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Eye Movement Therapy for Addiction

Practitioners and beneficiaries of EMDR therapy praise its ability to blunt traumatic memories.

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By Valerie Tejeda

05/31/12

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It’s no secret that traumatic memories and addiction often go hand-in-hand. So what if you could change how you feel about those memories? EMDR therapy—Eye Movement Desensitizing and Reprocessing—uses rapid eye movements to "reprocess" negative memories. It may sound far-fetched, but it's backed by a body of psychological research and many say it's changed their lives. Dr. Francine Shapiro, who founded the EMDR Institute in 1990, says she discovered the therapy as she was taking a walk. She observed that moving her eyes from side to side reduced the impact of her negative memories: “I was having disturbing thoughts and noticed that the thoughts disappeared,” she tells The Fix. “I stumbled upon a natural process the brain has to deal with these disturbances by decreasing negative emotion and enhancing a relaxation response.” While some believe that the therapy is only effective for victims of extreme trauma or PTSD, Dr. Shapiro disagrees. “You don't need major trauma to benefit from the therapy,” she says. “Being humiliated, getting pushed away, are all feelings that are at the root of the addiction.” She says the treatment has so far been used to help those suffering from depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, body image disorders and addiction: “There is a connection between addiction, trauma and trying to medicate pain.”

EMDR practitioners say it stands out from other forms of psychotherapy because of its ability to produce rapid results. Its eight-phase approach targets both earlier events and current situations that trigger disturbances, and assesses what's needed for the future. “If it wasn’t for EMDR, I wouldn’t be clean today,” one former heroin user tells The Fix. “I pretty much did drugs to forget about my issues, and this treatment made my horrible thoughts and memories disappear. I’m grateful to have found it.” Dr. Shapiro says EMDR can work in conjunction with a 12-step therapy program and especially benefits those who are too ashamed to talk about their addiction. “12-step can be wonderful, but many people find that can’t work for them because of their earlier life experiences,” said Shapiro. With EMDR, “You don’t have to do any homework, you don’t have to talk about the trauma, and for addicts who are too ashamed, this is very helpful.”

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