EMDR Therapy: How Effective Is EMDR For Substance Abuse?

Last Updated: July 6, 2020

Authored by Dr. Ahmed Zayed

Reviewed by Michael Espelin APRN

The medical abbreviation EMDR representing eye movement desensitization and reprocessing has gained grounds as one of the treatment methods approved by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), as well as the World Health Organization (WHO). EMDR results have been observed to be quite effective and reliable for mental disease as well as for substance abuse. Many often wonder about the side effects of EMDR and how it works generally. In this guide, we discuss the significant benefits of the technique as well as its applications.

EMDR Therapy: What Is It?

To further approve that EMDR is quintessential, one must understand its meaning. What is EMDR therapy? Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a medical therapy adopted for the treatment of various mental disorders.

History Of EMDR Therapy

The history of EMDR originated around the late 1980s when an American psychologist by the name Francine Shapiro initiated the technique for the treatment of mental trauma. As time progressed, the technique was incorporated for use in the treatment of other mental disorders such as depression, PTSD, anxiety, chronic pain, phobias, substance abuse, and other physically detectable disorders.
Since its inception, EMDR therapy reviews have been positive. Studies have shown an exceptional EMDR success rate where 84 to 90% of cases were diagnosed with a cured case of post-traumatic stress disorder after a few 90-minute therapy sessions. After years of research, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy has gained global recognition by health-based organizations.
The increase in the number of clinicians using EMDR for trauma has been immense. This is due to EMDR effectiveness over the last 25 years.

Female patient listening to EMDR therapist

Operating Principle Of EMDR

People who have suffered from substance abuse often have trouble containing their emotions, and this can lead to erratic behaviors when ignored the EMDR phases enable individuals to dig deep into those experiences, recount them and to channel them differently. This is how EMDR works. EMDR techniques consist of 8 standard phases.
So, practically, how does EMDR therapy work? EMDR therapists are specially trained to conduct these sessions.

After the target memory has been highlighted, a healing process begins, which virtually recreates the memory and empowers the patient with a better understanding and a complete transformation. Patients who complete all the 8 phases of EMDR often feel more in control of their emotions.

Uses Of EMDR

Eye movement desensitization reprocessing is primarily used for the treatment of psychological trauma. However, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy has found various applications in medicine and is used across numerous patient categories. The technique proves effective for clients of all gender, cultural background, age, and sexual orientation. It is effective for substance abuse and a  range of mental health disorders. The following are applications of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy:

Eye Movement Desensitization And Reprocessing Therapy For PTSD

EMDR treatment for PTSD is considered a breakthrough and is shown by extensive scientific studies to alleviate emotional distress caused by traumatic life experiences greatly. EMDR for PTSD uses the theory of the Adaptive Information Processing Model to unravel memories that lead to Post-traumatic stress disorder. EMDR for PTSD is widely used as behavioral therapy.

EMDR For Anxiety

Individuals struggling with severe anxiety often ask, does EMDR work for anxiety? Research has shown that EMDR therapy for anxiety is quite effective. Some people have felt a dissipation of anxious thoughts while moving the eyes in specific patterns. EMDR for anxiety, as well as biofeedback, is practiced widely to alleviate episodic memories, converting them into less fearful thoughts.

woman with senior female EMDR Therapist

Eye Movement Desensitization And Reprocessing Trauma Therapy

Traumatic experiences such as illness or death of a loved one, an accident, bullying, rape, near-death experiences, and the likes often form negative memories which manifest themselves as phobias, anxiety, and other emotions.  Phases of EMDR are specific for targeting traumatic memories and enabling healing.

EMDR For Depression

Antidepressants and psychotherapy are usually recommended for people with depression; however, the rapid eye movement technique has proved effective for cases of depression. EMDR for depression encompasses those who have been through accidents, disasters, murder witnesses, prolonged stress, and other conditions that can likely lead to a state of depression.

EMDR For Weight Loss

The human digestive system Is populated with emotion receptors and often times the ability to add or shed weight depends on our state of mind. The stress hormone, known as cortisol, when released during stress, pushes the body to crave carbs (emotional eating) to compensate for feelings of depression or panic. This allows fat to store in the body, leading to a significant increase in weight.
EMDR for weight loss is recommended at this time to enable the mind to heal, thereby reducing the production of cortisol. The EMDR technique can be administered as a weight-loss procedure.

