EMDR, Addictions and Trauma

by Mar 29, 2022Family Counseling

Do you suffer from the pain of addiction? This a double dose of pain. Addiction stems from trauma and negative experiences, and living with addiction only adds to the burden. EMDR helps people with addictions.

Addiction and compulsive behaviors can provide a temporary relief for people experiencing emotional pain by changing how this pain is experienced in the mind and in the body.  Distress may arise from trauma. When symptoms of trauma have been reduced, compulsive behaviors can also decrease (Brown et al, 2016).

EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, includes several protocols for addressing substance use problems as it targets levels of urge and cravings, negative and positive feeling states, and fear around relapse and abstinence. These protocols help clients face and resolve challenging feeling states while increasing positive personal resources (Markus & Hornsveld, 2017; Berntsen, 2019; Brown et al., 2019).

EMDR targets the addiction memory networks of urges, triggers and cravings. EMDR helps clients become desensitized to the power of their urges, triggers and cravings. Clients can then develop more effective life skills. In addition, when trauma comes up in session, clients can reprocess these difficult life circumstances via EMDR until new neural pathways are created. Clients then can think in more healthy, positive ways (Payson & Osborne, 2021).

Sessions include helping clients assess their support systems, find ways to ask for help when needed, and guidance on setting healthy boundaries. During sessions, clients also consistently practice grounding, relaxation and visualization (Payson & Osborne, 2021).

Identifying Stages of Change

During sessions, we may also look at motivation for change, and talk about barriers or blocking beliefs. We understand what changes clients want to make in their behaviors and feelings. And we always reinforce previous times when clients have moved forward despite setbacks!

We can identify how important it is to change by rating it on a scale. Whatever the number, we follow up and take notes on positive responses, and/or on barriers that may need to be more fully described. These responses are then explored using EMDR tapping or eye movements. This allows clients access to more free-flowing information wherein positives become enhanced and installed, and barriers gradually discard their intensity.

We also explore how confident clients feel in their ability to change. Again, we use a non-pressured rating question to elicit what makes clients feel confident. This can also include to what resources clients have access. When answers are less than 10/10, some more curious questioning can happen. Clients then may have realizations about what could be holding them back.

As we continue talking about change, we ask clients to rate how committed they feel to change. Clients can come up with lists of what helps them feel committed. This helps determine and solidify resources. Should ratings be lower than 10/10, clients will explore any barriers through the use of EMDR tapping or eye movements. Sound can also be utilized.

Healthy Coping Skills

Developing inner resources is an important component of healthy coping. Inner resources can be positive feeling states, qualities that will help clients tackle challenging situations, imagery that can be paired with good emotions, memories of activities that feel pleasurable, scenes from nature, animals that represent strength and bravery, symbols which have a powerful positive effect, and anything that helps the client feel in control.

Chosen behaviors can also be considered coping skills. Clients will discover things they like to do instead of compulsive or addictive behaviors. Clients can make a list, and then choose one of these to think about as they pair it with a future challenge. Tapping or eye movements will be used to desensitize clients to any disturbances that may arise until the client can see herself or himself performing the behavior easily.

Once clients can feel mastery through the use of their healthy coping skills, it can be time to choose a positive treatment goal. This will involve guiding the client to imagine how he or she would like to be: thinking of a time in the near future where the issue is resolved. The client has the opportunity to envision what his or her life looks like, what he or she is doing instead (swapping out the negative and putting in the positive), what he or she feels in this new, imagine world, and what positive body sensations come up as the client imagines this scene that involves reaching a goal. The client then chooses a name or title for this new, achieved goal. Afterwards, EMDR tapping or eye movements are used to install the positive treatment goal.

After this positive treatment goal experience, the client will be instructed to call up this scene daily, along with the positive emotions, and the name or title. This will help the client solidify all the changes he or she wants to make!


EMDR is an effective tool for reducing symptoms of PTSD, and decreasing/eliminating unwanted compulsive or addictive behaviors. The body, the brain, the nervous system, the subconscious do the work, while clients can just get on with their lives in a way that they would prefer.

Our next blog post will continue to look at how EMDR is used for addictions. See you next time!


Berntsen, D. (2019). Spontaneous future cognitions: An integrative review. Psychological Research, 83(4), 651-665. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00426-018-1127-z

Brown, L. A., Belli, G. M., Asnaani, A., & Foa, E. B. (2019). A review of the role of negative cognitions about oneself, others, and the world in the treatment of PTSD. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 43(1), 143-173. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10608-018-9938-1

Brown, S., Stowasser, J., & Shapiro, F. (2016). EMDR Therapy and the Treatment of Substance Abuse     and Addiction. In Innovations in the Treatment of Substance Addiction (pp. 69-100). Springer

Markus, W., & Hornsveld, H. K. (2017). EMDR interventions in addiction. Journal of EMDR Practice

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