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Eyes on the Prize: The Surprising Power of EMDR in Addiction Recovery

Though tremendous strides have been made in treating the disease of addiction in recent decades, much work remains to be done. Thus, efforts to understand and, therefore, to better combat the disease of addiction continue. So, too, does the emergence of new treatment protocols that are bringing light and hope to those who have been for too long lost in the shadows of addiction.

Among the most promising of these recent discoveries is EMDR, which is an acronym

for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Though originally developed as a psychotherapeutic approach for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), EMDR is increasingly being studied for the treatment of non-PTSD disorders or PTSD comorbidities (1-7).

This includes significant research into the use of EMDR for the treatment of SUD, both with and without co-occurring disorders, such as PTSD, anxiety, or depression (3, 8, 9, 10). Thus far, the evidence is quite exciting. There is significant empirical support for the use of EMDR in treating unresolved trauma and PTSD, which also has important benefits for the treatment of SUD, as will be discussed at greater length below. In addition, there is mounting evidence that EMDR may be quite effective as an add-on treatment option for those in addiction recovery, including those with no known history of trauma or PTSD.

What Is EMDR?

EMDR is a psychotherapeutic approach that seeks to, in essence, “reprogram” the patient’s neurobiological responses to unhealthy triggers. For those with PTSD or unresolved trauma, these triggers are typically the memories of the traumatic event that have come to induce a wide range of physiological and psychological responses, from panic to hyperventilation and other symptoms associated with the body’s fight or flight response (1, 2, 3).

In patients with anxiety disorders, EMDR protocols call for the inducement of similar triggers. In addition to anxiety-producing memories, patients with anxiety disorders may be asked to conjure images of scenarios and situations that induce fear, worry, panic, or severe anxiety (1, 2, 3, 12, 13).

During EMDR treatment, the instigation of emotional and neurobiological triggers is intended to incite the physical and mental symptoms of the disorder under the close supervision of the therapist or psychiatrist. Once the therapist detects the first signs of the onset of the patient’s symptoms, they begin to lead the patient through a systematic series of eye movements.

While the mechanisms through which EMDR works are not clearly understood as yet, there is strong evidence that the systematic eye movements operate on the deep structures of the brain much in the same way that REM sleep does (2).

More specifically, these eye movements are thought to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, which tempers the body’s arousal responses, including fear and anxiety responses. The parasympathetic nervous system is principally responsible for relaxation, sleep, and rest and, as such, it is the antagonist to panic, hyperreactivity, and impulsivity (2).

Because the parasympathetic nervous system, in essence, softens the neurobiological responses that certain memories and thoughts can induce, activating this system while at the same time recalling symptom triggers leads to desensitization. Researchers speculate that the desensitization effects may be due to the mechanisms through which thoughts and memories are processed in the deepest and most primitive structures of the brain (2). These deep brain structures “record” and retain the neurobiological responses that occur simultaneously with those thoughts and memories.

When, thanks to the triggering of the parasympathetic nervous system through eye movement,  the mind and body are not in fight or flight mode or otherwise hyperresponsive to the thought/memory, those deep brain structures take note. They learn to encode the thought or memory not as frightening or threatening but as a memory or thought that incites little or no emotional or physiological response at all. The deep structures of the brain, then, have learned to reprocess the memory or thought in a way that doesn’t trigger anxiety, PTSD, or other pathological symptoms.

EMDR and Addiction Recovery

As intriguing as this research may be, you might still be wondering what all of this has to do with addiction and your recovery. Well, a lot, actually, and for a variety of reasons.

One of the most significant reasons why EMDR is showing so much promise in addiction

recovery can be explained by the strong connection between substance dependency and other comorbid conditions, including anxiety and depression (14, 15, 16). In addition, researchers have found a significant link between SUD and a personal and/or family history of trauma (17, 18, 19).

There is increasing evidence that more than half of those who experience addiction also have a co-occurring condition, such as a mood disorder (i.e. anxiety or depression), PTSD, and/or unresolved trauma. So common are these comorbidities that addiction experts now believe that, for many, addiction is triggered, sustained, and exacerbated by the effort to self-medicate, to cope with feelings and experiences for which the individual has no other tools for healing and recovery.

When EMDR is used to mitigate the symptoms of mood disorders, PTSD, unresolved problems, or other SUD comorbidities, then a primary catalyst for drug and alcohol abuse is remediated or entirely removed. And that can be a critical element of long-term sobriety.

However, there is also increasing evidence that the efficacy of EMDR in addiction recovery doesn’t lie only in its treatment of comorbidities. Because EMDR seems to strongly temper the body’s emotional and physical responses to triggering thoughts and memories, it seems to be quite effective in reducing the cravings that come from substance use triggers (3, 9, 10). More specifically, EMDR decreases symptoms such as hyperarousal, reactivity, and impulsivity that those experiencing addiction turn to drugs or alcohol to alleviate when the thoughts and memories linked to anxiety, depression, and trauma surface.

Just as importantly, if not more so, EMDR also seems to reduce cravings and decrease the impact of substance use triggers. The emotional and physical impacts of thoughts and memories of drinking or drug use are dampened, as are the cravings for the “high” of that next drink or hit (3, 9, 10). The memory of how it felt to drink or use just doesn’t have enough force anymore to incite the irresistible craving.

How Bayshore Can Help

At Bayshore, we are proud to offer a full roster of evidence-based treatment protocols customized to your individual needs and goals. Together, we work with our clients to devise the addiction recovery program that is just right for them. We are proud to include EMDR as a valued and widely-used additive approach to addiction treatment at Bayshore. This includes the use of EMDR in dual diagnosis treatment for those experiencing anxiety, depression, PTSD, unresolved trauma, and other mental and physical health challenges.

Contact the expert team at Bayshore today to explore EMDR as well as our full roster of specialized addiction recovery services. We look forward to helping you or someone you love build a healthy, happy, dependency-free future through our wide array of innovative, evidence-based, and personalized treatment programs.

At Bayshore Retreat we have extensive knowledge in treating substance abuse and co-occurring mental health issues. We understand that Mental Health Disorders can be the root cause of substance abuse. We use the latest scientific research and holistic approach for drug and alcohol addiction treatment.

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