By Cristina Utti MFA, MA

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) was developed by the psychologist Francine Shapiro as a treatment for trauma. Her research and practice of EMDR won her the International Sigmund Freud Award for distinguished contribution to psychotherapy by the city of Vienna and the World Council, the Distinguished Scientific Achievement in Psychology Award by the California Psychology Council, and the Award for Outstanding Contributions to Practice in Trauma Psychology by the American Psychological Association Trauma Division.
EMDR is a non-invasive, evidence-based method of psychotherapy that uses adaptive information to process memories in the brain. It is primarily used for someone who has undergone a trauma and has been found to be effective for recovery from:

  • Drug and alcohol addiction
  • Post-traumatic stress disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Personality disorders

People often turn to drugs and/or alcohol as a way of self-medicating physical or emotional pain. When someone is upset or uses substances, brain patterns are altered. With the use of EMDR therapy, the person remembers what happened but processes it differently. It is not a quick fix for addiction. It incorporates eight phases of treatment.

Phase 1: History and Treatment Plan
The first few sessions are used for discussing with the client what has brought them into therapy, the symptoms, and the behaviors stemming from the symptoms. The client does not have to go into specific details for EMDR to be helpful.

Phase 2: Preparation
This phase is usually two to four sessions. The therapist takes this time to get to know the client and build a relationship of trust. Some basic techniques are taught at this time.

Phase 3: Assessment
In this phase the therapist assesses specific thought patterns to be reprocessed. The client will identify negative thoughts about the painful event and then identify the physical sensation that goes with the negative thought. The therapist then works with the client to reprocess these feelings through eye movements, taps, or tones.

Phase 4: Desensitization
This phase focuses on the client’s disturbing emotions as related to the Subjective Unit of Disturbance Scale. The client is guided through eye movements until the emotions associated with the event are less disturbing (below “two” on the scale).

Phase 5: Installation
This phase concentrates on increasing the positive thoughts that the client has identified to replace the negative beliefs.

Phase 6: Body Scan
Once the positive thought/belief has been strengthened, the therapist will see if there is any tension left in the body. EMDR evaluations look for physical responses to unresolved issues. The session is not considered successful until the client can recall the original painful thought without feeling any bodily tensions.

Phase 7: Closure
Closure is done at the end of every session and should leave the client feeling better than when the session began. After working through all six previous phases, the client will have learned several self-calming techniques and will have journaled the effectiveness of them for further reference.

Phase 8: Reevaluation
At the beginning of all subsequent sessions, the therapist continues to evaluate the result by checking bodily tension.

As we can see, EMDR is a process. The benefit of EDMR in addiction recovery is that it has been proven to reprocess thoughts and behavior patterns that lead to substance abuse. Addiction did not occur overnight, and one should not think there is a “magic pill” for recovery. Using EMDR in conjunction with other therapies, meetings, and twelve-step programs helps to reprocess thought patterns, therefore reducing the risk of relapse.

If you or a loved one are battling substance abuse problems, please call our admission staff today at (888) 998-8655.


Francine Shapiro, Ph.D. | EMDR Institute – Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy. (n.d.). Retrieved August, 2016.