Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) is a type of therapy that originated to help individuals who suffered from traumatic events. An American psychologist named, Francine Shapiro developed EMDR in the late 1980s. EMDR is an eight-stage therapeutic process. This process can be used on its own, but can also be used to supplement other types of therapy.

EMDR works to relieve one’s brain of certain coping mechanisms that have been developed to help an individual cope with a traumatic event or events. Similar psychological effects to that of a traumatic experience can occur in an individual who abuses drugs or alcohol. With the abuse of a substance or addiction, it is not uncommon for one’s brain to adjust its synaptic connections and rewire itself. A similar rewiring of one’s brain may happen when an individual has experienced a traumatic event. It is also likely for an individual who abuses drugs or alcohol to experience a traumatic event or events at some point in his or her life.

The first stage of EMDR is for the clinician to obtain an extensive health history of the patient. Then there is a preparation stage, followed by the Rapid Eye Movement stage. In this stage the patient will focus on a distressing memory with the intention to uncover how this memory has created a negative belief that has shaped his or her personal view. Once this has been accomplished, the client will then create a positive belief that he or she would like to hold about him or herself. The clinician will work with the client to uncover all physical sensations associate with the negative memory. The individual will subsequently, go over the memory many times while following, with his or her eyes, an external stimulus that moves from side to side. This creates a bilateral eye movement, which engages and stimulates both hemispheres of one’s brain. After each recall of the negative memory, paired with the bilateral eye movement sets, the individual will be asked how he or she feels in regards to his or her memory. This process will continue for as long as necessary until the individual feels that the memory is no longer upsetting. At this point, the positive belief is then reintroduced into the treatment. This is done using the same bilateral eye movement method.

When an individual experiences a traumatic event, it is not uncommon for a memory of this event to get stuck in the right hemisphere of one’s brain. The left side of one’s brain then will self soothe and implement other coping mechanisms to help deal with this memory. The simple explanation for why this type of treatment, EMDR, can work is that it does not allow one’s brain to perseverate on the negative experience. Instead it enables one’s brain to process the negative experience (and implement a positive self-belief) through both hemispheres of one’s brain, by utilizing the bilateral eye movement method. A typical session of EMDR lasts approximately one hour.

EMDR can be extremely effective for individuals who find themselves suffering from a substance abuse problem or addiction. One of the benefits and drawbacks of EMDR is that it has been said to desensitize an individual’s feelings. This can occur with both positive and negative feelings. Though for some diagnosis weakening one’s positive emotions may be considered not ideal or even risky, this can actually benefit someone who has struggled with addiction. Addiction is a disease that greatly affects one’s reward system in one’s brain. Many people who have experience with substance abuse and addiction seek to experience the high they got from their first use of their drug of choice. Chasing one’s first high happens typically because the individual recalls it as an extremely positive experience. Hence, the weakening one’s positive emotions can work as a benefit to the individual.

Individuals who suffer from substance abuse or addiction may have other mental health or physical comorbidities. There are many reasons why an individual may turn to drugs or alcohol, with one of the most common driving forces being that of an emotional component. In fact, it has been said that trauma plays a fundamental role in addiction etiology. People may choose to self-medicate if he or she has experienced some sort of emotional or traumatic event or has an unaddressed or inaccurately diagnosed mental health disorder. Self-medicating can be a slippery slope, as ingesting medications without proper medical supervision can result in substance abuse, addiction, or even death.

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