Life experiences, either negative or positive, have a significant impact on our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors. Adverse life experiences such as abuse, neglect, violence, or emotional distress may have serious consequences later in life, such as mental illness or addiction.

In treating individuals who suffer from addiction, it is important to address any co-occurring trauma, PTSD, or related symptoms within the setting of a drug and alcohol rehab facility because, in most instances, these traumatic events or experiences play a role in the person’s addictive behaviors. Therefore, the addiction cannot be fully overcome without addressing those issues.

Research shows that trauma plays an important role in how we live our lives. One such famous study is the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, which is one of the largest investigations of child abuse, neglect, and well-being later in life.1

The original ACE study was conducted from 1995 to 1997 and found that traumatic experiences in childhood can increase a person’s risk for developing substance abuse (among many other unhealthy lifestyles and habits) later in life.

The ACE study looked at the following factors:

  • Abuse
    • Emotional abuse
    • Physical abuse
    • Sexual abuse
  • Household challenges
    • Mother treated violently
    • Household substance abuse
    • Mental illness in household
    • Parental separation or divorce
    • Incarcerated household member
  • Neglect
    • Emotional neglect
    • Physical neglect

Of those who participated in the study, almost two-thirds of study participants reported experiencing at least one of the above factors. More than one in five participants reported experiencing three or more.1 The study also found that participants who reported experiencing five or more of the above factors were seven to 10 times more likely to suffer from substance abuse later in life.2

The ACE study was instrumental in showing the significant relationship between trauma and addiction, especially regarding adverse childhood experiences.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) was developed in the late 1980s and is an interactive psychotherapy approach used to treat trauma and PTSD, which are frequently co-occurring disorders in those struggling with addiction.3 The emotional distress many people experience is typically a result of disturbing life experiences.

The primary goals of EMDR therapy are to treat the trauma, alleviate the symptoms, and assist with the overall recovery process. Extensive research has determined that EMDR is highly effective in treating clients with PTSD as well as those with one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Flashbacks
  • Disturbing dreams
  • Repression of traumatic events

According to the EMDR International Association, complete EMDR treatment involves memories, current triggers, and future challenges.4 Full treatment incorporates the following eight stages of treatment: 5

  • History and treatment planning The therapist collects a detailed history of the client and develops an appropriate treatment plan.
  • PreparationThe therapist sets expectations for treatment and helps the client develop self-control techniques which he or she can use in sessions. The therapist will also discuss the client’s trauma and how it relates to his or her addiction to establish a deeper understanding of the treatment process that will take place throughout the client’s drug rehab program.
  • AssessmentThe therapist and client identify a memory that they will focus on during that particular session. The client picks a scene that best represents that memory and makes a statement that expresses a negative self-belief associated with the event. The therapist then encourages the client to make a positive statement that contradicts the negative belief and is associated with an internal sense of control.
  • DesensitizationThe therapist guides the client through a series of eye movements or other forms of stimulation while also focusing on the selected scene of the session while encouraging the client to be open to whatever happens. After each series of eye movements, the therapist instructs the client to blank out whatever scene he or she is focused on.
  • InstallationThe goal of this phase is to increase the strength of the positive belief the client has now associated with the selected scene by pairing the positive belief with the previous negative belief.
  • Body scanThe therapist asks the client to visualize the scene once more and take notice of any tension that remains in his or her body. If there is tension, the therapist will help the client target each of these sensations for reprocessing to reduce and eliminate any remaining negative body sensations and emotions associated with the scene.
  • ClosureThe client uses the self-control techniques he or she learned during phase two and uses them to restore an internal state of equilibrium. This is beneficial when reprocessing is not complete. The client is instructed to keep notes or a journal of any disturbances he or she experiences in between sessions.
  • ReevaluationAt the beginning of each subsequent session, the therapist checks to make sure progress has been maintained and identifies any new target areas that require treatment throughout the client’s alcohol and drug rehab program.

Through these eight phases of treatment, clients work with a therapist to process and resolve their traumatic experiences through a learning state that allows disturbing and traumatic experiences to be stored with appropriate emotions in the brain. The negative symptoms such as flashbacks and disturbing dreams will dissipate as those experiences are resolved and clients will be left with healthy emotions, understanding, and perspectives relating to those experiences.

EMDR therapy is frequently used alongside cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques in a drug and alcohol rehab setting. Depending on the client’s treatment plan and the rehab center providing the treatment, EMDR techniques may be used in both individual and group settings.

In using EMDR therapy to resolve trauma and addiction, therapists approach each client’s situation through a trauma-informed lens, which allows them to more appropriately address the root causes and contributing factors of the individual’s addiction.

EMDR provides a host of benefits for people in drug and alcohol rehab, including: 3,6

  • Alleviating psychological symptoms of trauma and PTSD
  • Alleviating physical symptoms of trauma and PTSD
  • Decreasing or eliminating distress from the disturbing memory(ies)
  • Improving self-esteem and self-efficacy
  • Resolving present and anticipated future triggers

Adverse life experiences don’t have to determine a person’s behaviors, thoughts, and beliefs. With the help of EMDR and other cognitive behavioral therapies, an individual can overcome these traumatic experiences and fully heal from the devastating effects of adverse life experiences and addiction.