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The Science Behind EMDR: Understanding How it Works for Addiction Treatment

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It’s a popular treatment option for psychotherapy, generally put together with other methods in a comprehensive approach to mental health treatment. The idea is to access terrible trauma memories, explore them in a safe environment, and help the patient adapt to and control that trauma and the patient’s response to it. The methodology puts the patient in contact with the trauma by some means and then has the patient focus on some other outside stimulus instead. That can be hand clapping, leading the patient’s eye focus to different points of reference, or even having the patient concentrate on music or some other sound.

How Does it Affect the Brain?

The therapy is designed to simulate rapid eye movement, similar to a dream state. EMDR slows down a patient’s thought processes and brings synchronicity to the brainwaves, which helps the patient process the traumatic event or memory. A relevant analogy would be that EMDR therapy dissolves the glue that holds the traumatic memory in place and lets the patient process the memory like any other memory. Among trauma therapies, it’s renowned for its effectiveness because it triggers conditions that allow for mental-health healing.

What Are the Risks?

The good news is that, since the therapy’s creation in 1980, there have been no observable detrimental side effects of the treatment. However, it is a labor-intensive therapy on the therapist’s part. That person must take great care in practicing the therapy and determine if the patient is ready to try EMDR. As with any medical treatment, there is always a risk, particularly regarding trauma therapies. The risks have more to do with the process of trying to treat trauma than they do with the actual therapy itself.

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What Is EMDR Used to Treat?

The most significant EMDR benefits come from its use in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, for which it was created. PTSD is tied to the most damaging traumatic events, so it stands to reason that EMDR is the prevailing treatment choice. It’s a multidisciplinary treatment, too, and it’s useful in treating disorders related to personality, anxiety, dissociation, obsessive compulsion, and depression. In some cases, it’s even a viable treatment for eating disorders.

How Does EMDR Help with Addiction Treatment?

EMDR benefits do not include the treatment of addiction itself. Instead, it becomes a companion therapy designed to help with the underlying trauma that is part and parcel of many addictions. As an example, let’s say a woman sees her husband murdered and then starts drinking to forget. The EMDR wouldn’t be useful in treating alcoholism. Instead, it would be useful to reduce the effect of the trauma of seeing her husband murdered, making it easier to treat the alcoholism. EMDR and the brain become a symbiotic relationship in situations like these.

Like most mental-health treatments, EMDR is ever-evolving as psychiatrists and psychologists learn new things through experience and research. As the field’s understanding of both the therapy and the conditions it’s designed to treat grows, EMDR effects and their benefits will also get better than ever.

Does Science back EMDR?

The National Library of Medicine reviewed 24 randomized studies regarding EMDR. In 70% of cases, EMDR was found to be at least as effective, if not more so, than traditional trauma-based cognitive behavior therapy. Additionally, 20 of 24 studies showed improved mental health regarding the memories, and 12 indicated a marked decrease in negative emotions and the clarity of the traumatic memories.

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