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EMDR Therapy for Addiction Treatment

Research Says

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EMDR therapy is a form of psychotherapy effective in treating trauma and PTSD. It is a relatively new therapy, having been developed in the 1980s. EMDR therapy works by helping the person process the traumatic event or events that have caused problems in their lives. The therapist will help the person focus on different aspects of the event and ask them to move their eyes back and forth.

Research shows that EMDR can reduce symptoms such as flashbacks, sleep disturbance, nightmares, depression, and anxiety. Some studies also suggest that EMDR may be an alternative for people who cannot tolerate other forms of psychological therapies.

How Does EMDR Therapy Work?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy is a relatively new but increasingly popular therapy used to help people overcome the effects of traumatic experiences. EMDR therapy is said to help the brain reprocess information more effectively, which can lead to relief from symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, and hyperarousal. 


EMDR therapy is divided into eight phases; you must attend multiple sessions. Treatment typically consists of 6 to 12 sessions, but additional sessions may be required.


Phase 1:  History is taken, and treatment plans are developed.

Your therapist will review your symptoms and medical history to determine where you are in the treatment process.


This evaluation phase briefly discusses your trauma and identifies potential memories to address.


Phase 2: Planning

Your therapist will teach you various techniques to help you manage and cope with the emotional or psychological stress and any uncomfortable feelings that may arise during treatment. This is referred to as resourcing. You could, for example, learn stress management techniques such as deep breathing and mindfulness exercises.

Phase 3: Evaluation

During the third phase of EMDR therapy, your therapist will walk you through the process of choosing a specific memory to target, as well as any relevant aspects of that memory, such as:

  • Emotions or painful physical sensations

  • Thoughts or images that are aggravating

  • Distressing or unfavorable self-beliefs

Phase 4–7: Treatment

Your therapist will then begin addressing the targeted memories with EMDR therapy techniques. This occurs in four stages:

  • Desensitization

You will be preoccupied with that negative thought, memory, or image. Simultaneously, you will be guided through bilateral stimulation (BLS), including specific eye movements, tapping, audio tones, or blinking lights.


Then you'll let your eyes drift and notice any thoughts or feelings that arise. If you identify these thoughts, your therapist may ask you to refocus on that traumatic memory or move on to another if it no longer elicits unwanted emotions.

  • Installation

You will "install" a positive self-belief or image to replace the undesirable one identified in phase 3. Then, you'll concentrate on this belief by repeating BLS.

  • Scan of the body

Your therapist will inquire whether the targeted memory causes unpleasant physical pain or sensations. If it does, they will walk you through another round of BLS.


  • Closure

Following each session, your therapist will discuss your progress and recommend relaxation techniques and other coping strategies to help you maintain your gains.

Phase 8: Reassessment

Your therapist will ask about the memories and feelings you discussed in the previous session during the re-evaluation phase, which begins in the next session. If those memories continue to cause pain, they may continue targeting them. However, they'll probably suggest moving on to new targets if they don't.

Medically Reviewed:


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Expert Contributor

Dr. Williams presently serves on the board of Directors for two non-profit service organizations. He holds a Master’s degree in Human Services from Lincoln University, Philadelphia, Pa, and a Ph.D. with a concentration in Clinical Psychology from Union Institute and University. In Cincinnati, Ohio. He is licensed to practice addictions counseling in both New Jersey and Connecticut and has a pending application as a practicing Psychologist in New Jersey.

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What Conditions Can EMDR Therapy Help With?

EMDR is generally recommended for people with overwhelming traumatic memories and PTSD symptoms. It may be especially beneficial if you have difficulty sharing your trauma with others, including therapists.

Although there is limited evidence to support the efficacy of EMDR for other mental health conditions, some mental health professionals may recommend it to treat:

  • Depression

  • Panic attacks caused by anxiety

  • Substance abuse disorders eating disorders

  • A systematic review published in 2017

Trusted Existing research suggests that EMDR may be beneficial for people who have a history of trauma as well as specific conditions, such as:


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Harmful Impact of EMDR Therapy

EMDR therapy is generally regarded as a safe treatment by doctors. It usually has fewer side effects than medications for depression and trauma symptoms. Furthermore, unlike some drugs, EMDR may retain its effectiveness after treatment.

Even so, EMDR and other forms of psychotherapy may have some negative adverse effects, such as:

  • An increase in traumatic memories.

  • During sessions, heightened emotions or physical sensations.

  • Lightheadedness.

  • Vivid fantasies. 

  • The emergence of new traumatic memories.


These symptoms will usually go away as the treatment progresses. However, individuals should inform their therapist about their experiences between sessions so that new memories and symptoms can be discussed in future sessions.


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Bottom Line

EMDR therapy is a type of counseling that helps people deal with traumatic memories. EMDR therapy effectively assists people in dealing with various issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression. EMDR therapy may also help to improve cognitive function and communication skills.


EMDR therapy is a relatively new and innovative treatment that effectively treats various mental health disorders. EMDR therapy is a form of psychotherapy that combines elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR therapy is especially helpful in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression.

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How does EMDR therapy work?
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