Addictions, Trauma, and EMDR Therapy

The word “addiction” is a loaded word. Many people struggle with addiction on some level. It’s often hard to see or admit to oneself. Addiction can be complex in that it impacts people biologically, chemically, neurologically, psychologically, medically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually.

What is in common with all addictions is the feeling that comes up that drives a person to “use” something such as alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, food, etc. hoping to make a disturbing feeling go away. Many times the underlying feeling was originally caused by a traumatic event that couldn’t be handled earlier in life.

As illustrated in the video animation below, once the substance of choice is used, the person gets some relief. But over time, the brain adapts to the feeling and the person doesn’t get the same relief as they once experienced. A craving develops and the person needs more and more of the substance to get relief.

In EMDR Therapy, addictions can be worked with through using different models depending on where the client is in their stability and length of sobriety. One model is used early in treatment to help decrease the level of urge to use whatever addiction the client is struggling with.

The model is Arnold Popky’s DeTUR which is outlined in the book, “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Scripted Protocols: Special Populations“. This model is a modified protocol of EMD Therapy. In the book there is a step-by-step guide that EMDR Therapists can use in working with clients who are struggling with stopping their addictive behaviors.

The protocol is to have clients list current triggers that bring up anxiety and the craving to “use”. Through the EMDR Therapy modified process, the client focuses on the disturbing image, any works that go with that image, smells, taste, emotions and body sensations that they feel when thinking about “using”. The use of eye movements or other types of Dual Attention Stimulation (DAS) during the EMDR Therapy reprocessing allows the client to desensitize the urge which decreases their anxiety. If during the process underlying trauma arises the therapist will use traditional EMDR Therapy reprocessing to mitigate the trauma that is still causing the client distress. Popky has had great success in using this protocol. This is just one example of a protocol that you can find in this book.

Popky’s model can be helpful in getting people to stop “using”, but what I think is really important is focusing on the underlying trauma as the beginning of why a person began “using” in the first place.

No matter what method is used in working with addictions, ultimately the underlying trauma needs to be addressed so that the client gets relief from the original trauma.

Along with addressing the underlying trauma, clients need to develop new coping skills that
do not involve their drug of choice to manage feelings.

For EMDR Therapists interested in learning more about how to work with addictions, trauma, and EMDR Therapy, we encourage you to look into “Addictions and EMDR Therapy,” taught by Barb Maiberger and John Gray. In this EMDR Advanced Training the emphasis will be placed on looking at addictions through the lens of trauma, and to learn skills on how to stabilize clients to give them ease in their body and mind. Therapists will practice these new skills and how to develop them for clients so that they can put it into their practice immediately.

Using EMDR Therapy to address the trauma helps clients heal the past, so that clients ultimately feel less
urge in their body and mind to “use” to manage how they are feeling.

Learn more about “Addictions and EMDR Therapy”


Image/Video Source: “Nuggets” by Filmbinder via