For many people, addiction is a co-occurring disorder with mental health issues. These conditions range from anxiety and depression to childhood trauma and PTSD.
Too often, the severity of the underlying issue prompts a greater likelihood that other disorders will present. For example, if someone was sexually abused, he or she may also have depression, social anxiety, and panic attacks. This is why substance abuse is a common self-medicating behavior to deal with the symptoms and triggers of such conditions.
Your brain has incredible resilience to handle traumatic experiences, but certain circumstances such as abuse, assault, rape, and war may overwhelm its coping capacity. Some people, according to Psychology Today, develop the ability to be more “stress resilient” over a lifetime, while others don’t. The reasons for this variance are multi-faceted, and researchers continue to be fascinated by the possibilities of not only understanding resilience, but also helping the brain recover.
One possible approach for stress, trauma, and addiction recovery is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).
What Is EMDR?
EMDR is a psychotherapy treatment developed in 1989 by Francine Shapiro, Ph.D, an American psychologist interested in more effective techniques for addressing PTSD. She noticed a correlation between eye movements and thought patterns. She believed the body’s natural physical healing processes could be applied to the brain’s replay of painful experiences and memories.
Over time, trauma and chronic stress may decrease neuronal connections in the brain. For example, if you cut your finger, your body works to heal the wound. This process is usually effective unless there’s a foreign object embedded in the cut. If the object isn’t removed, the body is unable to repair the wound. When someone is traumatized by a situation or event, the mind replays the experience through painful dreams and flashbacks—the foreign objects preventing healing.
Research has shown an association between PTSD and functional changes in the amygdala, a part of the brain involved in the formation of emotional memories, especially fear-related memories.
Using a combination of eye and hand movements, as well as audio stimulation, patients in EMDR therapy re-engage with the trauma and essentially reprogram the brain to acknowledge, accept, and finally resolve those experiences. Much more quickly, many proponents say, than traditional talk therapy sessions might ever complete. There are numerous positive results, according to the EMDR Institute:
- A study funded by health system Kaiser Permanente discovered that “77 percent of multi-trauma victims and 100 percent of single-trauma victims were no longer diagnosed with PTSD after only six 50-minute sessions.”
- Other studies indicate up to “90 percent of single-trauma victims no longer have post-traumatic stress disorder after only three 90-minute sessions.”
- Another study of combat veterans determined that “77 percent of them were free of PTSD after 12 sessions.”
Due to this and other qualitative research, the Department of Defense, the World Health Organization, and the American Psychiatric Association are some of the organizations that recommend EMDR as effective trauma, depression, and anxiety treatment. Mental health professionals trained and certified in EMDR conduct approximately eight phases of treatment ranging from history and treatment planning to closure and evaluation. The process may also include learning new coping mechanisms.
How EMDR May Help Break the Addiction Cycle
Addiction is often associated with environmental factors and trauma, especially in early development years. This exposure at a young age establishes certain thought patterns and behaviors. While one person may experience trauma and not be affected, another individual may choose to cope with the circumstances with drugs or alcohol.
Again, aspects of brain resilience, environment, genetics, social network, and other factors play a large part in someone’s mental health and the propensity for substance use disorder (SUD).
In cases where trauma is a root cause for mental health disturbances and SUD, EMDR therapy provides the opportunity to focus on this catalyst, resolve it, and move into more effective treatment and behavioral modifications. This may enable someone to embrace sobriety with clear confidence and reduce the risks for relapse.
How We Use EMDR for Progressive Treatment
At Cottonwood Tucson, we offer EMDR treatment in individual and companion trauma interventions for residents with PTSD and trauma issues in order to reduce distress, build skills, and develop stronger resources for healing. It’s another component in our overall approach to help people heal emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually.
By Tracey L. Kelley