EMDR For Panic Attacks

The fight or flight mode of the brain during panic attacks causes shortness of breath, heart race, numbness in different parts of the body, a feeling of impending doom and a need to escape. These are all feelings of self-preservation caused by stress, unpleasant events in the past, and others. EMDR panic attacks deal with all forms of emotional pressure and distress that one may be facing, conquering the feeling with simple steps.

EMDR For Substance Abuse

This therapy also applies to issues, including substance abuse disorder and alcoholism, if they occurred due to previous stress of mental trauma. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy helps to get rid of destructive behavior such as alcohol abuse by retraining a patient’s brain.
It should be noted that this therapy can’t be advised for all kinds of addiction. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs reports the significant improvements of PTSD symptoms in patients with chronic dependency + PTSD, but the changes in their substance abuse were minor.  That’s why it is vital to set an appointment with a doctor to find out if the eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy is the right treatment for the patient.

8 Phases Of EMDR

An EMDR session targets past memories, current emotional reactions and distress, and future actions. So, whether it is PTSD treatment EMDR or depression, the aim is to address the evolution of a primary memory clinically. The processing stage of EMDR for depression is more of a setup point for breaking down stored energy channeled towards an emotion. These interactions are useful for directing behavioral patterns.
People often ask, how long does EMDR take? The goal isn’t to finish on a specified time frame, rather ensure full healing after participating in the EMDR 8 phases therapy.
Some may pass through the first 5 EMDR stages very quickly only to unravel a most significant memory that requires a more exhaustive approach which may take longer than anticipated.
The 8-phase therapy is as follows:

First Phase

Generally, the initial phase is to get a comprehensive background on the event. This is conducted by collecting information on the history of the event through a series of questions. These include disturbing memories with emphasis on specific details and feelings towards a particular exchange.
The memories may go as far back as the earliest childhood memories, so the length of time spent on this phase depends on the number of negative events and the age at which one began to experience a decline in behavior or emotions. On average, those with a single traumatic event that led to depression or PTSD may be diagnosed under 5 hours, while individuals who may have more than one negative experience will require longer periods.

Second Phase

The aim of this therapy is to reach emotional equilibrium. To enable this, the therapist provides various techniques to help the client handle emotional stress better. The therapist will create scenarios that may trigger these feelings and show the patient how to deal with emotional distress effectively.  When a patient is able to do this, then he or she has successfully progressed to the next phase. Successfully completing this stage will greatly rely on the client-therapist relationship built at this point.
Young man during EMDR therapy session

Third Phase

This stage is more of an assessment stage. The therapist may identify segments of target memories to be processed. The client is required to pick a significantly negative memory then assert a statement that counters self-belief to the memory, even though this statement may be untrue. This may seem counterintuitive but necessary in order to voice out true emotions felt towards that particular event. These statements are then changed into statements that are more logical and positive. Statements such as “I was weak” become “I survived” this builds into a more positive stream of declarations “I am a survivor”.

Fourth Phase

This phase highlights sensations felt and all the responses to target memories. These responses are measured using a SUD scale. The desensitization process includes sets of eye movements, taps, and sounds. This phase allows the client to identify the events as well as associated memories in order to reach and exceed objectives.

Fifth Phase

The focus of this stage is on the power of positive beliefs. The client learns to replace negative beliefs connected to the incident with positive beliefs. This also comes with complete acceptance and belief in one’s self.

Sixth Phase

Some memories often come with physical signs such as scars which may be emotional reminders of the incident. Treatment sessions for body scan enable the verbalization of body sensations or scars to alleviate the feeling of painful body reminders.

Seventh Phase<

By the 7th phase, closure is reached, and the client is encouraged to document the healing processes and self-calming techniques to maintain emotional balance. This will help soothe the client’s emotions long after therapy sessions are concluded.

Eighth Phase

The therapist conducts complete reevaluation to ensure that all parameters are in check and that positive results are maintained.

