EMDR Therapy and Addiction

Addiction is a complex and multifaceted issue that affects millions of people worldwide. Traditional treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, medication-assisted therapy, and group therapy have proven effective for many. However, there’s an increasing interest in the potential of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy in treating addiction.

What is EMDR Therapy?

Developed in the late 1980s by Dr. Francine Shapiro, EMDR is primarily recognized for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The fundamental premise is that many psychological difficulties are due to unprocessed traumatic or distressing memories. During EMDR sessions, bilateral stimulation—most commonly in the form of guided eye movements—helps the patient process these memories and reduce their psychological impact (Shapiro, 1989).

The Link Between Trauma and Addiction

Understanding EMDR’s role in addiction treatment necessitates the acknowledgment of the connection between trauma and addiction. Studies have shown a strong correlation between unresolved trauma and substance abuse disorders. For many, drugs and alcohol can serve as coping mechanisms to numb the pain or escape the recurrent memories of traumatic events (Markowitz et al., 2015).

When left untreated, trauma can create a cycle where individuals continuously seek external ways to medicate their pain. It is here that EMDR can play a pivotal role. By targeting and reprocessing the traumatic memories, EMDR may help break the cycle of addiction.

How Does EMDR Work in Addiction Treatment?

  1. Targeting the Memory: EMDR starts with targeting distressing memories that contribute to the addiction. These might be traumatic events or negative beliefs about oneself associated with the substance abuse.
  2. Bilateral Stimulation: While focusing on the distressing memory, the therapist guides the patient in specific eye movements. Other forms of bilateral stimulation, like taps or sounds, can be used.
  3. Reprocessing: Through the bilateral stimulation, the memory’s emotional charge is reduced, allowing it to be integrated more healthily into the patient’s memory network.
  4. Installing Positive Beliefs: Once the distressing memory has been processed, positive beliefs are introduced and reinforced. For instance, a belief like “I am worthless” might be replaced with “I am worthy of love and recovery.”

Research on EMDR and Addiction

Several studies and clinical reports have shown the efficacy of EMDR in treating addiction:

  • A study by Hase et al. (2008) explored the use of EMDR to treat cravings in substance-abusing patients. The results indicated a significant reduction in cravings after EMDR therapy.
  • Another study conducted by Marich (2010) found that EMDR not only reduced trauma symptoms but also decreased the desire to use substances in the participants.

These studies, among others, suggest that EMDR can be a valuable tool in addiction recovery, especially when trauma is a contributing factor.

Benefits of EMDR in Addiction Treatment

  1. Addresses the Root Cause: EMDR seeks to address the underlying traumatic memories and negative beliefs contributing to addiction.
  2. Reduced Cravings: By processing the traumatic memories, EMDR has been shown to reduce drug and alcohol cravings (Hase et al., 2008).
  3. Complements Other Treatments: EMDR can be incorporated into a holistic treatment plan, working alongside other therapies.
  4. Quick Results: Many patients report significant progress after just a few sessions, though the exact number can vary.

Challenges and Considerations

While EMDR presents significant potential in addiction treatment, it’s essential to approach it with some considerations:

  1. Not a Standalone Solution: EMDR should be viewed as a part of a comprehensive treatment plan.
  2. Intense Emotional Reactions: Processing trauma can be emotionally draining. It’s crucial to have robust support systems in place.
  3. Need for Specialized Training: Effective EMDR requires specialized training. Ensure you’re working with a certified EMDR therapist.


EMDR offers a promising avenue for addiction treatment, especially for those where trauma plays a significant role. By directly addressing and reprocessing the traumatic memories and negative self-beliefs, EMDR can break the chains binding an individual to their addiction. As with all treatments, it’s crucial to ensure it’s the right fit for the individual and is administered by trained professionals.


  • Shapiro, F. (1989). Efficacy of the Eye Movement Desensitization procedure in the treatment of traumatic memories. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 2(2), 199-223.
  • Markowitz, J. C., Petkova, E., Neria, Y., Van Meter, P. E., Zhao, Y., Hembree, E., … & Marshall, R. D. (2015). Is exposure necessary? A randomized clinical trial of interpersonal psychotherapy for PTSD. American Journal of Psychiatry, 172(5), 430-440.
  • Hase, M., Schallmayer, S., & Sack, M. (2008). EMDR reprocessing of the addiction memory: Pretreatment, posttreatment, and 1-month follow-up. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 2(3), 170-179.
  • Marich, J. (2010). EMDR in the addiction continuing care process. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 4(3), 108-120.