EMDR in the Treatment of Substance Use & Addiction
These days it would be nearly impossible to come across a person who hasn’t been impacted by addiction in some way or another. Whether it be alcoholism down the generations, a current loved one struggling with a drug problem, a partner or spouse with problematic compulsive behavior, addiction can disrupt lives and cause immense pain and dysfunction to individuals, families, and society as a whole.
Traditionally, individuals entering into recovery seek help in a variety of ways including 12-Step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA), psychopharmacology (treatment via psychotropic medication), as well as participation in psychotherapy (aka “counseling”). In therapy, various approaches are taken that include Cognitive-Behavior Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), or just supportive counseling to name a few. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) is another powerful option for treating addiction. It is becoming more and more popular in recent days due to its overall effectiveness.
What is EMDR?
EMDR is a psychotherapy approach that enables people to heal and recover from disturbing life experiences. It has been practiced around the world for the past 30 years or so and is an accepted treatment for trauma and PTSD by the American Psychiatric Association, Veterans Administration, Department of Defense, World Health Organization, and the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, among others.
EMDR is based on the idea that current dysfunction stems from insufficiently-processed, maladaptively-stored disturbing memories from the past. Essentially, when a person experiences a traumatic event or something that is beyond the capacity for their brain to process at the time, parts of the memory get stuck causing them to experience problems often many years down the road. In EMDR, the therapist searches for these root dysfunctional memories. They will have the goal of reprocessing them to a neutral state, thereby resolving the current issue. An EMDR therapist leads a client in a series of eye movements. Or, other types of bilateral stimulation (tactile or auditory). At the same time, the client focuses on various aspects of a disturbing memory. During this procedure, clients process the memory often in a positive and rapid way that leads to a peaceful resolution.
How Does EMDR Help to Treat Addiction?
This next section will discuss the variety of ways EMDR can be applied clinically to address the underlying mechanisms that fuel the addictive process. Thus, paving the way for lasting recovery.
Addiction and Trauma are Intricately Linked
You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to understand how a person who has suffered from painful traumas in the past can end up resorting to the use of substances or compulsive behaviors to cope with the disturbing feelings, thoughts, and body sensations that often result. To make things worse, a person struggling with an addiction or substance use disorder often experiences trauma as a result of their use. This cycle of trauma and addiction desperately needs to be interrupted, and EMDR is a therapy that can help. The following sections list examples of clinical applications of EMDR therapy in the treatment of addiction.
(1) EMDR to Target Big “T” Traumas
People who are survivors of major traumatic events (e.g., rape, physical abuse, violent assaults, combat, car accidents, natural disasters, etc.) may often experience a wide range of debilitating, post-traumatic stress symptoms. Often, these individuals look for ways to cope and numb their subsequent distress. They may use substances or engage in compulsive or addictive behaviors. Their inner experience is so uncomfortable that they are just looking to feel okay. And who can blame them?! Unfortunately, while these behaviors may provide some temporary relief, the problem often becomes worse. The underlying traumas are never dealt with and, now, secondary problems arise from the maladaptive behavior. EMDR is an effective therapy to resolve these traumatic memories, thus eliminating the need to self-medicate.
(2) EMDR to Target Small “t” Traumas
Research shows that little “t” traumatic events have as much or even greater ability to cause negative symptoms and mental health problems for those who have experienced them. These include experiences such as growing up with a critical parent, bullying in school, not fitting in or lacking a sense of belonging, peer rejection, and emotional neglect, to name a few. These experiences often negatively shape a person’s personality and the way they see themselves, others, and the world. They may manifest in ways such as low self-esteem, perfectionism, and toxic shame. They may create patterns of feeling defective, unsafe, or out of control. And, of course, many people compulsively use substances to cope with those internal, negative experiences. EMDR is an effective therapy to address these memories and change the core negative beliefs that may fuel the addictive process.
(3) EMDR to Target Negative Core Beliefs (Schemas)
Maladaptive negative beliefs about oneself, others, and the world can contribute to compulsive urges to cope in unhealthy ways. These beliefs center around themes that include defectiveness and responsibility (e.g., “I’m worthless”, I’m a failure”, “It’s all my fault”), safety and vulnerability (e.g., “I’m not safe”), power and control (e.g., “I’m helpless”), or connection and belonging (“I don’t fit in”). Often, there is a discrepancy between what someone knows to be true and what someone feels is true at a gut level. For example, how many people know intellectually that they’re safe. But, for some reason, they may feel like danger is lurking around the corner. Or how many people rationally know they’re good enough but for whatever reason feel deeply inadequate? EMDR is an effective treatment for changing these deeply held schemas by targeting the often little “t” traumas that are at the root of these beliefs.
EMDR Protocols Exist to Target the Addiction Itself
Up until now, this article has focused on using EMDR therapy to reprocess maladaptively-stored, negative memories related to traumatic events and conditions. If you think about it though, addiction often represents maladaptive positive memories of feeling the euphoria of getting high, having a great time partying, etc. This is illustrated by the term “chasing the dragon.” This refers to the elusive pursuit of a high equal to the first time the person uses. “Euphoric recall”, the tendency of people to remember events positively (like selective memory) is often a contributor to relapse. The positive memories of getting high or engaging in an addictive behavior are often at the core of why a person seeks to repeat that experience again and again. Thus, perpetuating the addiction.
Specialty EMDR protocols exist to target the addictive triggers, urges, and positive memories of the addictive behavior themselves. The DeTUR protocol is short for “Desensitization of Triggers and Urge Reprocessing”. It installs a positive goal for sobriety while targeting the urge that is associated with various triggering experiences. The Feeling State Addiction Protocol (FSAP) targets the maladaptive, positive feeling state that is achieved by the addictive behavior. All while also reprocessing the traumas that often prevent this from being achieved naturally. The CravEx protocol targets cravings, urges, and addiction memories. Your EMDR therapist, trained in these protocols, can help!
Schedule an Appointment for EMDR Therapy for Addiction in Palm Beach County, FL
At Mangrove Therapy Group, we believe it’s possible for you to feel better and get past your difficulties. Our team of trained EMDR therapists is ready to support you in overcoming your substance use or addiction issue. All of our therapists are trained in EMDR therapy and specialize in trauma and addiction. We would be honored to support you both in-person and online. To start your therapy journey, please follow these simple steps:
- Contact Mangrove Therapy to meet with a caring therapist
- Check out our page on EMDR Therapy
- Start overcoming your problems!
Other Services Offered with Mangrove Therapy Group
EMDR therapy isn’t the only service our team offers at our Delray Beach, FL-based practice. Our therapists are experts in treating trauma and PTSD/C-PTSD, eating disorders, body image issues, anger management, anxiety, low self-esteem, and much more. Please feel free to learn more about how we can support you by giving us a call or visiting our blog page today!