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Utilizing EMDR for Recovery and Healing

Updated: Sep 10, 2023

Addiction is a complex and multifaceted disease, often rooted in deep-seated traumas that can manifest themselves as unmanageable cravings and compulsions. Many individuals struggling with addiction are also grappling with unresolved traumatic experiences, which may have played a significant role in the development of their addiction. Understanding and addressing these traumas are crucial for long-term recovery.

Understanding the Connection Between Trauma and Addiction

The intricate connection between trauma and addiction has been increasingly recognized by mental health professionals. Trauma, defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience, can range from physical abuse to emotional neglect. When these traumatic experiences are not properly processed, they can lead to a chronic sense of fear, helplessness, and vulnerability.

The Vicious Cycle. The relationship between trauma and addiction can be seen as a vicious cycle where one feeds into the other. Individuals who have experienced trauma may turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with the pain or numb the emotions associated with their traumatic experiences. Unfortunately, this can lead to addiction, where the substances themselves create additional trauma, such as health issues, broken relationships, or legal problems, further compounding the issue.

Substance Abuse as a Symptom: Understanding addiction as a symptom of underlying trauma rather than a standalone issue changes the perspective on treatment. By recognizing and addressing the root cause, treatment becomes more comprehensive, focusing on healing the entire person, not just managing the addiction.

EMDR: A Transformative Approach

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapy approach designed by Francine Shapiro in the late 1980s. This revolutionary technique has since been recognized globally for its effectiveness in treating trauma-related disorders.

EMDR is grounded in the understanding that our minds have a natural healing ability, akin to how our bodies work to heal physical injuries. Sometimes, however, a traumatic event can overwhelm this innate system, causing the traumatic memory to become "stuck" in our neural networks. This stuck memory, full of the original images, thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations, can be triggered by various present-day events, causing distress in our daily lives.

A distinctive feature of EMDR therapy is the use of bilateral stimulation to assist the brain's natural processing capacity. Bilateral stimulation can involve eye movements, auditory or tactile stimuli, such as alternating beeps in headphones or handheld buzzers that vibrate back and forth.

The therapist will ask the client to recall distressing images while conducting the bilateral stimulation. The purpose of this is to induce a rhythm of activation across the two hemispheres of the brain. This bilateral activation is thought to facilitate the reintegration and reprocessing of the traumatic memory, allowing it to transition from being "stuck" to being stored as an adaptive, resolved memory.

This is where EMDR's power in treating trauma, and subsequently addiction, becomes evident. As these "stuck" traumatic memories are reprocessed, the distress associated with the memory decreases. The symptoms caused by these unresolved memories, such as anxiety, emotional reactivity, or intrusive thoughts, often lessen or even disappear. In the context of addiction, this can mean fewer triggers, reduced cravings, and a more robust recovery.

Benefits of EMDR in Addiction Recovery

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a transformative approach that specifically targets and heals the underlying trauma that often fuels addiction. EMDR involves a trained therapist guiding the patient through targeted eye movements that help to reprocess traumatic memories, allowing them to be integrated into the brain in a healthier way.

Healing the Root Cause. Unlike traditional addiction treatments that may only focus on the addiction itself, EMDR goes deeper to address the wounds that may have contributed to the addiction in the first place. This comprehensive approach can lead to profound healing and significantly reduce the likelihood of relapse.

Reducing Triggers and Cravings. Trauma-related triggers can lead to intense cravings and relapse in individuals struggling with addiction. EMDR helps by desensitizing these triggers, reducing their power, and enabling the individual to respond more healthily when faced with potential triggers.

Enhancing Emotional Regulation. Through the processing of traumatic memories, EMDR promotes greater emotional stability and well-being. It helps individuals understand and manage their emotions, equipping them with the tools to handle stress and anxiety without resorting to substances.

Holistic Recovery Approach. EMDR can be part of a comprehensive treatment plan that includes traditional therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). By addressing both the addiction and the underlying trauma simultaneously, EMDR offers a more holistic and effective path to lasting recovery.

Considerations for Trauma in Recovery

1. Individualized Treatment: Every person's experience with trauma and addiction is unique. EMDR should be personalized to the individual's specific needs.

2. Find a Properly Trained Therapist: Finding a therapist trained in both addiction recovery and EMDR is essential. A safe and supportive environment fosters healing.

3. It’s a Journey, Not a Quick Fix: Healing trauma through EMDR takes time and commitment. The road to recovery may be long, but the journey is worthwhile.

4. The Importance of Aftercare: Continued therapy and support even after initial treatment can help solidify gains made through EMDR and other therapies.

5. Get Peer Support: Therapy and EMDR does not replace the importance of gaining support through peers including 12-step recovery programs for maintaining sobriety.

The connection between trauma and addiction cannot be overstated. Addressing underlying traumas with tools like EMDR can unlock new paths to recovery, providing hope and healing where it may have seemed impossible.

EMDR does not work in isolation. It's a part of a comprehensive treatment plan, working in conjunction with traditional therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and 12-step supports. Together, they offer a holistic and potent approach to healing and recovery from addiction.

Recovery is not just about abstaining from substances; it's about understanding, confronting, and healing the underlying wounds that may have led to addiction. EMDR offers a promising avenue towards this profound healing, illuminating a holistic approach to lasting recovery.

With compassionate care, informed therapy, and a commitment to the journey, the transformative power of recovery is within reach. Consider the role that EMDR can play in the recovery process with the help of the 12-steps. Remember to be gentle with yourself and recovery is possible.

Written by Director and Founder Gordon Gooding, LCSW & Peter Juliano, LCSW

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