Here at The Ranch at Dove Tree, we believe that each client is unique. Each client has a unique set of circumstances, a unique personality, and a unique way of experiencing substance use disorder. While we stand by the value of individual and group therapy, core components of our treatment program, we know other healing modalities can be especially helpful for certain clients depending on their specific situation.
Clients who have experienced trauma and who struggle with trauma disorders like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) for example, often need a variety of therapeutic approaches to address all aspects of their healing. For these clients, we offer EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy.
What is EMDR therapy?
EMDR, developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro in the 1980s, operates on the principle that traumatic experiences injure the brain. When we experience trauma, our brain processes that memory differently than it processes normal experiences. As a result, the brain doesn’t understand that the event is over. It often connects new experiences to that old traumatic experience and responds with the same fear and stress it felt upon the original trauma. This accounts for the way people suffering from trauma disorders often experience “flashbacks” when a sensation from the environment (a door opening behind them, a car backfiring, etc.) startles them. The brain mistakenly connects the new sensation with the old traumatic memory.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, “This [disconnect in the brain] happens not only with events you can remember, but also with suppressed memories. Much like how you learn not to touch a hot stove because it burns your hand, your mind tries to suppress memories to avoid accessing them because they’re painful or upsetting. However, the suppression isn’t perfect, meaning the ‘injury’ can still cause negative symptoms, emotions and behaviors.”
The purpose of EMDR therapy is to help the brain resolve unprocessed traumatic memories. Unlike traditional psychotherapy, EMDR does not require clients to relive or talk through the painful memories. And unlike cognitive-behavioral therapy, EMDR does not try to change the thought patterns in order to correct emotions and behaviors. Instead, the EMDR therapist will ask you to focus on an external stimulus while remembering the traumatic event. The external stimulus provides bilateral stimulation, a rhythmic pattern that crosses the body from side to side: “As this happens, for reasons believed by a Harvard researcher to be connected with the biological mechanisms involved in Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, internal associations arise and the clients begin to process the memory and disturbing feelings” (https://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/).
If that sounds rather vague or even mystical, rest assured that dozens of research studies have documented the effectiveness of EMDR. For more precise details on the neuroscience involved in EMDR, see www.emdr.com.
What Techniques are Used in EMDR?
As mentioned above, the EMDR therapist provides bilateral stimulation while prompting the client to remember the traumatic experience. When EMDR was first developed, that stimulus targeted the eyes. The therapist would ask the client to track a moving target (a light, the therapist’s hand) with their eyes. Today, eye movements may be used, or the therapist may use “tapping,” in which they tap various points on the client’s body during the session, or even musical tones played into each ear in a rhythmic pattern.
As the 60-90 minute session continues, the therapist will ask the client to shift to more positive memories and feelings. The experience as a whole helps to activate both sides of the brain, which allows the client to move distressing pieces of information “from one part of your brain to another, resulting in less or no distress with that specific memory, incident or emotion.”
What are the Eight Phases of EMDR?
EMDR typically progresses through eight phases, and the processing of a specific memory is usually completed in one to three sessions.
- History-taking – the therapist and client together establish treatment goals, which may include addressing past memories, current triggers, and future goals
- Preparation – the therapist explains the treatment and the procedures involved and teaches the client stress reduction techniques to use during and between sessions
- Assessment – the therapist activates the memory or trigger being targeted, usually by asking questions and using rating scales to determine the how the client feels as they remember the event
- Desensitization – the client focuses on the memory and engages in some variation of bilateral stimulation, communicating to the therapist when new thoughts emerge and memory is no longer distressing
- Installation – the client focuses on the positive beliefs that they want to focus on as they process the memory
- Body Scan – the client observes physical sensations to identify any remaining distress
- Closure – the session ends with therapist and client assessing effectiveness and next steps
- Re-evaluation – this step begins the next session, during which the therapist evaluates the client’s psychological state and works with the client to identify goals for the current session
How Does EMDR Help with Addiction?
For clients whose substance use disorder is driven or complicated by a trauma disorder, both disorders must be addressed in order for the client to have the best chance at recovery.
Addiction is often sustained by underlying emotions that have not been fully processed. At our facility in Lubbock, Texas, we use EMDR to help our clients process the distressing and traumatic memories so that they no longer hold such power over them. When a client is not trying to avoid their emotions by getting drunk or high with substances, they have a much clearer path to health and sobriety.