Learn about how EMDR therapy can be used to treat both PTSD and addiction.

If a patient has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) alongside a substance use disorder, it can be more efficient to treatment for the two conditions simultaneously. Not only are both conditions serious, but studies also show that there is a connection between the two. There is also evidence that eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy helps treat addiction and PTSD.

The Seriousness of PTSD

It’s not unusual for a person that has experienced a traumatic event to have nightmares, flashbacks or disturbing memories. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a serious and potentially debilitating condition that can occur when a person witnesses or experiences a serious accident, violent assault, sudden death of a loved one, war or other life-threatening events.

Many people who go through trauma recover, but people with PTSD continue to experience symptoms, sometimes in the long-term. Common symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Reliving the experience through memories and nightmares
  • Avoiding people, places, situations and thoughts associated with the trauma
  • Increased irritability including depression and difficulty sleeping
  • Negative mood and feelings of isolation and blame

How PTSD is Linked to Addiction

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that more than 7.7 million American adults struggle with PTSD. People who have experienced a traumatic event or have been exposed to violence or natural disasters have a strong chance of developing PTSD. There is also a link between PTSD and addiction.

It’s not a lack of coping that causes PTSD, but rather the result of a change in brain chemistry. When trauma occurs, it can change the brain’s chemistry in much the same way as misusing substances does. This is why the presence of PTSD can also trigger a substance use disorder, and the two disorders can feed off of each other.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, close to three-quarters of people that survive abusive or violent trauma report an alcohol use disorder. According to one study, about 45 percent of patients with a substance use disorder also screened positive for PTSD. After a traumatic experience occurs, the brain produces fewer of the natural feel-good chemicals called endorphins. A person with PTSD might turn to drugs or alcohol to enhance their mood, which artificially boosts these endorphins. Over time, they may rely on dangerous substances to relieve feelings of irritability, anxiety and depression.

When the person develops a drug or alcohol addiction, it is considered a co-occurring mental health disorder to their PTSD. Comprehensive PTSD treatment can and should take place alongside care for a substance use disorder. EMDR is one effective therapy for this treatment.

What is EMDR Therapy?

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) was developed in 1987 by psychologist Francine Shapiro and is frequently used to treat people who suffer from anxietypanic and PTSD.

This type of therapy is a focused, phased approach to the treatment of trauma and related symptoms that gives the client a new, safe connection to emotions, images, body sensations and self-thoughts associated with the trauma. This allows natural healing to take place as the brain learns to adapt in a therapeutic space.

For clients with PTSD, EMDR therapy usually takes place in eight phases. Working with the therapist, clients will focus on a negative belief held about themselves and work to formulate positive beliefs that they would prefer instead.

The emotions and sensations related to a negative event are identified, and the therapist helps the client through the process by use of an external eye stimulus. Through the bilateral eye movement and processing, the selected positive belief soon replaces the negative one.

Each EMDR session lasts roughly an hour. The theory is that EMDR is effective because the bilateral eye movement enables the brain to move past areas that have become “stuck” because of traumatic experiences. This is an evidence-based treatment that is being used more frequently to treat PTSD and addiction together.

How Effective is EMDR Therapy in Treating Addiction and PTSD?

Frequently EMDR therapy is used alongside cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) in addiction treatment programs. This combination is an effective technique that is endorsed by the American Psychiatric Association and the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies. Combination therapy is used by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Defense and a variety of public and private mental health and addiction treatment programs.

One study commissioned by Kaiser Permanente found that 100 percent of single-trauma victims and 77 percent of multi-trauma victims no longer had a PTSD diagnosis after just six EMDR therapy sessions. Another study looked at the effectiveness of EMDR in patients with a substance use disorder. It found that there is a significant reduction in conscious and unconscious drug craving after participating in this therapy.

Where to Turn for Addiction and Co-Occurring PTSD Help

Frequently EMDR can be used to resolve trauma related to addiction as well as other types of trauma. When attending an alcohol and drug rehab, you have an opportunity to work with a trained therapist who can approach each situation to address trauma when necessary. This gives you the best chance to treat the physical and psychological symptoms related to trauma and PTSD and well as improve self-esteem and avoid a return to use.

If you are dealing with a substance use disorder and PTSD, The Recovery Village offers personalized addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders treatment. This individualized care can address core issues and provide the best chance possible for a fulfilling life in recovery.

Contact The Recovery Village now to learn more about our addiction treatment programs and find out how specific types of therapy can help you make the changes you need and deserve.

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Editor – Camille Renzoni
Cami Renzoni is a creative writer and editor for The Recovery Village. As an advocate for behavioral health, Cami is certified in mental health first aid and encourages people who face substance use disorders to ask for the help they deserve. Read more

Anxiety and Depression Association of America. “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).” Accessed June 20, 2019.

Core, Glenys, et al. “Post‐traumatic stress disorder, depression and suicidality in inpatients with substance use disorders.” Drug and Alcohol Review, April 26, 2011. Accessed June 20, 2019.

Shapiro, Francine Ph.D. “The Role of Eye Movement Desensitization[…]se Life Experiences.” The Permanente Journal, Winter 2014. Accessed June 20, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.