Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy, or EMDR, is a nontraditional form of psychotherapy designed to eradicate negative emotions associated with memories of painful or traumatic events. In the addiction recovery community, EMDR is used to treat the mental health disorders that co-occur with addiction, such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

It was developed in the late 1980s to treat symptoms of anxiety, phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder. Today, many therapists use it to treat clients with eating disorders, depression, schizophrenia, sexual dysfunction and stress caused by chronic disease. While most forms of talk therapy focus on trauma and overcoming it, EMDR focuses more on the emotions and symptoms that stem from the traumatic event itself.

Since it’s not fully understood how EMDR works, it’s a fairly controversial practice. In fact, some psychologists discount it entirely, but studies suggest its efficacy in treating certain mental health disorders. A 2011 study published the Journal of Anxiety Disorders found that people who have PTSD who moved their eyes during EMDR therapy experienced significant reductions in distress, heart rate and sweat than those who kept their eyes closed. Today, the American Psychiatric Association, the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies all recommend EMDR.

What to Expect in EMDR

EMDR involves a unique hand motion technique that the therapist uses to guide the client’s eye movements from side to side, similar to hypnosis. According to Psychology Today, these eye movements are said to “loosen knots in one’s memory and allow negative thoughts and memories to be favorably reprocessed with minimal guidance from the therapist.” Essentially, it rewires the connections between trauma and negative feelings.

Unlike other forms of talk therapy, EMDR doesn’t require a client to go into detail regarding their problems and symptoms. Instead, the therapist structures the discussion around the negative thoughts, feelings and beliefs related to trauma that the client is still experiencing. The therapist identifies which beliefs are still relevant and helps the client learn how to replace negative self-talk and thought patterns with more positive language.

The therapist will also teach the client techniques to help the client manage painful emotions on his or her own. Then the therapist begins the desensitization process. With the memory of a painful or traumatic event in mind, the client follows the therapist’s hand movements with their eyes. The process helps the client fully process negative emotions and understand that harboring these feelings serves no purpose.

Additional sessions focus on reinforcing positive affirmations until the client reaches a point where he or she can recall memories of a traumatic or painful event without experiencing the disturbing or negative feelings that led them to therapy.

How Does EMDR Therapy Work?

The goal of EMDR is to fully process past traumatic experiences and the emotions associated with them. Negative thoughts are replaced with positive ones that encourage healthier, more positive behavior and social interactions. EMDR occurs in eight phases:

  1. History and treatment planning, in which the client discusses trauma and the behaviors and situations that stemmed from it.
  2. Preparation, which provides an overview of treatment and establishes client-therapist trust.
  3. Assessment, to identify negative thoughts and feelings and identify positive replacements.
  4. Desensitization, or the eye movement process.
  5. Installation, which strengthens positive replacements.
  6. Body scan, to see whether the client can recall trauma without experiencing negative emotions.
  7. Closure, which occurs at the end of each session.
  8. Re-evaluation, which happens at the start of each session.

Knowing how to decompress, manage stress and handle unpleasant emotions is one of the most important skills a person can have, especially in recovery from addiction. Eventually, a client who is in recovery will be out of treatment, so it’s crucial for him or her to know to take care of themselves and manage the emotions that can trigger a relapse.

At Guardian IOP, we rely on a range of evidence-based clinical therapies to help our clients address the underlying causes of addiction and succeed in recovery. We utilize a highly individualized methodology, creating a custom recovery plan for each client that incorporates the traditional and alternative therapies that are most useful for them. For more information about our services, please contact a Guardian IOP Treatment Advisor today.


Reviewed for accuracy by:

Anna earned her Masters of Social Work at Barry University in Miami, FL in 2017 and completed her internship in co-occurring disorders. Anna has a Bachelors of Art in Religious Studies from Naropa University and is a certified yoga and meditation instructor. Anna has received specialized training in somatic counseling with an emphasis on body-centered psychotherapy.