How EMDR Can Help Heal the Trauma Behind Addiction

Eye Movement Therapy

By Bethany Winfield, MFT, MA, EMDR I & II, Trauma Therapist at The Ranch

Studies show childhood trauma is at the root of many addictions and can also lead to other mental health disorders. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is one of the ways we help people uncover and heal traumatic memories that have controlled their lives.

EMDR is a multifaceted approach that allows people to view their painful past as if watching a movie and go back to change the beliefs that are an indelible imprint of trauma. One unique aspect of EMDR therapy is called “bilateral stimulation.” The therapist leads the client through specific right and left eye movements while the client simultaneously focuses on various aspects of a memory. Therapists may also use alternating bilateral sound using headphones and alternate tactile simulation that vibrates or taps the back of the client’s hands at pivotal moments. There are numerous steps involved and each session builds on the next. The ultimate goal is to “reprocess” the memory and change the underlying beliefs that drive unhealthy behaviors.

Here are some of the areas I focus on in EMDR therapy at The Ranch:

Understanding how trauma leads to addiction. People’s behaviors are based on their beliefs, not necessarily rational thought, and trauma is built from those beliefs. For example, someone may tell themselves, “I’m a person of worth or I am worthy of love.” But if the deep-rooted belief is, “I’m not really worthy,” that is the predominant belief that guides the person’s life. In addictive processes, people treat themselves in accordance with the things they believe about themselves. This is why it is essential to challenge underlying negative beliefs.

Creating healthy attachments. The strength of an individual’s early relationship with parents or primary caretakers defines the way they form connections with others. People who struggle with addiction often had unhealthy primary attachments. Interventions like EMDR can be especially powerful in structured environments where each person becomes part of a larger community that consists of a primary therapist, a treatment team, staff and peers. We call this an “attachment community” — a functional family setting and community in which vulnerability is safe and encouraged.

Looking through adult eyes. EMDR can take people back to the original trauma so we need to know they have the capacity to be present in their adult self. To do this we help identify inner resources and create experiences within the community where they establish themselves as adults taking care of themselves. The combination of inner trust and outer support creates a safety net. Then we can move forward to visit the wounded child within. We don’t want the person reliving what happened and getting stuck there. If we go back and reprocess a trauma from childhood, we want to help them feel safe and aware that they are no longer that helpless child.

Viewing trauma like a movie. Watching a movie is the metaphor that best describes the EMDR therapy process. Sometimes the movie is difficult to watch so we keep reminding people that they are safe, that they have resources available, and they are not that vulnerable child in the movie. If someone gets caught up in a scene, we bring this movie to a close by helping them ground and come back to the present moment.

Discovering core beliefs. One of our goals in trauma therapy is to identify the core beliefs that formed during a childhood wound, whether the client remembers the event or not. We start by creating a connection with the part of them that has a sense something happened, even if they can’t name it. It may be, “I remember I was happy and then at age 5 things got harder.” If a person does not have clarity about a single event that impacted them most, we can still get at the belief. Sometimes in the process of working to change a belief such as “I’m not good enough,” they recall the specific traumatic event.

Revisiting the recent past. Sometimes additional trauma forms when a negative core belief led someone to treat themselves as if they were not good enough. Maybe they developed an addiction, got involved in an unhealthy relationship or began engaging in other harmful behaviors. On some occasions, working on the more recent traumatic event can help them get clarity about where it all began.

The bottom line: Trauma, if left unaddressed, can derail a person’s path to recovery. If people do not investigate their beliefs and the way they see themselves in the world, they are at risk for falling back into unhealthy patterns. For example, if I believe that I am not worthy, why would I treat myself like I am? Why would I do what I need to do to stop self-sabotaging behaviors and be well? Since trauma is often the root of the problem, it is important that we dig deep and develop new beliefs.

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