EMDR therapy for PTSD and addiction

For many individuals with PTSD, addiction, and other psychological disorders, it is difficult to move past trauma and heal the mind and body. EMDR therapy is a popular treatment method due to its effectiveness in reframing negative memories and moving into a healthier headspace. Read on to learn more about EMDR, how it’s used, and the benefits of seeking professional treatment to overcome the effects of trauma and addiction.


What is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR is a type of psychotherapy used to help people deal with emotional distress associated with traumatic memories and experiences. EDMR therapy is a clinically proven method for healing the mind from the effects of trauma, and it is frequently utilized as a treatment methodology for individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).1

EMDR therapy involves recalling or triggering traumatic memories while a trained therapist directs eye movements in what’s known as bilateral stimulation. EMDR for PTSD allows those with distressing memories to work through them while also diverging their attention, making the body’s emotional response much less severe.

Over time, using EMDR for PTSD can significantly lessen the emotional strain of these memories and help individuals recover from post-traumatic stress.1

What does EMDR stand for?

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. This type of therapy uses bilateral stimulation – typically through eye movements or other stimuli like sounds or tapping –to desensitize the brain and body’s response to traumatic memories and triggers.


How Effective is EMDR for PTSD?

EMDR therapy is proven to be an effective treatment method for PTSD. One study showed that around 77% of participants undergoing EMDR therapy no longer met the qualifying criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder following their treatment.2

Not only does EDMR therapy prove to be effective during and following treatment, but the techniques and tools learned during EMDR for PTSD are continuously used after therapy and produce long-term, positive effects for the patient. EMDR is also proven to be an effective treatment modality for other psychiatric disorders including depression, anxiety, panic disorders, hallucinations, eating disorders, chronic pain, and addiction.

How fast does EMDR work?

The typical course of treatment for EMDR therapy is 1 to 2 sessions per week, for a total of 6 to 12 sessions. However, treatment for PTSD is a very individualized journey, and some people find results before even receiving the full course of sessions.3


EMDR for Addiction Treatment

Trauma and addiction are often co-occurring disorders. For many individuals suffering from PTSD, depression, anxiety, or other psychological conditions related to past traumas, substance abuse is also likely to affect their lives.

It can be difficult to treat addiction without first addressing and treating trauma. However, EMDR therapy is an effective method to adjust the body’s response to traumatic triggers and memories. By working through and moving past trauma, an individual is less likely to rely on drugs or alcohol to alleviate the feelings associated with their trauma.

The link between trauma and addiction

Trauma and addiction are frequently linked. Individuals with addictions to alcohol or drugs commonly have a history of trauma. While each person experiences and processes traumatic events differently, there is a common connection between unresolved trauma and substance use disorder.

While trauma can range from witnessing a horrific event, to losing a loved one, to experiencing child abuse or military combat, it’s common for individuals with unresolved trauma to seek an escape. This escape often takes the form of drug or alcohol consumption, which can quickly spiral into addiction. Many side effects and symptoms of trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or anxiety can feel more manageable when using drugs or alcohol. The long-term effects, though, can be extremely detrimental both physically and emotionally.


How does EMDR Therapy Work?

The 8 stages of EMDR therapy4

Phase 1: History-taking

The history-taking phase of EMDR therapy involves an individual working with their therapist to identify a collaborative treatment plan. It begins with addressing the reason for seeking treatment, including past traumatic events and their impact on current day-to-day life. An individualized plan will be developed to reach a place of healing for the client.

Phase 2: Preparation

In the preparation phase, the therapist will explain EMDR therapy and how it works to treat PTSD. The client will learn what to expect before, during, and after treatment, as well as any potential EMDR side effects.

Phase 3: Assessment

The assessment phase of EMDR therapy involves activating the specific memory that will be targeted during therapy. Two different scales are used to determine the changes in emotion and cognition during the assessment: the Subjective Units of Disturbance Scale (SUD), and the Validity of Cognition scale (VOC).

Phase 4: Desensitization

During desensitization, the client and therapist work on lessening the client’s sensitivity to a particular trigger or memory. The client will focus on the memory while engaging in bilateral stimulation. Bilateral stimulation can include eye movements or other external stimuli.

Phase 5: Installation

The installation phase is when the client refocuses on positive beliefs to replace the negative ones. The goal is to reframe traumatic triggers or memories and associate them with new cognitive beliefs that eliminate the body’s need for a stress response.

Phase 6: Body Scan

After the positive cognition is strengthened and is measuring at the height of the VOC scale, the client will revisit the traumatic memory or event. Their therapist will help to detect any physical responses and bodily tension that arise with this memory. If any tension is measured, the client and therapist target these feelings and work to resolve them.

Phase 7: Closure

Each EMDR session ends with closure. The goal is to ensure that the client leaves their session in a safe and positive mindset. When a targeted trauma is not fully resolved by the end of a session, the therapist will arm the client with techniques and instructions for self-soothing until the next session.

Phase 8: Reevaluation

Reevaluation takes place at the beginning of the next session. The therapist will evaluate the client’s current psychological state and identify any feelings or stressors that have arisen since the previous session. Reevaluation provides clarity about what issues can be targeted and addressed during the next session.


Other Factors of EMDR Therapy

Bilateral stimulation

Bilateral stimulation has a multitude of benefits that contribute to the effectiveness of EMDR therapy. Bilateral stimulation activates and integrates information between both hemispheres of the brain, allowing an individual to safely distract from stressors and feel more relaxed.

By using bilateral stimulation techniques, thoughts become less focused on stressors and can more easily be redirected. Bilateral stimulation increases the patient’s relaxation and diminishes the body’s stress response.

Working memory

The effectiveness of EMDR for depression, addiction, and PTSD is due to its taxation on an individual’s working memory. When an individual focuses on a distressing memory while simultaneously focusing on another stimulus, both stimuli are competing for limited working memory resources. When an individual cannot fully focus on the traumatic memory, the body cannot form a complete trauma response, and the memory will be more “blurred.” When the patient subsequently recalls this memory, it will continue to appear more and more blurred, until its physical effects on the body are diminished.5

What are the side effects of EMDR?

EMDR therapy is generally considered a safe treatment modality with few side effects of concern. Some reported effects that may occur during or between treatment sessions include:

  • A marked increase in distressing memories
  • Lightheadedness during sessions
  • Vivid dreams
  • Feelings of heightened emotions, especially during sessions

Any side effects that occur, whether during treatment sessions or following, should be discussed with an individual’s therapist and a plan for navigating side effects will be addressed if deemed necessary.


  1. https://www.healthline.com/health/emdr-therapy
  2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S000579161100098X
  3. https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/treatments/eye-movement-reprocessing
  4. https://www.emdria.org/about-emdr-therapy/experiencing-emdr-therapy/
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4325664/#:~:text=In%20EMDR%2C%20patients%20are%20asked,make%20eye%20movements%20(EM).&text=The%20effectiveness%20of%20EM%20in,%5BWM%2C%20e.g.%2C%20Ref

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