are thought to be critical for processing information and consolidating memories, both of which can be impacted by trauma. Shortly after falling asleep and several times through the night, you will be in REM sleep. Brain activity is high, and you may have vivid dreams. Like in EMDR, your eyes will move back and forth as you dream.
What to Expect in Each EMDR Session
There are eight stages to EMDR:
#1. Taking History and Planning Treatment
In this first stage, the therapist will learn about the client’s background and personal concerns and then determine where to focus treatment. The treatment plan outlines specific targets to address that are related to problematic events of the past, current situations that trigger distress, and skills needed to cope with trauma effectively. This can take one to two sessions or more, depending on the severity of the trauma.
#2. Client Preparation
Re-living painful memories can be too overwhelming for some individuals. In this stage, the therapist will evaluate how well the patient can transition from one emotional state to another. They will teach them self-soothing and relaxation techniques, so they are prepared for later stages. This can take one to four sessions.
The client will be asked to choose a particular image that is strongly associated with the memory identified in phase one, as well as a negative belief they have about themselves in relation to what happened. The negative statement is then replaced with something positive. This phase involves determining how true the positive statement feels and identifying emotions and sensations associated with it.
The client is guided to modify sensory experiences and associations related to the target event by walking through the memory while bilateral stimulation is used. It is in this phase that disturbing bits and pieces can be reconciled, as well as related experiences. The client may come to discover certain insights about themselves and others, helping them to heal.
After having confronted and processed the traumatic memory in phase 4, the patient concentrates on the positive belief chosen in phase 3 to “install” it. The idea is to come to truly believe the positive statement.
#6. Body Scan
The client will be asked to return to the image associated with the troubling event and identify uncomfortable feelings within the body. Processing what is happening in the body at this point is critical. The body can remember and hold on to emotions and sensations associated with trauma.
This is the tail end of an EMDR session. If the client has not fully reprocessed their trauma, they are guided through self-soothing techniques before leaving the session, which can also be used at home. The therapist will discuss what to expect in their next session.
#8. Re-Evaluation of Treatment
After every session, the therapist will evaluate the client’s treatment plan and the progress they are making. The therapist will also determine if other targets should be explored.
Trauma can leave a lasting mark on a person’s physical and mental well-being. Many turn to drugs or alcohol in their pursuit to forget the past and drown emotions. This doesn’t help, but eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) can. Casa Recovery offers EMDR to treat trauma and PTSD as a part of our trauma treatment program. Please call today at (888) 928-2272 to learn how you can join us in healing.