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How EMDR Therapy Works in Addiction Treatment

What’s one of the most reliable indicators of future addiction? Childhood trauma.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, which was conducted over two decades ago by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, identified ten factors:

  1. Emotional abuse
  2. Emotional neglect
  3. Physical abuse
  4. Physical neglect
  5. Sexual abuse
  6. Household substance abuse
  7. Household mental illness
  8. Parental divorce or separation
  9. Violent treatment of mother
  10. Incarcerated member of household

If five of these ten factors were present in a child’s life, he or she is seven to ten times more likely to misuse substances as an adult.

Therefore, it’s vital for any addiction treatment program to target the underlying trauma if the individual has any realistic hope of a successful recovery. One relatively new technique to help accomplish that goal is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).

Definition and Process

EMDR is a type of therapy that aims to help the patient appropriately process a traumatic event. Unlike conventional therapy, EMDR does not involve talking extensively about the trauma. Rather, the therapist employs techniques that aid the brain in reprocessing the past event so that it stops causing problems in the present and future.

Teen boy in recovery sitting on steps.

In practice, EMDR starts with the patient identifying both a previous traumatic situation and a specific feeling or emotion that was triggered as a result (like “I am scared”). Then the patient is asked to recall the memory while he or she focuses on an external stimulus that facilitates rapid bilateral eye movement, which is usually the therapist moving a finger back and forth from side to side repeatedly.

This technique is believed to help the brain process the memory properly so that it becomes disassociated from the problematic feelings and emotions that originally accompanied the event. The therapist then asks the patient to formulate a positive belief related to the occurrence (such as “I’m safe now”) and reinforce that sentiment until it is truthfully embraced.

EMDR therapy is actually an eight-phase treatment that begins with reviewing the patient’s history, assembling a treatment plan, and preparing the patient with relaxation exercises or coping techniques. After assessing the specific memories and feelings to be targeted, the next four phases consist of the actual treatment, while the final phase is reserved for progress evaluation.

Benefits for Treating Addiction

This type of therapy can be especially valuable in treating substance use disorder. After all, patients tend to turn to drugs or alcohol in the first place as a way to escape or numb their negative feelings which may be caused by trauma.

Studies have shown that EMDR is effective in treating various conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety, as well as alleviating symptoms such as panic attacks, insomnia, and hallucinations. Moreover, long-term EMDR therapy can help maintain these positive effects and reduce the risk of recurrence of use for those with substance use disorders.

It’s important to note that EMDR is not a quick-fix-silver-bullet for addiction. Not only does the therapy regimen consist of several sessions, but it must also be performed in conjunction with a customized addiction treatment plan that teaches coping skills and provides substantial support.

That said, EMDR offers significant hope to sufferers of childhood trauma who develop a substance use disorder. Once the fundamental catalyst for an individual’s problematic behavior is addressed, processed, and conquered, the person has much better odds of successfully recovering and leading a substance-free life.

For more information on addiction treatment for teens, contact Next Generation Village today.

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