Addiction Recovery - Dual Diagnosis

EMDR Therapy: How This Interesting Form of Therapy Helps Treat Addiction, Trauma, & More

EMDR therapy is an evidence-based, proven technique to treat the symptoms of mental health and drug addiction. Learn more in our blog.

EMDR Therapy: How It Can Treat Addiction, Mental Health, & More

Table of contents

Written by

Brian MooreBrian Moore

Content Writer

Reviewed by

Jeremy ArztJeremy Arzt

Chief Clinical Officer

October 21, 2023

The Forge Recovery Center

Substance abuse and mental health can be complex and multifaceted problems with many underlying causes, including trauma, anxiety, despair, or other mental illnesses. These unresolved issues may cause cravings and undesirable actions that result in substance abuse and addiction.

EMDR therapy effectively treats the underlying problems that lead to drug abuse, making it a valuable tool in addiction treatment.

Addiction Stats:

As per data from a Drug Use study by Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, drug use is, directly and indirectly, responsible for 11.8 million deaths each year. Also, over 350,000 people die from overdoses (alcohol and illicit drug use disorders) each year.

What is EMDR Therapy in Treating Addiction?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is often known as EMDR therapy. It is a type of psychotherapy created to treat conditions linked to trauma, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Yet, EMDR therapy has recently been proven successful in treating various mental health conditions, including addiction. 

EMDR therapy is a structured therapy that involves eight phases. In these stages, the client concentrates on a particular target or memory as the therapist leads them through eye motions, taps, or sounds. Reprocessing traumatic or upsetting memories aims to make them less emotionally unsettling and disturbing.

EMDR therapy can be used in addiction treatment to assist patients in recognizing and addressing the root reasons for their addictive behaviors. Addiction can be influenced by trauma, stress, and unfavorable self-perceptions, and EMDR therapy can assist people in processing and reframing these events. The goal of EMDR therapy is to assist patients in reprocessing painful feelings and memories to help them develop healthier coping mechanisms and lessen their desire to abuse drugs. 

Research on EMDR therapy for addiction treatment has shown promising results. For example, in one study, participants who received EMDR therapy for addiction had significantly lower cravings and reduced substance use than those who received traditional addiction treatment. Another study found that EMDR therapy was effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression in individuals with substance use disorders.

By assisting patients in addressing the root reasons for their addictive behaviors, EMDR therapy is a type of psychotherapy that has shown promise in treating addiction. EMDR treatment can assist people in developing new coping mechanisms and lowering the desire to take drugs by using an organized process of revisiting traumatic or upsetting experiences.

How did EMDR Therapy Start?

Francine Shapiro, a psychologist, created EMDR treatment in the 1980s to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Therapist Laurel Parnell pioneered the study of EMDR's potential benefits in addiction treatment in the 1990s. First, Parnell saw a decrease in the client's drug cravings while using EMDR to heal traumatic memories with an addict.

Parnell then developed the Attachment-Focused EMDR (AF-EMDR) method of addiction therapy, which integrates EMDR therapy with attachment theory. According to attachment theory, early childhood attachment experiences with caretakers can affect the growth of attachment styles, which in turn can affect relationships and coping mechanisms in later life.

AF-EMDR aims to help individuals process painful memories associated with attachment problems, such as mistreatment or abandonment, which may fuel their addiction. As a result, people may be better able to control their emotions, have healthier relationships, and deal with triggers for substance use if they analyze these experiences.

Does EMDR Therapy Work?

Many studies have been conducted to support the utility of EMDR therapy in treating addiction. For instance, EMDR therapy was beneficial in reducing cravings and PTSD symptoms in people with substance use disorders, according to a 2018 meta-analysis of 14 trials.

While the exact mechanisms of how EMDR therapy works in addiction treatment are still being studied, it suggests that in processing traumatic memories, EMDR therapy can help individuals develop new coping skills and reduce the intensity of triggers for substance use.

Although EMDR therapy was not initially conceived for treating addiction, it has successfully managed substance use disorders. According to studies, EMDR therapy helps reduce PTSD symptoms and urges in people with substance use problems.

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How Does EMDR Therapy Work?

EMDR treatment helps patients process and reframe upsetting or traumatic memories that negatively affect their lives. The eight-phase therapy involves the therapist guiding the patient through eye movements, taps, or sounds as the patient concentrates on a particular goal or memory.  

The eight phases of EMDR therapy are as follows:

History and Treatment Planning

After learning the history of their current issue, the therapist develops a treatment plan for each client based on their unique needs.


In order to help the client cope with any stress that may develop during therapy sessions, the therapist teaches them coping mechanisms.


The therapist assists the client in identifying certain memories, feelings, and unfavorable self-beliefs connected to their current issue.


The therapist employs eye movements, taps, or sounds to guide the client as they concentrate on the target memory. This process desensitizes the unpleasant feelings connected to the memories.


The therapist aids the patient in forming confident self-beliefs connected to the desired memory.

Body Scan

The client focuses on physical sensations associated with the target memory.


The session is concluded once the therapist assists the client in becoming more aware of the present


The therapist and client review progress and determine if further sessions are needed.

It is believed that the eye movements, taps, or sounds employed in EMDR therapy will encourage the brain's inherent healing process. This process involves connecting the various brain regions involved in processing emotions, memories, and behaviors. EMDR treatment can assist people in reprocessing traumatic or disturbing memories to make them less emotionally upsetting and triggering.

It is crucial to understand that EMDR therapy is not a panacea or a treatment for mental health problems. The client must actively participate because it is a structured therapy. It can be a challenging therapy, and people might feel uncomfortable while going through it. Nonetheless, many patients discover EMDR treatment to successfully treat addiction, traumatic disorders, and other mental health difficulties.

