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EMDR: A Powerful New Weapon in the Fight Against Substance Use Disorder

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Substance use disorder (SUD) has a variety of potential causes — and just as many treatments. One of the biggest causes is trauma of some sort. Traumatic early childhood experiences are one of the biggest risk factors for developing addiction.

While not all trauma may result in post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) or directly cause someone to become addicted to a substance, almost all people suffering from SUD have some form of trauma in their past. One study found that 97.4% of people with SUD had experienced at least one major traumatic event in their lifetime. That same study found that 36.6% of people with SUD also had PTSD. To put that in perspective, only about 8% of people in the general population have PTSD at some point in their lifetime.

Since trauma and PTSD are common in people struggling with drug and alcohol abuse, many treatment programs today try to incorporate some form of trauma treatment into their care, including Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).

While EMDR was originally designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories — and this is one of its biggest benefits for people with co-occurring SUD and PTSD or a form of trauma in their past — it can also help with addiction issues directly.

What EMDR Is and How It Works for Trauma and Addiction

EMDR is a type of psychotherapy that helps you heal from the symptoms and emotional distress caused by trauma by essentially rewiring how your brain perceives your memories of the trauma. It is based on the idea that certain events (including drug use, drinking, and experiencing trauma) can be stored in our brains dysfunctionally.

When our brains are working normally, we recall the emotions associated with a memory, but it’s generally not very intense. However, some memories get stored dysfunctionally. When we recall them, we experience a high level of “arousal” and feel extreme emotional reactions, which can be positive or negative. With trauma, we experience a high negative arousal, while we experience a high positive arousal from substance use.

Our memories of trauma are themselves traumatic, which causes many people with alcohol or drug issues to drink or use to deal with this re-experience of the trauma. People with SUD experience highly positive arousal, sometimes known as “euphoric recall.” Essentially, you only remember the positive parts of substance use — usually the feeling of being high or intoxicated — and forget all the negative experiences, including when a drug or alcohol experience made you sick or the consequences of your actions.

In either case, the memories have been stored improperly because of psychological stress (negative in the case of trauma, positive in the case of drug or alcohol use). You feel the original emotions — and even physical sensations — of the event. That isn’t how memory is supposed to work.

Fortunately, our brains have the amazing ability to rewire themselves, a phenomenon called “neuroplasticity.” When we recall our memories, they become “plastic” for a short time, which means we are able to rewrite new things we’ve learned onto those memories.

During EMDR, you and your therapist take new meanings and insights that you’ve developed concerning your trauma and addiction and add them to the memory. This can help weaken the memories you want to put behind you, strengthen those you wish to emphasize, and modify the parts you want to change.

For reasons that still aren’t clear, your eye movements seem to be involved in this process. During an EMDR session, you focus on the traumatic memory (or memory related to addiction), then move your eyes side-to-side in a rhythmic motion while thinking about the memory. It can also involve tapping or the playing of tones sometimes.

The entire EMDR treatment process has 8 phases:

  1. History taking
  2. Client preparation
  3. Assessment
  4. Desensitization
  5. Installation
  6. Body scan
  7. Closure
  8. Reevaluation

This process is not as simple as rewriting a computer program. It takes time, effort, and a lot of repetition — but eventually, it can reduce the strength of the memories you’re fixed on. This means you’re not constantly retraumatized by traumatic memories and, therefore, feel less of an impulse to drink or use to cover them up.

In EMDR treatment, people with addiction issues no longer experience the euphoria of drinking or using simply by remembering when they drank or used. Euphoric recall is stamped out, leading to fewer cravings.

Why EMDR May Be More Effective Than CBT

Addiction is not a choice, moral failing, or lack of willpower. It’s a complex disease that alters how your brain works, making it extremely difficult to quit without professional help.

For many people who experience drug and alcohol problems, using and drinking started as coping mechanisms. When a traumatic memory would surface, or they’d experience a traumatic event, they’d turn to alcohol or drugs to deal with it.

Once addiction takes hold, it’s hard to break. About 85% of people with some form of addiction relapse in the first year after treatment. Changing how you cope with the resurgence of traumatic memories is extremely difficult without treatment specifically designed to help you make these changes.

While many programs use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to treat people struggling to deal with drug or alcohol issues, this approach is more focused on helping you develop self-discipline and control. The problem is that self-control is already compromised for people with SUD, especially if they suffer from a co-occurring disorder, like bipolar disorder, that already makes self-control difficult. To complete the tasks assigned in CBT, you must possess a high degree of self-control, which is very challenging for many people with addiction issues. The added pressure may actually contribute to high relapse rates.

This is why EMDR can potentially have a significant impact — Not only has it been shown to be effective in treating trauma and PTSD, but it may also address SUD directly in ways that CBT cannot.

EMDR Should Be Part of a Comprehensive Recovery Plan

While EMDR has proven to be effective in substance abuse therapy, it’s important to remember that it’s not a standalone treatment.

EMDR can be a powerful part of any recovery plan, especially if you have a history of trauma. However, recovery from addiction requires a comprehensive approach, combining various therapies, medication (if necessary), support groups, and lifestyle changes. If you’re ready to deal with your addiction once and for all, treatment is the first thing to consider.

If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialists can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.

Contact a Resource Specialist

About the Author: Cristal Clark, LPC-S, is the Medical Reviewer for ASIC Recovery Services. She reviews all website content for quality and medical accuracy. She is a master’s level Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor and graduated from Liberty University in 2011. She has worked in the behavioral and mental health field for over 12 years and has a passion for helping others. She has been Clinical Director and CEO of a 200-plus-bed facility, PHP, and IOP, with experience managing a team of counselors, individual/group/and family therapy, and coordinating continuum of care. Cristal is trained in EMDR and certified in non-violent intervention. She is a member of American Counseling Association and American Association of Christian Counselors.

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Photo by SHVETS production: https://www.pexels.com/photo/client-listen-to-anonymous-psychologist-7176297/

The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios.

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