Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a form of psychotherapy that is designed to mimic REM sleep. It’s primarily used to treat post-traumatic stress and phobias.
Addiction—and mental health issues in general—can be oppressive forces in your life. If you are looking for help overcoming those obstacles, it’s good to explore every tool available to you. EMDR therapy is one such tool. As a relatively young psychotherapeutic technique, it started in 1989 as an idea that was heavily based on theory. Today, it is an evidence-based therapy that has proven to be useful in combating post-traumatic stress disorder, and it’s showing promise in treating other disorders like addiction and anxiety as well.
However, there is still some controversy surrounding EMDR therapy and its methodology. Is it an exciting new psychotherapeutic method or is it a re-written cognitive behavioral therapy?
What is EMDR therapy?
Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing therapy focuses on addressing painful, frightening, or traumatic memories that might be the underlying cause of certain psychological issues. EMDR is most commonly used to help people who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD is an anxiety disorder characterized by flashbacks, memories, or stimuli that trigger the fight-or-flight response. Triggers can cause anything from anxiety to a panic attack and contribute to a higher risk factor for suicide and self-harm. PTSD was first studied in response to soldiers in or returning from the World Wars. The term post-traumatic stress was used in the 1970s and was first diagnosed in the context of the Vietnam War.
PTSD is often associated with combat trauma, but it can also come from other traumatic events such as assault, rape, and child abuse. Nearly half of all rape survivors will develop PTSD.
EMDR targets negative memories and emotions that may have led to mental health disorders. Because negative memories can contribute to other disorders like phobias and addiction, EMDR is now experimentally applied to new disorders.
How EMDR therapy works
In 1989, EMDR therapy was developed by Francine Shapiro after she noticed that her own negative feelings subsided as her eyes moved back and forth on a walk through the woods. The calming effect led her to the hypothesis that rhythmic eye movement can mimic REM sleep.
Rapid eye movement (REM) is a phase of sleep in which your body achieves the deepest state of rest and self-healing. During this phase, your eyes will move rhythmically and rapidly. You will also experience dreams and higher brain activity during REM sleep.
Shapiro believed that simulating REM was the key component that allowed patients to reprocess painful memories. However, it has since been found that other forms of stimuli are also effective, like musical tones or tapping your feet.
In EMDR therapy, you will talk through traumatic experiences or negative emotions as prompted by the therapist. While you do this, you will focus on a bilateral stimulation, or an unrelated physical or auditory stimulus. Traditionally, this is when the therapist will move their finger back and forth while the patient follows with their eyes.
The goal is to help desensitize you to memories and triggers that would cause anxiety or panic. Theoretically, focusing on another task simultaneously while discussing negative feelings help the patient reprocess memories and emotions.
Criticisms of EMDR therapy
Since its inception, parallels have been drawn between EMDR therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). In both, the end goal is to reprocess thought to facilitate mental healing. Both involve a therapist talking a patient through their memories and emotions. However, unlike CBT, EMDR doesn’t involve detailed recounting of the traumatic event, or, in fact, some critics say that the eye movement and finger following might be altogether unnecessary.
According to a study in 2001, “EMDR appears to be no more effective than other exposure techniques, and evidence suggests that the eye movements integral to the treatment, and to its name, are unnecessary.” This proposes that talking through your memories with a therapist yield EMDR and you could take or leave the bilateral stimuli.
Still, since EMDR therapy has seen study after study point to its apparent efficacy, it’s made its way into researched-based treatments, making it distinct from other, unproven options like hypnotherapy. But the jury is still out on how and why EMDR works. There is a question as to whether or not bilateral stimulus is helpful and there seems to be little evidence to suggest that eye movement specifically has any benefit.
However, it’s clear that that EMDR is a helpful treatment for post-traumatic stress and, in the last few years, it has shown to be a promising option for other disorders as well.
EMDR Therapy in Addiction Treatment
According to some studies, EMDR has not only shown the ability to desensitize patients with negative feelings, but it weakens the power of positive ones as well. That may sound like a bad thing, but it’s extremely helpful in addiction treatment. Since addiction is a disease that primarily affects the reward center of the brain, former users may remember the experience of getting high as an extremely positive one.
Users of powerfully addictive drugs like heroin often describe their addiction like they are chasing their first time using. But it’s never quite as good. Even after addicts go into recovery, they may remember the experience of getting high as incredibly positive, despite negative consequences. That feeling can trigger strong cravings that risk relapse.
A 2015 study looked at the potential for EMDR in addiction treatment and determined that it could help in making memories of addictive behavior less powerful and vivid. By reducing cravings, EMDR can help people in recovery avoid relapse.