Trauma can make you feel like you’re trapped in a nightmare. Situations, people, sounds or smells can trigger painful memories, forcing you to re-live your trauma all over again. Fortunately, EMDR can help you process these memories and set you up for a successful addiction recovery.

EMDR for Trauma and Addiction


  • Traumatic events can overwhelm your brain’s ability to properly process the memories associated with them.
  • EMDR can treat trauma by reprocessing memories of disturbing events from your past that linger in the present.

Unresolved trauma is like a wound that won’t heal. Reminders can pop up when you least expect, sending you spiralling back into distress. In the midst of this, the world can feel hostile and terrifying. As your ability to cope becomes overwhelmed, you may feel compelled turn to drugs and alcohol to soothe some of the pain. For this reason, treating trauma alongside addiction is extremely important, and the most effective method of doing this is eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR).

What is Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR)?

A relatively new treatment, EMDR was developed in the late 80s by clinical psychologist Francine Shapiro, PhD as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  EMDR has since gained recognition as the most rapid and effective method for treating PTSD and other unresolved trauma.

When Trauma Overwhelms Your Brain

EMDR is based on a theory called adaptive information processing. According to this theory, if an event is traumatic, it can overwhelm your brain’s ability to properly process the memories associated with the event. When this occurs, the memories of the event are stored along with the feelings, images, physical sensations and thoughts experienced at that time. Since our brains use the information stored in our memories to interpret new experiences, these sensations may resurface in subsequent situations with even a slight degree of similarity.

Sometimes, we may not even realise a past trauma is colouring our experience of the present. Even something minor like a song played in the background can trigger a trauma from the past. We may experience uncomfortable physical sensations like uneasiness in the stomach or shortness of breath while we remain unaware that this discomfort is any way linked to a past event.

Using Drugs or Alcohol to Cope with Trauma

How EMDR Works on Trauma and PTSD

Sufferers of PTSD are all too aware of how negative emotions and sensations from the past can affect our experience of the present. In addition to situations forcing PTSD sufferers to relive painful memories, they often experience disturbed sleep patterns, phobias, flashbacks, an extreme startle reflex and recurring nightmares.

The EMDR method views the process of healing from psychological trauma as similar to healing from a physical injury. For example, if you fall and cut your leg, your body works to repair the wound. However, if a rock or other foreign object is lodged within the cut, it will be unable to mend and the injury will persist. You have to remove the rock from the wound in order for healing to take place.

Psychological trauma works in much the same way. If an event is too disturbing, it blocks our ability to process the accompanying memories and impairs healing from the trauma. Once that psychological block is removed, the associated memories can be processed. EMDR uses bilateral stimulation to bypass mental blocks, encouraging your brain to process information and heal.

What Happens During EMDR Therapy?

EMDR treatment consists of 8 phases.

During the first phase, the clinician identifies which traumatic memories will be targeted for reprocessing.

Subsequent preparation and assessment stages provide clients with training on stress reduction and grounding skills to use as they encounter unpleasant sensations during treatment. Clients then identify the physical sensations and negative beliefs associated with the target memories and rate them for severity.

During the reprocessing stages, the clinician asks the client to focus on a specific target memory. They then expose the client to bilateral stimulation such as moving their hand back and forth in front of the client’s face as the client follows along with their eyes. Negative emotions and thoughts associated with the traumatic memory arise, and are quickly reprocessed through these bilateral eye movements. Clients then focus on more adaptive and positive thoughts associated with the event while the stimulation continues.

While it’s not known exactly why this method works, it’s believed to be related to a mechanism similar to that in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep as REM sleep is involved in the consolidation of emotional memories.

In the following stages of treatment, the negative beliefs and physical sensations associated with the memory are re-evaluated to ensure that the event has been fully processed and no residual distress remains. Any lingering material is dealt with in the next session.

What Problems Can EMDR Treat?

Since EMDR works by processing difficult or unsettling memories, its effectiveness is not limited to the treatment of trauma. In fact, EMDR was found to be effective in treating a variety of conditions, including:

  • Complicated grief
  • Panic disorder
  • Dissociative disorders
  • Phobias
  • Performance anxiety
  • Stress
  • Personality disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Body dysmorphic disorder

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Does EMDR Really Work?

All investigations into the efficacy and dangers of the treatment seem to indicate that EMDR is safe, effective and free from adverse side effects. EMDR is considered a breakthrough therapy due to its ability to provide rapid, lasting relief for conditions that were traditionally very difficult and time consuming to treat. Results of over 20 clinical studies have found EMDR to effectively treat PTSD across all ages, genders and cultures with results proving successful for 77 – 100% of participants. Due to its overwhelming success, EMDR has gained recognition as an effective treatment for trauma by several major bodies including the World Health Organization, American Psychiatric Association and the Department of Defence.

Further, since you are simply required to hold the traumatic memory in your thoughts, revealing the particulars of the event to your therapist is not required. This is especially beneficial for people who are strongly averse to discussing the details of their traumatic memory.

Effective Treatment of Addiction and Trauma

Trauma and addiction frequently co-occur – an overwhelming majority of people who enter addiction treatment have PTSD. Since unresolved trauma is a major risk factor for relapse it is vital that trauma be assessed and treated in any addiction recovery program.

At The Cabin Sydney, you will receive a thorough assessment to identify any underlying trauma contributing to your addiction. Our practitioners utilise EMDR in conjunction with other therapeutic treatments to address trauma and prevent it from causing further distress. Contact us today to find out how much simpler life can be when you’re free from the trauma of your past.

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