Eye Movement Therapy: A Treatment for Addiction

Much of what addicts experience when they enter a rehabilitation facility or a support group is done simply because it has always been done. Too often, addiction treatments are grounded in philosophies and personal beliefs rather than research, facts, and success rates. In psychology and psychiatry, on the other hand, many treatments and techniques used with patients are backed up by scientific and medical evidence. Sometimes these two worlds coincide and research from the world of psychiatry can help those struggling with addiction.

Dr. Francine Shapiro discovered and promotes the technique called Eye Movement Desensitzing and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, which has been shown to be effective in treating people who have experienced trauma and who struggle to stop thinking about it. According to Dr. Shapiro, she came up with the idea when on a walk many years ago. She was having a difficult time repressing disturbing thoughts and found that by moving her eyes back and forth, the memories receded. In 1990, Dr. Shapiro founded the EMDR Institute and had been treating victims of all types of trauma as well as addicts. Since then, many other practitioners have taken up EMDR therapy and have used it to great success with patients.

Negative Memories

Bad experiences, ranging from a recent humiliation to a truly traumatic childhood event, can have a tremendous impact on our lives. They can make us feel uncomfortable or even make us unable to function in life. Traumatic memories cause both psychological and physiological responses. In extreme cases, such as in people with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, the physical and mental effects of memories can be extreme and may include depression, insomnia, anxiety, and self-destructive behaviors.

The response that most people have to trauma is to repress the memories and to try to forget that it ever happened. This almost never works and can result in more negative effects. Many types of therapies have been used for years to treat PTSD and less severe cases of trauma. Most common, perhaps, is cognitive behavioral therapy, which involves going through the event mentally and then learning healthy ways to cope with the resulting stress and other symptoms.


EMDR treatment uses eye movements to help the patient become desensitized to the negative emotions associated with a traumatic event and to reprocess those memories into something more positive. The actual process of EMDR is not as simple as stated here and may vary slightly by practitioner. It should not be attempted by an untrained professional.

In an EMDR session, the therapist will ask the patient to think of the traumatic memories and then follow a moving light or other object with his eyes only. The therapist will then ask him to think of a positive memory and follow the object again. The patient will be asked to switch between the negative and positive thoughts at differing intervals. This allows him to become desensitized to the trauma and to begin to associate more positive emotions with it. For reasons that are not understood, the eye movement helps with this process.

While there has been minimal research into why the EMDR technique works, the success rates speak to its efficacy. Not only does it help reduce the psychological and physiological responses to traumatic events, it does so rather quickly. One idea on why it works is that the movement of the eyes is similar to what happens during the sleep cycle called REM, or rapid eye movement. REM sleep is a period in which the brain is processing information and may be a time when the sleeper is able to put events into different perspectives, changing how he feels about them. REM sleep is also known to reduce anxiety.

EMDR and Addiction

While no one yet fully understands how EMDR works and why it is effective in reducing the negative aspects of trauma, it is known to be helpful for a wide range of problems. Trauma forms the basis of many conditions and if the trauma can be relieved, so can the resulting issues. EMDR has been found to bring relief to those suffering from PTSD, depression, stress, eating disorders, and even chronic physical pain.

More recently, EMDR has been applied to addiction treatment. Addicts often began using in an effort to repress traumatic memories. By treating those memories, the need to abuse a substance disappears. Although it is not a perfect cure, using EMDR to reduce negative emotions surrounding a trauma can have a powerful, and very importantly, an immediate effect on addicts. It may be especially helpful when combined with other types of therapies or support groups.

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