Seeking treatment for addiction is a powerful first step on your recovery journey. You’re probably familiar with the more traditional models of recovery, like 12-step programs and talk therapy—indeed, these modalities can prove highly effective. Yet for some of us, traditional therapies aren’t quite enough to help us reach our recovery goals. In these instances, adjunctive practices can provide us with the expression and relief we need to regain control over our behaviors.
One such treatment is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), a brain-based therapy which is increasingly being used to treat addiction. While EMDR is traditionally used to process traumatic experiences, practitioners have developed models that directly address addictive behavior.
These models have been effective, as recent studies have found that EMDR is successful in reprocessing addiction memory (the type of memory that worsens cravings). In one study, chronically alcohol-dependent clients received either traditional addiction treatment or traditional addiction treatment with two EMDR sessions. Clients who received only traditional treatment reported no reduction in cravings, while clients who received the adjunctive EMDR treatment experienced significant reduction.
Pretty cool, right? We wanted more details, so we checked in with Sara Staggs, LICSW, a certified EMDR clinician, for her take on using EMDR to treat addiction.
- How quickly would you say EMDR can help a client break addictive behaviors?
Some of us develop addictions because we associate the addictive behavior with a positive feeling state—like feeling euphoric when gambling, or sophisticated when smoking. If our addictions stem from positive feeling states, five to six sessions can be more than sufficient.
However, if our addiction has developed as a way of numbing or managing trauma symptoms, it can take longer. The first work we do in these cases involves helping the individual develop new coping strategies, which takes its own time and effort.
As a trauma therapist, I never ask someone to give up a coping strategy, even if it’s destructive, until we have others in place. Otherwise, they will likely find another way to cope outside of treatment that may be even more destructive (like replacing a chemical addiction with self-harm).
2. Can you share an example of how EMDR helped on of your clients?
How to choose just one! I had a client a few years ago who quit smoking but was overwhelmed by her desire to continue—to the point she couldn’t think about anything else. I knew her pretty well already, so we only spent one session discussing and desensitizing her to her addiction. We identified the feeling state that smoking gave her (a sense of competence, like she could “handle” things), and she identified other ways she could achieve that feeling. She then did bilateral eye movements to de-couple the feeling of competence with the behavior of smoking.
At the end of the session, she no longer had an urge to smoke. She stated that she sort of noticed a vague desire but it was very small. It has been four years and she hasn’t had a cigarette since.
3. Should clients use EMDR in conjunction with other treatment? Are there cases when EMDR alone may be sufficient?
This is a good question because it reflects the very common misperception that EMDR consists solely of looking at bilateral movements. That’s actually just one part of this comprehensive treatment. EMDR is an 8-phase therapy that starts with assessment and coping and continues through integration. In other words, it can stand alone.
Some clinicians who only practice talk therapy will encourage their clients to seek separate, simultaneous EMDR treatments, but this speaks more to the limitations of talk therapy than of EMDR.
Just like any treatment, there is no “one size fits all” solution for addiction. Effective treatment must always be grounded in your personal needs and goals. If you’re curious about giving EMDR a try, you can reach out to one of our seven EMDR practitioners for more in depth information about how EMDR may help you reach your goals. We’re always here to provide you with more information.
For more resources on addictive behaviors, be they chemical or otherwise (sex, gambling, etc), check out our free resources library at the Resilient Brain Project.