What Is EMDR and Can It Be Useful in Healing My Trauma?

A blue eye looking into the camera.

What Is EMDR and Can It Be Useful in Healing My Trauma?

The journey to sobriety is never a straight path. Everyone has different underlying causes and risk factors that contributed to the development of their substance use disorder (SUD). One of the most common underlying causes of substance misuse is untreated trauma. Trauma is held in the brain and body until it is properly treated. The lingering effects of untreated trauma can cause individuals to turn to substance use in an attempt to self-medicate.

While there are many trauma-informed treatment approaches available, every addiction treatment facility will utilize approaches that they believe are the most effective in treating trauma. One incredibly valuable trauma-focused treatment approach is known as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). 

What Is EMDR?

EMDR is an evidence-based, psychotherapeutic treatment approach for trauma. According to Frontiers in Psychology, “EMDR therapy utilizes a theoretical framework known as Adaptive Information Processing (AIP), which posits that the primary source of psychopathology is the presence of memories of adverse life experiences inadequately processed by the brain.” EMDR has been well-researched as an effective treatment to improve the diagnosis of PTSD as well as reduce symptoms of PTSD, trauma, and trauma-related issues.

Commonly, individuals who endure traumatic experiences are rarely equipped with the tools needed to adequately process and work through the trauma. EMDR is valuable because it helps individuals reflect back on and process past trauma in a safe and secure environment.

The Importance of the Therapeutic Alliance

Before an EMDR session takes place, the guest and therapist will work to form a therapeutic alliance. According to an article in Frontiers in Psychology, “[T]he therapeutic alliance consists of three essential elements: agreement on the goals of the treatment, agreement on the tasks, and the development of a personal bond made up of reciprocal positive feelings.” A positive therapeutic alliance is vital to ensure the guest’s comfort and safety when working to heal from trauma. 

How Does It Work?

As the guest and therapist work to form a therapeutic alliance, the patient will become educated about expected physical and emotional reactions to trauma. The therapist will gauge how ready a guest is to address and process their trauma before they dive into the first session. Likewise, guests can expect to learn new coping skills before discussing upsetting or difficult memories from their past. 

What to Expect During an EMDR Session

During an EMDR session, a guest and therapist will work together to identify an upsetting memory as well as any uncomfortable thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations related to the memory. The guest will be instructed to focus on a back-and-forth (bilateral) eye movement or sound while they surface their memory in their mind. Possible focuses may include:

  • The therapist’s finger moving back and forth
  • Flashing light
  • A tone that beeps in one ear at a time

The guest will focus on this stimulus until their physical and/or emotional distress reduces. Each exercise lasts about 30 seconds at a time but can vary between practitioners and facilities. Between exercises, the therapist and patient will discuss the exercise and any new insight that may have resulted from it. Gradually, the therapist will help the guest focus on more positive beliefs and feelings as they hold their memory at the forefront of their mind. Over time, the guest will experience reduced reactivity and emotional charge from their past trauma.

How Is EMDR Effective in Healing Trauma?

While research confirms the effectiveness of EMDR in healing trauma, individuals may still wonder what makes this treatment as effective as it is. The American Psychological Association (APA) explains that “EMDR therapy focuses directly on the memory, and is intended to change the way that the memory is stored in the brain, thus reducing and eliminating the problematic symptoms.” 

Other trauma-focused treatments, such as exposure therapy, require re-exposing a guest to a distressing memory. Examples of this include surfacing detailed descriptions of past trauma or challenging a patient’s seemingly dysfunctional beliefs. EMDR, on the other hand, does not utilize exposure tactics. Rather, this therapeutic process influences a patient’s learning state which allows traumatic experiences to be properly stored and processed in their brain.

Additionally, EMDR is a preferred treatment method for trauma due to its fast, effective, and long-lasting results. EMDR treatment typically lasts between 1-3 months, with weekly sessions lasting 50-90 minutes per session. The amount of time it takes for a traumatic event to be processed varies depending on the following factors:

  • The intensity of a past traumatic event
  • Severity of symptoms associated with the traumatic event
  • Presence of co-occurring mental health disorders or SUDs
  • Frequency and duration of treatment sessions

It is important to add that while it can take several sessions to process one traumatic event, clients can expect to see improvements in their symptoms in as little as 1-3 sessions.