How EMDR Techniques Can Assist Patients in Trauma Treatment
Many addicts and alcoholics enter treatment with a history of traumatic experiences and pain. Effective trauma treatment is vital to preventing relapse and helping someone develop long-term recovery from substances. This is because the impact of trauma on the human brain is damaging over time without intervention. It may also provoke emotional responses that lead to unhealthy behaviors and relapse. Some of the long-term physical and emotional effects of trauma include:
- Stress and anxiety attacks
- Fatigue and poor concentration or memory
- Flashbacks and PTSD
- Hyper-vigilance and fear
- Changes in brain structure and function
- Hypertension and heart disease
Methods of Trauma Treatment
Trauma treatment relies on a variety of methods, like most psychological concerns. Therapy is essential in addressing trauma and includes methods such as dialectical behavior therapy and cognitive behavior therapy. Comprehensive programs also use group and individual counseling, psychodrama, medication, life skills training, and family therapy to address patients’ needs. Long-term recovery depends upon building a foundation of coping skills in order to address trauma and other relapse triggers for the addict or alcoholic.
Trauma and the Brain
When an individual experiences a traumatic event, such as a car accident or early childhood abuse, the brain stores that memory in a different way than it stores pleasant experiences or general information. During a trauma, the brain sends stress signals through the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex, and the hippocampus- all different areas of the brain that process fear and emotion. Unlike non-traumatic memories, these stress signals and memories are stored deep in these parts of the brain and are recalled when the individual is exposed to “triggers.”
Over time, stress signals (such as cortisol) can impact the trauma victim’s daily life and ability to process information. This is because these parts of the brain are responsible for decision-making and cognitive processing as well as emotional response. The impact of traumatic memory on these areas of the brain is similar to physical brain damage in extreme cases.
What is EMDR?
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapeutic method developed in 1987 by Dr. Francine Shapiro. EMDR involves patients accessing traumatic memories in a supervised setting while using brain stimulation to move the memory to different areas of the brain. Essentially, EMDR helps the patient to re-process a traumatic experience in a less damaging way under a trained therapist’s care. Here’s how it works:
- Bilateral stimulation: During an EMDR session, the therapist uses stimuli, such as lateral eye movement to activate movement in the brain. This is similar to the eye movement that occurs during the REM sleep cycle. Lateral stimulation of the brain accesses both the left and right side of the brain allows the patient to use their emotional and cognitive processing mechanisms at the same time. Studies have not conclusively proven how this works. It has been proven that stimulation of these parts of the brain essentially re-categorizes memories, from fear-processing centers to less sensitive areas of the brain.
- Reprocessing during bilateral stimulation: While the patient is engaging in lateral eye movements (or other forms of bilateral stimulation) the therapist guides them through a recall of the traumatic events. Rather than triggering a stress or fear response, as would normally happen in a patient recalling a traumatic experience, the patient is able to process the memory as they would process a happy or neutral memory. This is because the bilateral stimulation prevents stress signals from firing in the brain. Usage of both the left and right brain shifts the way the neurons in the brain fire in response to a trigger.
Does EMDR Work as Trauma Treatment?
The research on how exactly EMDR works on a cellular level in the brain is still developing. However, studies on whether or not EMDR is effective in trauma treatment to have overwhelmingly confirmed that it is a useful, invaluable tool for treating PTSD and traumatic memory. Studies cited by the EMDR Institute found that after three EMDR sessions, up to 90% of single trauma victims treated experienced relief from PTSD symptoms. Additionally, twelve sessions of EMDR effectively eliminated PTSD in 77% of combat veterans treated.
EMDR data shows very high levels of success in treating both complex and single trauma victims. This is because it allows for the patient to re-experience the traumatic memory in a safe environment while professional guides them through a re-processing technique. This method allows for the patients to reform their own feelings regarding the trauma. In many cases, this means that the client is able to change their feelings from those of defeat, powerlessness, and fear into positive feelings of survival and having control over their reactions.
EMDR as Part of Comprehensive Treatment
EMDR is not intended to replace talk therapy or medication. Rather, this technique helps to eliminate trauma reactions to negative events, sometimes more quickly than during one-on-one talk therapy. This way, an individual can process feelings surrounding without PTSD symptoms such as debilitating flashbacks. For example, a victim of abuse may be entirely unable to talk about their experience without experiencing paralyzing flashbacks. Through EMDR, this person can reprocess the event in a way that eliminates these PTSD symptoms. They are then able to talk about the event and not disassociate themselves in traditional talk therapy.
Being able to remain present and process feelings without experiencing a flashback can speed up the healing process. It also allows the patient to heal wholly from their trauma. As a part of a comprehensive treatment plan, EMDR offers hope to victims of trauma. Alleviating the debilitating impacts of PTSD for addicts and alcoholics sets them up with a foundation for long-term recovery. It also serves to enhance their defenses against a relapse. Trauma treatment requires a multi-pronged approach. EMDR is one method that can mean healing for someone seeking relief from the pain of traumatic memory.