Eye Movement Desensitization And Reprocessing Side Effects

There have been controversies on EMDR therapy side effects. People often want to know about EMDR negative side effects before considering this treatment.  Doctors and clinicians consider this method to be relatively safe. EMDR after-effects are mild compared to other methods used to treat trauma.
Rapid eye movement therapy side effects are mostly negligible; however, in rare cases, this method, as well as other trauma treatment methods, may cause:

  • Increased distress
  • Elevated physical sensations
  • Intense dreams
  • New negative memories

In most cases, there is complete healing, and this approach is considered more permanent than most of the other psychotherapies.

Conducting EMDR At Home

Most people would rather Google EMDR therapists nearby for trauma treatment. This is because EMDR at home seems inconceivable. EMDR self-help is actually possible, and one can be trained to use this therapy at home. Does EMDR work at home? Yes, it does. Self EMDR can be conducted in various ways. Here is how to do EMDR at home:

The Hug Method

Cross both palms on the chest with eyes closed. Maintain consciousness and monitor breathing and allow the mind to drift. Gently tap the left and then right hand as well. The tapping keeps one focused on reality.

woman Practicing EMDR therapy at home

The Sitting Method

Both hands should rest on one’s legs while a person is in a sitting position with both eyes closed. While keeping one’s attention on breathing, tap legs with hands to create dual stimulation.
Many other techniques can be explored for this therapy, but it is essential to note that a certified therapist can provide more options with a higher effectiveness rate.

EMDR VS. Other Therapies

There are other trauma treatment techniques, and some may be tempted to ask, what does EMDR treat differently from others?


The comparison EMDR vs. CBT therapy may seem almost equal in effectiveness, especially as both eye movement desensitization and reprocessing and cognitive behavioral therapy show improvements at a very short period of time. It is also possible for both therapies to extend to 10 or more sessions.

Prolonged Exposure Therapy vs. EMDR

The prolonged exposure therapy vs. EMDR comparison proved similar and almost exactly the same except for technique. The eye movement in EMDR creates the difference between both; however, in comparing EMDR vs. exposure therapy, both techniques are closely related and effective for PTSD, depression, and other forms of trauma.

Undergoing EMDR: What To Look Out For?

The first step in getting EMDR help for substance abuse is to find trained medical personnel to guide one through the process. One might look for a certified EMDR therapist nearby to narrow down on location. Some may search for how to do EMDR at home for exclusive information on how one can do it without professional help.
Finding a good drug addiction psychiatrist nearby may depend on a patient’s location. One can speak to a healthcare professional for recommendations on the best therapist or rehab facility to go for. This is an essential step because both substance abuse disorders and mental diseases have to be correctly diagnosed by professionals to provide the right treatment steps.
People usually want to know what to expect after EMDR, especially if conducted at home. There are also a good number of queries on the possible dangers of EMDR therapy.
Usually, the client feels relieved and more confident. The initial anxiety, depression, and mental distress fade away; however, there is often a need for grounding exercises and milieu environment to ensure more permanent results.

Page Sources

  1. Francine Shapiro, The Role of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy in Medicine: Addressing the Psychological and Physical Symptoms Stemming from Adverse Life Experiences, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3951033/
  2. Christoph Rothmayr, Treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) with EMDR, https://healthpsych.psy.vanderbilt.edu/EMDR_PTSD.htm
  3. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) for PTSD, https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand_tx/emdr.asp

Published on: November 5th, 2019

Updated on: July 6th, 2020

About Author

Dr. Ahmed Zayed

Dr. Ahmed Zayed is a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery. He is graduated from the University of Alexandria, Egypt. Dr. Ahmed Zayed has a passion for writing medical and health care articles and focuses on providing engaging and trustworthy information to readers.

Medically Reviewed by

Michael Espelin APRN

8 years of nursing experience in wide variety of behavioral and addition settings that include adult inpatient and outpatient mental health services with substance use disorders, and geriatric long-term care and hospice care.  He has a particular interest in psychopharmacology, nutritional psychiatry, and alternative treatment options involving particular vitamins, dietary supplements, and administering auricular acupuncture.


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