EMDR Therapy for Addiction

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a psychological stress-relieving technique that relies on interactive psychotherapy techniques. It is commonly used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.

(EMDR) therapy is a psychological stress-relieving technique that relies on interactive psychotherapy techniques.

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What is EMDR Therapy?

According to EMDR Institute, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a psychotherapy treatment originally designed to relieve distress associated with traumatic memories. EMDR therapy works to heal individuals suffering from a disturbing experience’s symptoms and emotional distresses. Several studies show that EDMR therapy for addiction helps people experience the benefits of psychotherapy that once took years to make a difference.1

EMDR therapy can be seen as a form of rapid mind healing. While it is widely assumed that it takes a long time to heal from severe emotional pain, EMDR therapy has shown that the mind can heal from psychological trauma just as easily as the body recovers from physical trauma.

How Does EMDR Therapy Work?

EMDR therapy sessions require the patient to relive traumatic experiences in brief doses while the therapist directs their eye movements. EMDR therapy’s effectiveness is linked to the fact that there is less emotion towards distressing or traumatic events when one’s attention is diverted. This technique lessens the psychological impact of distressing events over time for the patient.

EDMR therapy uses an eight-phase treatment approach to focus on three time periods: the past, present, and future.

Details about EMDR Therapy

Bilateral Stimulation

The most-used technique in EMDR therapy is Bilateral Stimulation (BLS). Bilateral stimulation means the stimulation of both sides of the brain. This method helps the patient process traumatic memories and the fear or worries of future problems. With BLS, the whole brain is activated, similar to the function of “Rapid Eye Movement (REM)” sleep patterns. BLS facilitates the process of re-filling the working memories into a more useful place in the brain and body.

Bilateral stimulation is categorized into the vertical to horizontal eye movements or the left to right movements. These movements are beneficial to a patient’s ability to process memories based on two theories; the working memory theory and the increase in interhemispheric communication.

Working Memory

An active memory that is recalled is stored in the “working memory” part of the brain. Long-term memory, on the other hand, is inactive memory. Long-term memory is known for its massive storage capacity. Working memory works like a computer RAM (Random Access Memory), meaning it is fast but has a small storage capacity. With EMDR therapy, a distressing memory is activated by calling it into the working memory, then the bilateral stimulation (eye movements) is introduced. This technique helps to tax the working memory and make the memory less traumatic.

The idea behind this method is that recalling a negative memory and performing bilateral stimulation simultaneously causes the vividness of the memory to diminish and reduces the emotional charge of the memory. This method has been shown to work with highly distressing memories and mildly negative memories. This method also makes it easy for the patient to recall the memory without feeling upset.

EMDR Tappers

EMDR tappers are devices that create stimuli on alternating sides of the body. EMDR tappers are used for bilateral stimulation in EMDR therapy. In recent times, apps on iPhones and Apple Watches simulate the actions of EMDR tappers.

EMDR for Addiction Treatment

While EMDR was originally developed for Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), methodologically strict and rigorous meta-analyses of clinical trials indicate that EDMR is effective as cognitive behavior therapy. This factor is important because cognitive behavioral therapy is a major technique used to treat addiction and substance abuse disorders.2

How is EMDR Therapy Performed?

EMDR therapy requires special training and certification to be performed properly. Clinicians are eligible to become EMDR International Association Certified Therapists if they have an advanced degree from an accredited college or university, if they are fully licensed in their mental health professional field for independent practice, and if they possess at least two years of experience.

According to EMDR International Association, Specific EMDR requirements include the completion of an EMDRIA approved training program in EMDR therapy, a minimum of 50 clinical EMDR-utilized sessions, and 20 hours of consultation in EMDR by an approved consultant. For EMDR Certified Therapists to maintain their credential, they must complete twelve hours of continuing education in EMDR every two years.3

The EMDR certification training can be applied for online on the EMDR International Association website.4

How Fast Does EMDR Work?

According to Shoreline Recovery Center, each individual reacts differently to EMDR therapy, but as a general rule, a typical session will last anywhere between 60-90 minutes. However, getting to the bottom of traumatic memory and completely rewiring the brain can take from three to twelve sessions.

What are the Side Effects of EMDR?

A recent and encompassing meta-analysis found significant adverse effects for eye movement therapy in clinical trials. While this form of psychological therapy is safe, there are a few minor side effects experienced by patients that go through these sessions.

Dangers of EMDR Therapy

EMDR therapy is considered to be safe and has far fewer side effects than most prescribed medications. However, there are some mild side effects that a patient may experience from EMDR.

Studies show that EMDR therapy causes an increased awareness of thinking during sessions, and this heightened awareness does not usually end immediately after the session. The heightened awareness can cause the patient to feel light-headed and have vivid, realistic dreams.

People who have been through significantly traumatic events can find the beginning of EMDR therapy to be triggering due to the increased focus on the event. While the therapy is likely to work, such patients may find it hard to move through the course of initial treatment.

EMDR for Mental Disorders

EMDR for Depression

While several studies prove that EMDR therapy is effective for treating PTSD, there are still conflicting studies on the effectiveness of this technique against depression. However, a study conducted on the effectiveness of EMDR for the treatment of long-term depression concluded that EMDR is a feasible treatment for recurrent and/or long-term depression.5

The study pointed out three use cases of EMDR for depression:

  • EMDR may be an effective treatment for depression.
  • EMDR could be considered if first-line approaches like CBT and counseling fail.
  • EMDR may be particularly useful for service users with a history of trauma.


EMDR has been proven effective in treating trauma and PTSD. While research still needs to be done, EMDR has also been found to be useful in treating other mental conditions like panic disorders, depression, and anxiety. Organizations like the American Psychiatric Association,6 the American Psychological Association,7 the World Health Organization,8 and more have found EMDR therapy to be an effective treatment option for PTSD and trauma.

  1. https://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/
  2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0005796710002305
  3. https://www.emdria.org/emdr-training-education/emdr-certification/
  4. https://members.emdria.org/certification-programs
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5836996/
  6. https://www.psychiatry.org/psychiatrists/practice/clinical-practice-guidelines
  7. https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/treatments/eye-movement-reprocessing
  8. https://www.who.int/mental_health/emergencies/stress_guidelines/en/

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