Eye Movement Desensitization And Reprocessing For Substance Use

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D. on May 27, 2022

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a short-term therapy for trauma and related conditions, including substance abuse and addiction. Here is information about how EMDR works for addressing trauma and addiction.

EMDR For Treating Substance Use

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a short-term therapy that is commonly used for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

Addiction treatment centers will sometimes offer this therapy for people with a history of trauma or a dual diagnosis to help them along in their recovery journey.

Here you will find information on:

  • what EMDR is
  • how EMDR works
  • benefits of EMDR
  • where to find EMDR treatment

Ohio Recovery Center


Plymouth, Massachusetts

What Is EMDR?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapy treatment involving visual stimulation that is designed to reduce distress associated with traumatic events.

The entire treatment occurs in eight phases. The first phase begins with history taking, also known as treatment planning. The entire treatment lasts for eight therapy sessions.

During this time, a clinician will guide the patient through a process that simultaneously focuses on two things:

  • associations of traumatic images, emotions, thoughts, and body sensations
  • bilateral stimulation (i.e. repeated eye movements from side to side)

The premise of EMDR is that trauma associations—negative thoughts, emotions, sensations, and other forms of distress related to trauma—occur as the result of unprocessed memories.

What Does EMDR Treat?

Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an effective treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

In addition, it is also used for treating phobias and certain co-occurring disorders in people who have a history of psychological trauma.

This occurs with the understanding that trauma and other mental health conditions can often be connected.

EMDR may be helpful for:

  • trauma and eating disorders
  • trauma and substance use disorder
  • trauma and psychosis
  • trauma and anxiety disorders
  • trauma and mood disorders (e.g. bipolar disorder, depression)
  • trauma and personality disorders (e.g. borderline personality disorder)

EMDR therapy has various applications. However, its demonstrated effectiveness has largely only been identified for the treatment of trauma and co-occurring issues.

The Goal Of EMDR

The goal of EMDR therapy is to reduce symptoms related to traumatic memories, including flashbacks, anxiety, insomnia, and other mental health concerns.

An understanding of EMDR therapy is that the mind can heal from psychological trauma in a way similar to physical trauma.

This can be accomplished by using EMDR techniques to address the disruption of normal adaptive information processing, caused by trauma, in the brain.

How Does EMDR Work?

The exact mechanism of EMDR is not fully understood. However, the visual stimulation procedures of this therapy are believed to tap into your memory.

Research has also found that the mechanism of EMDR may be similar to biological mechanisms associated with REM, or Rapid Eye Movement during sleep.

Patients are guided by an EMDR therapist through a process of visual stimulation exercises, while simultaneously recalling details of traumatic experiences or other distressing memories in a safe environment.

Over the course of this treatment, additional exercises targeting external stimuli, such as audio stimulation, body scans, and hand-tapping, might also be used for therapeutic purposes.

Addiction Treatment With EMDR

Trauma conditions like PTSD are common among people with a drug or alcohol use disorder, and vice versa.

A growing number of addiction treatment centers now offer trauma-focused therapies like EMDR, due to the demonstrated success of this treatment in clinical trials.

Trauma therapy can be a beneficial treatment alongside other addiction treatment services, including detox, behavioral talk therapy, medication, group therapy, and relapse prevention.

Benefits Of EMDR For Treating An Alcohol Or Drug Addiction

Studies show that people with co-occurring mental health conditions, such as depression or PTSD, can face a more challenging road to addiction recovery.

Trauma-focused therapies like EMDR can help to fill in the gaps of standard addiction treatment to ensure the needs of patients with PTSD are being met.

Treatment effects of EMDR for substance abuse can include:

  • reduced risk of relapse
  • relief for PTSD symptoms
  • reduced anxiety
  • reduced depression
  • reduced alcohol cravings (for alcohol use disorder)
  • reduced treatment drop-out (i.e. improve retention)

Where To Find EMDR For Drug Addiction

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy is offered by some substance abuse treatment centers with dual diagnosis treatment programs.

Where EMDR treatment can be found:

  • inpatient addiction treatment
  • residential rehab for addiction
  • intensive outpatient programs (IOPs)
  • partial hospitalization programs (PHPs)
  • general outpatient programs
  • trauma counseling centers
  • individual treatment providers (i.e. a trauma therapist)

This treatment is not offered at all drug and alcohol rehab centers.

To learn whether a treatment center offers EMDR, you’ll need to contact the rehab center directly, or call our helpline to confirm.

EMDR And Addiction FAQs

Find answers to frequently asked questions about EMDR therapy and addiction treatment.

EMDR was originally developed in 1987 by American psychologist and educator Francine Shapiro.

Shapiro found through chance that bilateral stimulation, or moving one’s eyes from side to side, could help relieve symptoms of trauma associated with disturbing life experiences.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an interactive, trauma-focused psychotherapy.

It has been described by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a therapy similar to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) but with a trauma focus.

EMDR is a safe therapy. However, it’s possible you may experience certain side effects for the duration of your treatment. You may experience lightheadedness after sessions, a heightened awareness of your thoughts, and vivid dreams.

EMDR is controversial in some circles within the behavioral health field in part because its mechanism for treating trauma is not fully understood.

Studies show it can be more effective than no treatment. But some experts have argued that other psychological treatments, such as prolonged exposure therapy and cognitive processing therapy, should be considered first-line treatments.

EMDR therapy is shown to be an effective treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder, and may be beneficial for people with co-occurring substance abuse issues.

It is recommended by the National Institute for Health Care and Excellence, and the Department of Veterans Affairs, among other national and international agencies.

Find Addiction Treatment With EMDR

Trauma-focused psychotherapy can be a beneficial treatment for people who are actively struggling with or have a history of substance abuse or addiction.

For more information about EMDR, or to find an addiction rehab center that offers EMDR, call our free helpline today to speak to an admissions specialist.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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These include peer-reviewed journals, government entities and academic institutions, and leaders in addiction healthcare and advocacy. Learn more about how we safeguard our content by viewing our editorial policy.

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Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D. on May 27, 2022


Canton, Massachusetts

Bedrock Recovery Center


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Plymouth, Massachusetts

Ohio Recovery Center


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Payment Options: Insurance Accepted, Self Pay

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Spring Hill Recovery Center

Ashby, Massachusetts


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