EMDR Therapy Still Effective at Treating Addiction, Data Shows

March 27, 2024

4 mins

Jackie Rosu


Addiction recovery can include a myriad of inpatient and outpatient programs, including medical detox, partial hospitalization, sober living, and more.

Addiction recovery can include a myriad of inpatient and outpatient programs, including medical detox, partial hospitalization, sober living, and more. But despite individuals with addiction accessing these support services and resources, addiction relapse rates can reach up to 70%. This indicates a need for more effective treatments.

A recent study by researchers from Florida Atlantic University showed promise for using eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy to help treat addiction. Participants experienced fewer cravings, fewer negative thoughts, and decreased irrational perceptions.

But what is EMDR therapy, and how does it work in treating addiction? Let’s take a closer look.

What Is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR therapy is a mental health treatment technique that involves eye movement under the guidance and supervision of a certified and trained professional while you reprocess traumatic events. This technique is designed to stimulate the brain’s natural healing process rather than changing your thoughts and behaviors related to a stressful event. 

While the traumatic experience is still remembered after EMDR treatment, the upsetting images, thoughts, or emotions that used to be associated with it are less prevalent. This enables you to recall details of the trauma without feeling distressed.

What Conditions Does EMDR Therapy Treat?

EMDR therapy is used to treat a variety of mental health disorders. These include:

Research continues to support positive health outcomes associated with using EMDR, and the technique is proven to help people recover from trauma. Older research has even shown that it can be more effective than using some common medications used to treat emotional disorders.

How Does EMDR Therapy Work?

EMDR therapy is typically conducted across multiple sessions that last about 60-90 minutes. There are 8 phases involved. Here’s a brief overview of each phase.

1. History & Planning

Your healthcare provider will ask you about the problem that brought you into therapy and any related symptoms or behaviors. This phase will also cover your goals for your EMDR therapy and which memories or events you’d like to focus on. 

2. Preparation & Education

Your provider will walk you through what to expect with EMDR therapy. They’ll also provide you with tools to manage any overwhelming emotions that may come up during treatment.

3. Assessment

In this phase, you’ll work with your provider to select a specific mental image associated with your trauma and any negative self-talk you experience. Then, you’ll pick a positive self-statement to replace that with.

4. Desensitization

During desensitization, your therapist will guide you through a series of eye movements, sounds, or taps to activate your memory. You’ll be directed to take note of any new feelings or thoughts you have throughout the reprocessing.

5. Installation

Your provider will shift your focus to the positive belief you identified during the assessment phase to increase the strength of that belief.

6. Body Scan

Once your positive perceptions start to develop, your provider will ask you to recall the traumatic memory once more. You’ll be guided in identifying any physical sensations you feel throughout your body. 

Research shows there is often a physical response to any unresolved thoughts. These areas can then be targeted for further reprocessing.

7. Closure & Stabilization

This phase occurs at the end of every session during EMDR therapy. The goal is to make sure you leave your session feeling better than you did at the beginning. However, some patients may experience fatigue or other side effects following treatment sessions.

8. Reevaluation & Continuing Care

Reevaluation occurs at the beginning of every subsequent EMDR session to see how the treatment is working over time. This will help determine whether continued sessions are needed.

Is It Possible for You to Do EMDR Therapy on Your Own?

While it’s possible to do EMDR therapy yourself at home, it’s not recommended. This is because the therapy can come with side effects and risks if it’s not conducted properly, including:

  • Retraumatization
  • Worsening symptoms
  • Intense emotions related to reliving the trauma
  • Ineffective results

Always seek the help of a certified professional to perform EMDR therapy to treat complex traumas and PTSD.

How Does EMDR Work for Addiction?

While EMDR has proven to be effective for disorders like PTSD and depression, more research is still needed to definitively say EMDR for addiction helps to reduce substance-related symptoms. However, initial studies have shown positive results, especially related to addiction cravings.

Cravings are maintained and strengthened by images stored in your memory. The more vivid the imagery, the more likely the cravings are to be strong. The memories formed in addiction are similar to those that are developed in people with PTSD. EMDR therapy can transform these memories through brain reprocessing.

The 2023 study by Florida Atlantic University tested this theory and found that EMDR for addiction was just as effective for reducing cravings as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). When the two therapies were combined, participants saw a more significant decrease in cravings and negative thought patterns than those who underwent CBT therapy on its own.

While further studies are needed, EMDR could be a valuable add-on to current addiction treatments. This is especially true for people who have specific memories that are driving their addiction cravings.

Find EMDR Therapy Services With Addiction Recovery Consultants

Never Alone Recovery is a free resource that exists to help people take the next step in their addiction recovery journey. In addition to offering a free online support group, the Never Alone program offers free consultations to help match you with the best-fit programming. If you’re curious about EMDR for addiction, we can help answer your questions.

Call us now at 866-788-8335 to develop an addiction recovery support plan you feel confident in.

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