What Are the Benefits of EMDR Therapy?

A type of psychotherapy called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy was developed by psychologist Francine Shapiro in the late 1980s. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and phobias are just a few of the mental health issues for which EMDR has been proven to be an effective evidence-based treatment. 

Here are some of the benefits of EMDR therapy:

Effective Trauma Treatment

Trauma-related problems can be effectively treated with EMDR therapy. Trauma may arise from a single incident, such as a car accident or physical attack, or it may develop over time due to abuse or neglect. By assisting people in processing traumatic memories, EMDR therapy can reduce symptoms like flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive thoughts.

Rapid Symptom Relief

Many people experience major symptom reduction after just a few sessions of EMDR therapy, often quicker than traditional talk therapy. The strength of the unpleasant emotions connected to traumatic memories can be reduced with EMDR therapy.

No Need for Extensive Exposure

EMDR treatment does not require patients to fully relive and talk about painful events, unlike other forms of trauma-focused therapy. Instead, EMDR therapy uses quick eye movements or other forms of bilateral stimulation to assist people in processing their memories in a less traumatic way.

Improved Emotional Regulation: In order to better control their emotions and cope with stressful situations, people can benefit from EMDR therapy. People might be able to reduce the intensity of painful emotions and create better coping mechanisms by processing painful memories.

Versatile Treatment

EMDR therapy is not limited to disorders linked to trauma. It has also been demonstrated to benefit various mental health issues, such as depression, phobias, anxiety, etc. Therefore, a comprehensive treatment plan may include EMDR therapy or be employed as a stand-alone therapy.

Long-Lasting Results

After completing EMDR therapy, many patients experience long-lasting improvements. People may be able to control their symptoms better and have a higher quality of life by processing traumatic experiences and learning new coping mechanisms.

Thus, many mental health disorders can benefit significantly from EMDR therapy's flexibility and effectiveness. Many people have reported significant symptom improvement after just a few sessions, and it has been proven to be particularly beneficial in treating trauma-related diseases. Those who undergo EMDR therapy can process painful memories, improve their ability to control their emotions and see long-lasting improvements.

How Long Does EMDR Therapy Last?

The length of EMDR therapy can vary depending on several factors, including the severity of symptoms, the individual's goals for treatment, and the number of traumatic experiences that need to be processed. However, EMDR therapy is generally considered a shorter-term therapy than other forms of psychotherapy.

The eight steps of the conventional EMDR therapy procedure typically take 6 to 12 sessions. In these stages, the patient is prepared for EMDR therapy, the target traumatic memories are identified, the target traumatic memories are processed, and the target traumatic memories are evaluated.

However, several sessions may be required depending on how well a person responds to therapy. Some people could need fewer sessions, while others might require more. To match the individual's unique needs, the therapist may make necessary adjustments to the therapy plan.

It's essential to remember that EMDR therapy is a highly customized form of treatment. The individual will collaborate with the therapist to create a customized treatment plan to meet their unique requirements and therapeutic objectives. Therefore, some patients might require additional sessions beyond the typical eight phases to reach their therapy objectives.

It's also important to note that EMDR therapy has advantages that can last even after the sessions have been completed. For example, the person may be better able to control their symptoms and have a higher quality of life if they have processed the traumatic experiences and learned new coping mechanisms.

In conclusion, EMDR therapy can vary depending on several variables, although it is typically viewed as a shorter-term therapy. The eight steps of the typical EMDR therapy protocol are divided into sessions, but this can change based on the patient's needs. 

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Do you have more questions about EMDR therapy? Reach out.

What are Alternatives to EMDR Therapy in Treating Addiction?

Several alternative therapies can be used in treating addiction, either alone or in combination with EMDR therapy. Here are some examples:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

The link between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors is a key component of CBT, a type of psychotherapy. CBT is frequently used to treat addiction and can assist people in recognizing and altering harmful thought patterns and behaviors that might be causing or fostering their addiction.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)

DBT is a form of psychotherapy that strongly emphasizes developing a person's coping mechanisms, interpersonal interactions, and emotional regulation abilities. DBT is frequently used to treat co-occurring illnesses like substance use disorders and borderline personality disorder.

Motivational Interviewing (MI)

A counseling strategy called MI focuses on examining and resolving resistance to change. It is frequently utilized in the initial phases of addiction therapy to assist patients in becoming motivated and committed to change.

12-Step Programs

For those overcoming addiction, 12-step programs offer structure and support. They take a spiritual approach to healing and stress the value of getting in touch with people who have gone through comparable situations.

Mindfulness-Based Interventions

Individuals can learn to become more aware of their thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations with the help of mindfulness-based interventions, such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). In order to control cravings and challenging emotions, people may find it beneficial to identify triggers and build coping mechanisms.

Art Therapy

Making art as part of art therapy allows people to explore their feelings and advance healing. It can be beneficial in treating addiction because it enables people to communicate nonverbally and may help in processing painful emotions connected to their addiction.

EMDR Therapy is One of Many Evidence-Based Practices at The Forge Recovery Center

Guided by a trauma-informed philosophy, The Forge Recovery Center offers a welcoming and supportive environment, with private therapy rooms or spaces where individuals can feel comfortable and safe during sessions. We offer customized treatment plans tailored to individual needs and goals. 

During EMDR therapy sessions, the therapists will guide you through recalling traumatic memories while engaging in bilateral stimulation, such as eye movements or tapping. This process can help process traumatic memories and reduce their emotional intensity and negative impact on life. 

In addition to EMDR therapy, The Forge Recovery Center offers complementary therapies and services, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness-based interventions, dedicated mental health housing, and much more.

If you’d like to learn more about The Forge Recovery Center and our evidence-based care for mental health, dual diagnosis and more, reach out to us today.

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