Retreat Psychology EMDR

The Connection Between Trauma and Addiction

Encountering trauma in childhood significantly heightens the likelihood of developing an addiction in adulthood. Referred to as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), these traumatic events may involve physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, neglect, loss of a loved one, witnessing intimate partner violence, or living with a family member with a mental health condition. The number of ACEs experienced correlates with an increased risk of addiction, with four or more ACEs indicating a threefold greater chance of developing alcohol addiction later in life.

Understanding that trauma raises the risk of addiction is only part of the equation. Experts suggest that alterations in stress perception and tolerance may contribute to the connection between trauma and addiction. Stress is regulated by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a network of brain regions. Hormones act on the HPA axis during stress, preparing the body for action. While the HPA axis is adept at handling acute stress, chronic stress, such as prolonged childhood trauma, can disrupt its responses. The HPA axis remains in a heightened state due to ongoing abuse, leading to anxiety and hypervigilance in adulthood. Individuals may turn to substances to self-medicate their stress and anxiety, as substances like alcohol and cannabis temporarily alleviate stress by reducing brain activity, including in the HPA axis.

Introduction to EMDR

EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) is a therapeutic technique used to address trauma-related mental health disorders. Originally developed for post-traumatic stress disorder, EMDR has shown promise in treating other mental health conditions exacerbated by traumatic memories, including substance use disorders (SUDs). Addiction-focused EMDR is a specialized branch of therapy that has been studied as a treatment for drug, alcohol, and behavioral addictions. Research indicates that combining EMDR with addiction-centered therapies can reduce PTSD symptoms and long-term addictive behavior.

Explanation of EMDR

EMDR involves patients recalling traumatic memories while engaging in side-to-side eye movements that mimic rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, a phase when the brain processes memories. Addiction-focused EMDR differs slightly, targeting positive memories of substance use and sometimes negative memories of withdrawal. The goal of addiction-focused EMDR varies based on the approach, aiming to reduce cravings, desensitize triggers, enhance motivation for abstinence, or address fears of relapse.

Benefits of EMDR Therapy for Addiction

EMDR techniques can be used alone or in conjunction with traditional addiction counseling to treat individuals with SUDs. Addiction-focused EMDR may help prevent relapse post-treatment, while trauma-focused EMDR can assist those with co-occurring PTSD symptoms like intrusive memories and anxiety.

Improvements in Psychological Symptoms in PTSD

A study examining the effects of EMDR as a supplementary treatment for individuals with traumatic symptoms and SUD diagnoses found significant improvements in psychological dimensions of trauma after 24 weeks of treatment. Participants experienced reduced dissociative and anxiety symptoms, improved post-traumatic stress symptoms, and reported fewer intrusive memories and avoidance behaviors.

Potential Reduction in Anxiety Symptoms

A review of controlled trials investigating EMDR’s benefits for children and youths with PTSD revealed significant improvements in anxiety symptoms compared to a placebo. These findings are particularly relevant for individuals with SUDs, as anxiety commonly co-occurs with addiction.

Possible Decrease in Alcohol Cravings

Another review highlighted EMDR’s benefits for various health disorders, including substance use disorder. EMDR therapy not only improved trauma-associated symptoms but also significantly reduced cravings and depressive symptoms post-treatment. A small study involving women with alcohol or drug addictions and co-occurring PTSD symptoms showed significant improvements in anxiety, depression, self-esteem, and alexithymia after EMDR sessions.

Potential Alleviation of Physical Pain

EMDR has shown positive effects on physical health conditions associated with childhood trauma, such as pain. Studies suggest that EMDR may benefit individuals with chronic pain conditions by addressing the link between memory and pain. This could be particularly beneficial for individuals struggling with addiction to opioid pain medication.

How EMDR Can Aid Addiction: The 8 Steps

EMDR can help individuals with addiction by addressing unresolved trauma that may contribute to or exacerbate their symptoms. This therapeutic approach can desensitize triggers and enhance treatment outcomes for SUDs. An EMDR session typically lasts 60 to 90 minutes and involves the following eight-step process:

  1. History: Discussing the client’s trauma or addiction history.
  2. Preparation: Explaining the EMDR technique and coping mechanisms.
  3. Assessment: Identifying target memories for reprocessing.
  4. Desensitization: Pairing traumatic memories with positive images or motivations.
  5. Installation: Strengthening the association between positive images and memories.
  6. Body Scan: Noting any remaining physical tension or cravings.
  7. Closure: Using coping mechanisms to ground the client.
  8. Re-Evaluation: Assessing progress and adjusting the treatment plan as needed.

Side Effects of EMDR Therapy

While EMDR is generally safe and effective, some individuals may experience side effects such as vivid dreams, emotional vulnerability, or headaches. It is essential to communicate any concerns with the therapist to address and minimize potential side effects.

Early Recovery and EMDR

Incorporating EMDR into addiction treatment plans may expedite recovery, especially for individuals with underlying trauma contributing to their SUD. While more research is needed on the specific impact of EMDR on addiction recovery, its effectiveness in addressing trauma-related symptoms suggests potential benefits for individuals in early recovery.

EMDR and Addiction

EMDR therapy has shown promise in treating trauma-related disorders and reducing cravings in individuals with SUDs.

Group therapy options of flash

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How it Works?

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Sik-Lam Wong
Berkeley, California

Flash Technique in a Scalable Low-Intensity Group Intervention for COVID-19-Related Stress in Healthcare Providers

Manfield, Philip E. | Engel, Lewis | Greenwald, Ricky | Bullard, David G.


Calgary, AB T2X 1V2