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Is Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing Effective in Drug Treatment?

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a nontraditional form of psychotherapy designed to diminish negative feelings associated with memories of traumatic events. In a typical therapy session, the focus is directly on the trauma to get to the root of the issue, but in EMDR, the attention is less on the traumatic event itself and more on the disturbing emotions and symptoms that result from the event. 

Treatment will include a hand motion technique that a therapist uses to guide the client’s eyes from side to side. EMDR has been a less conventional and more controversial topic of discussion due to medical professionals not knowing how it works. Some psychologists say it doesn’t work, whereas some agree it works on certain mental health conditions.

In the early stages of therapy, it is typical to discuss your problems and symptoms with the therapist, but you don’t necessarily reveal all of the details of the traumatic experience. The difference? The therapist will keep the focus on related negative thoughts and feelings that the person could still be experiencing. They will then decide which of these beliefs are still relevant and which need to be replaced with positive thoughts and ideas. The therapist will then teach the client how to cope or deal with unpleasant feelings.

From this point, the therapist will then guide the client through a process called desensitization. While keeping the memory of a painful or traumatic event in mind, the client will follow the therapist’s back-and-forth finger movements with their eyes. The reason behind this technique is to help the client fully process their negative feelings and begin to recognize that there is no reason to hold onto them anymore. 

Future sessions of this therapy are geared toward reinforcing and strengthening positive attitudes and beliefs until the client gets to a point where the therapist can bring up traumatic memories without feeling negativity that brought them there in the first place.

How Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing Works

The primary objective of EMDR is to fully process past experiences and sort out emotions attached to negative experiences. Any negative thought or feeling that is no longer useful is to be replaced by positive thoughts and feelings that encourage a client to have healthier behavior and social interactions. Simply put, the client will learn how to handle stressful situations in a more positive way. The process of EMDR works in eight phases that include:

  1. History and treatment planning
  2. Preparation, establishing trust and explaining the in-depth treatment
  3. Assessment, to establish negative feelings and identify positive replacements
  4. Desensitization, including the eye movement technique
  5. Installation, strengthening positive replacements
  6. Body scan to determine if the client can bring up memories of trauma without experiencing negative feelings that are irrelevant, or if reprocessing is necessary
  7. Closure, which takes place at the end of each session
  8. Re-evaluation, a process that occurs at the start of each session

History of Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing 

The story goes that Francine Shapiro was walking in the park in 1987 when she determined that eye movements could decrease the negative emotions associated with her own distressing memories. She then assumed eye movements had a desensitizing effect. This assumption was followed by experimentation in which she found that others also experienced the same response to eye movements.

After more extensive testing, Shapiro found that eye movements alone did not create comprehensive therapeutic effects, and Shapiro began to add elements. Among the elements she included was a cognitive component, and then she developed a standard procedure that she called eye movement desensitization.

Shapiro then took this to the next level and conducted a case study and controlled study. She took 22 randomly assigned individuals with traumatic memories to two conditions. Half received EMD, and the other half underwent the same therapeutic procedure with imagery and detailed description replacing eye movements. It was reported that the EMD resulted in significant decreases in ratings of subjective distress and significant increases in scores of confidence in a positive belief. Those participating in the EMD reported significantly more substantial changes than those in the imagery condition.

Since the initial case study in 1989, hundreds of case studies have been conducted and published with varying results. They have demonstrated the effectiveness of the treatment for PTSD, and the therapy is now known as an efficacious treatment for PTSD.

Is Eye Movement Desensitization an Accepted Therapy?

Since its discovery in 1989, more than 20,000 practitioners have been trained to use EMDR. There have been guidelines issued by more than one professional organization that has recently boosted the credibility of EMDR, and the guidelines define who may benefit from the treatment. 

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) has noted that EMDR is useful for treating symptoms of acute and chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). EMDR therapy may be particularly helpful for people who have trouble talking about traumatic events that they’ve been through, but more research is still needed to tell whether improvements from EMDR can be sustained.

The Department of Veterans Affairs and the United States Department of Defense also issued clinical practice guidelines, and strongly recommended EMDR treatment of PTSD for both military and non-military populations. This approach has been noted as useful in other psychological therapies but less effective in others.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Addiction Treatment

One of the primary reasons EMDR has been thought of as a useful tool in addiction treatment is that most addiction stems from past trauma. The belief that clinicians in the addiction sector have is that by treating this trauma, someone who struggles with addiction will have less of a compulsion to use drugs. 

Therapists who use the EMDR approach a client’s addiction from a trauma-informed perspective and this allows them to examine each case as an individual and delve into the root cause and contributing factors to the client’s addiction. This provides for EMDR to be a frontline choice that can assist significantly for someone in active addiction and reduce the risk of relapse.

An addiction memory is a general memory of the loss of control or drug-specific memory of the effects of the drug. These memories could lead to continuous drug-taking behavior and hold someone back from recovering. The same fashion that EMDR works by dulling feelings that originate from past trauma, it has the power to decrease those feelings that also stem from addiction memories. Incorporating EMDR can significantly improve someone’s chance at long-term recovery.

While the therapy is still relatively new and gaining traction in the addiction world, it is starting to prove itself as an effective means of treating addiction. More time and studies are necessary to determine the future of EMDR in addiction treatment, but to this point, it has made a splash and is showing promise at helping treat this terrible disease. Addiction specialists experiment each day to help find solutions for this progressive disease, and it seems that each day that passes we get a little closer.


Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy. (n.d.). from

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