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Reviewing EMDR

Reviewing EMDR

EMDR targets memories that are locked in the past but distorting how the brain processes information

Kicking a heroin habit is extremely difficult, which is why professional treatment often attacks the problem  with several approaches at once. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) has proven effective, so seek this treatment option to bolster your treatment.

EMDR: Basic Concepts

The way the brain responds to psychotherapy is still a mystery, but addiction experts know for sure that people who are upset or agitated cannot process information in normal ways. For that reason, clinicians at the EMDR International Association explain that people who survive trauma may think they are reliving painful situations over and over, almost as if the images, sounds, smells and feelings have not changed or become less vivid[1]. Memories such as these cast a long shadow: when they are painful or otherwise negative, they can also interfere with their views of the world and other people.

However, EMDR targets these areas by addressing memories that are locked in the past but distorting how the brain processes information. This therapy allows normal information processing to resume: patients who succeed in this treatment no longer relive the pain when they recall the event. They may still remember the incident, but avoid upsetting emotions.

Treatment: An Eight-Session Adventure

Many people who consider EMDR learn about one of its unusual features, that they must not discuss any disturbing memories in detail. Individuals who feel comfortable giving specifics are free to do so, but those who prefer to share a more general idea can benefit just as much as people who speak openly. For instance, if a therapist asks what event made you feel worthless, then you may simply say that it was something your brother did, to succeed in therapy. However, a full course of EMDR can range from several sessions to years of therapy; typically, patients seek the following goals:

  • Identify significant life events
  • Process traumatic memories
  • Transform traumatic memories into learning experiences

Therapy follows a progression of the following eight phases:

  • History and treatment planning – This phase takes place over the first and second sessions, and it continues throughout therapy as new issues surface. During this time, therapists gather information about their patients to define treatment targets, often past events that create negative emotions in the present.
  • Preparation – Some clients require only a session or two to master basic techniques to soothe their pain when they remember the event. Another primary goal of the preparation phase is to establish a relationship of trust between the client and therapist.
  • Assessment – In this phase, therapists access each target in a controlled and standardized way to process them. Processing does not mean talking about the pain; rather, the client selects a specific picture or scene from the target event that he identified during Phase One, and then he chooses a statement that expresses a negative self-belief associated with the event. As he focuses on the thought, even if he knows it is false, he will then pick a positive statement he would rather believe. For instance, people can replace the thought that they are worthless with thinking they are worthy of love and respect.
  • Desensitization – This phase rates client’s disturbing emotions to identify and resolve similar events that may have occurred and are associated with the target
  • Installation – The goal of Phase Five is to cultivate the positive belief that a patient created in assessment
  • Body scan – After the positive cognition has formed, the therapist asks the client to recall the original target event to notice any residual tension in the body. If found, these physical sensations are then targeted for reprocessing. An EMDR session is considered in process until the client can bring up the original target without feeling any tension.
  • Closure – Every treatment session ends with a time of closure to ensure that the patient leaves feeling positive and encouraged. If more time is needed to process a traumatic target event, then the therapist will assist the patient with a variety of self-calming techniques to regain a sense of equilibrium.
  • Reevaluation – Every new session begins with reevaluation, during which time the therapist evaluates patients for positive outcomes—low stress and bodily tension—and identifies new areas for treatment

Although clients may feel relief almost immediately with EMDR, experts note that patients must not quit prematurely. Researched published in the Canadian Journal of Counseling notes that it is as important for patients to complete the eight phases of treatment as it for patients to complete an entire course of antibiotics[2].

EMDR and Addiction: Good News for Recovery

Dr. Francine Shapiro, founder of EMDR, notes that her therapy is highly successful among addicts, especially those who use drugs to cope with trauma[3]. She points out that EMDR should support other treatment methods, such as Dialectical Behavior Therapy, not replace them. Nevertheless, she sees her therapy as a dynamic way to heal the roots of addiction. A variety of experiences often lead to the memories, beliefs and doubts that found addiction. When memories of those experiences are triggered, then feelings of negativity and self-doubt surface, so people who cannot cope with these feelings may develop addictions if they turn to drugs to cope.

Although dealing with difficult memories can make an addict want to use drugs, even patients in the beginning of recovery can engage EMDR sessions to stay sober. For that reason, many rehab centers offer EMDR for their patients. Also, there is no set amount of time that experts recommend addicts should spend sober before trying the approach, since each experience is unique.

Recovery from Heroin Addiction

If you or someone you love struggles with heroin addiction, then know that help is available. Admissions coordinators at our toll-free, 24 hour helpline can guide you to wellness. Do not go it alone when help is just one phone call away. You never have to go back to a life of addiction if you start your recovery right now.


[1] How does EMDR work? – EMDR International Association. (n.d.). Retrieved from

[2]  Maxfield, L. (1999). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing: A review of the efficacy of EMDR in the treatment of PTSD. Traumatology, 5(4). doi:10.1177/153476569900500401