EMDR for Substance Abuse: What to Expect

EMDR for Substance Abuse: What to Expect

Addiction is a chronic brain-centered disorder with several psychological and social features. While a strong desire to stop using and get clean can put you on the road to recovery, a structured treatment plan built on expert care, guidance, accountability, and support is what provides a genuine opportunity to heal and fosters long-term sobriety. 

As attentive mental health experts specializing in substance abuse treatment and recovery, our team at EXIS Recovery Inc. offers fully individualized care for adults and adolescents in and around West Los Angeles, California, who are struggling with addiction. 

Treating a substance use disorder requires a nuanced approach that considers co-occurring problems and mental health concerns, including trauma. Here, our team discusses how eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy supports recovery and explains what to expect during each phase of the treatment.

Self-medicating for trauma 

Trauma, mental illness, and substance abuse are often co-occurring problems: Just as living with unprocessed trauma increases your chances of developing an addiction or mental health concern, living with an untreated substance use disorder can leave you more susceptible to mental illness and trauma. 

It’s estimated that up to 45% of people who struggle with substance abuse and addiction also live with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many more deal with persistent memories of trauma that affect their daily lives. It’s not difficult to see the connection — when unprocessed trauma becomes overwhelming, alcohol or drug use is an easy way to self-medicate. 

The EMDR therapy approach

Because trauma can be a powerful impetus or enabler of addiction (and vice versa), the only way to effectively treat either is with an integrated approach that simultaneously takes on both issues. 

EMDR therapy address the trauma side of the equation so you can make meaningful progress on the addiction side of the equation. Specifically, EMDR uses bilateral stimulation — either rapid side-to-side eye movements or rhythmic tapping — to help your brain process traumatic memories, effectively weakening their power over your emotions and making them less likely to trigger a relapse.

Eight phases of EMDR therapy

EMDR is a form of individual, short-term psychotherapy (talk therapy) that you take part in once or twice a week for a total of 6-12 sessions. It’s completed in eight structured phases: 

Phases 1-3: Planning, practice, and activation

Prior to your first EMDR session, our EXIS therapist gathers your full history, exploring the connections between your traumatic memories and self-medication patterns with drugs or alcohol. Then, you work together to establish your personal treatment plan, including the traumatic memories you wish to target and your long-term recovery goals.

During the second phase, your therapist explains the bilateral stimulation process in detail, leading you through an exercise to help you practice the side-to-side eye movements or rhythmic body taps you’ll engage in during therapy. 

In the third phase, you activate the traumatic memory you’d like to process and integrate. This is accomplished by carefully identifying and evaluating each component of the memory, from sensory impressions and body sensations to thoughts and emotions.

Phases 4-7: Memory processing and resolution 

In the fourth phase of EMDR (desensitization), you focus on your target memory as you engage in rapid eye movements or rhythmic tapping. As you report new thoughts and emotions, your therapist recalibrates your treatment focus for the next round of bilateral stimulation. This process continues until your target memory is no longer distressing. 

During the fifth and sixth phases (installation and body scan), you strengthen your positive cognitive response and monitor your physical response to both the target memory and your newly formed reaction. Any residual distress is processed through another round of bilateral stimulation.

In the seventh EMDR phase (closure), your therapy session ends. If your target memory wasn’t completely processed, your therapist gives you detailed instructions to help you “contain it” until your next session. 

Phase 8: Evaluating and improving your results

At the start of your next EMDR session, you and your therapist evaluate your current mental state, establish which treatment effects have endured (and which may have faded) from prior sessions, and check for new traumatic memories that may have emerged in the meantime.

If your target memory isn’t fully processed, or if you have another memory you’d like to target and integrate, you go back to the third phase and work through the process again.

A multi-faceted recovery plan

When part of a comprehensive, multi-faceted addiction treatment and recovery plan, EMDR therapy can make a difference. By allowing you to reset the narrative on the traumatic memories that perpetuate your drug or alcohol use, EMDR gives you a concrete way to break the emotional patterns of addiction, heal, and establish firmer footing as you enter recovery.

To find out if EMDR therapy is right for you, call or click online to schedule an appointment at EXIS Recovery Inc. today. 

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