How The EMDR Protocol Works with Relapse Prevention

How The EMDR Protocol Works with Relapse Prevention

EMDR is an effective, some might even say, pioneering treatment for addiction and substance use disorder primarily because it targets the underlying causes of these conditions, such as trauma, childhood development and PTSD.

As the research landscape on substance misuse evolves, so does our understanding of the pivotal role that trauma very often plays in alcohol and drug addiction. 

EMDR, which stands for eye movement desensitization reprocessing, is a new modality used in addiction rehabilitation programs to help those in treatment unpack and resolve traumatic experiences that may have led to their current emotional challenges.

EMDR therapy aims to help you identify and reprocess traumatic memories that may have become ‘stored’ in your body during a crisis or other distressing event.

Through a series of steps guided by an experienced EMDR therapist, traumatic memories (and any associated beliefs and emotions) are eventually discharged from your body and nervous system, allowing you to view your past experiences in new, more empowering ways.

By targeting any underlying traumas and associated beliefs and emotions, your cravings or urges to use a substance, whether that be alcohol, prescription pills, methamphetamine, opioids, etc, are significantly reduced, making EMDR one of the leading treatments in relapse prevention. 

EMDR gives those in recovery a chance to begin living a life free from the clutches of the past, allowing them to let go of any unhealthy coping mechanisms or vices they may have used to manage unpleasant symptoms and emotions, a pattern that no longer serves their current life or purpose.

This article explores how the EMDR protocol works with relapse prevention.

In the meantime, if you (or a loved one) are struggling with substance addiction and would like to learn more about our addiction and trauma treatment programs, contact our friendly team at The Lighthouse Bali today, who will happily assist you.

How The Lighthouse Bali team can help

We specialize in diagnosing and treating various mental health disorders, including substance use, trauma, and other co-occurring conditions such as anxiety and depression.

Our clinical team comprises psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, EMDR specialists, and trauma-informed professionals who offer one-to-one bespoke recovery programs to those suffering from substance addiction and trauma.

Contact us today for a confidential chat or to learn more about our customized treatment programs.

Now that you know more about us, let’s dive in!


How the EMDR protocol works with relapse prevention

Although further studies are needed, researchers conclude that EMDR is a highly effective treatment for substance use disorder as it directly targets the root cause(s) of substance dependence and behavioral addictions, which can significantly help in preventing relapse.

As mentioned earlier, EMDR is often used as part of an integrated rehab program, helping to improve the following conditions:

Historically, addiction treatment programs mainly focused on symptom management, which can be effective in the short term but not when it comes to long-term sobriety.

Why is that?

Eliminating substances from the body through medical detox is just one step in the recovery process – one that is crucial and must be celebrated, as going through this phase of treatment can be incredibly challenging for the individual and their loved ones.

However, in more recent years, mental health professionals are offering those in recovery more comprehensive, customized treatment programs to help them achieve lasting sobriety and avoid relapse, including somatic and behavioral therapies, as well as EMDR.

These treatments consider the ‘whole’ person, not just an individual’s presenting symptoms, leading to better outcomes and lower relapse rates for those in recovery.

Much research indicates the profound connection between addiction and trauma. 

For instance, as many as two-thirds of individuals with addictions reported experiencing some form of trauma during their formative years.

In addition, those with parents who struggled or continue to struggle with substance addiction are also at higher risk of modeling addictive behaviors throughout their lifespan.

The EMDR protocol offers those in recovery the opportunity to address the deeper issues that underlie substance dependence. This approach can significantly reduce their risk of relapsing in the future.

Moreover, EMDR therapy helps individuals to reframe any negative beliefs or suppositions they may have about their past experiences, leading to increased self-compassion, forgiveness, and acceptance, ultimately reducing their need to use substances.

So, how does the EMDR protocol work with relapse prevention?

Unfortunately, for many, alcohol and drugs are often the ‘’go-to’’  as these substances can help temporarily soothe the nervous system, helping individuals feel calmer and more connected to themselves and others.

Although they give the illusion of being helpful, prolonged alcohol and drug use can lead to substance dependence or full-blown addiction, where individuals require treatment to improve their lives and get sober.

EMDR helps increase an individual’s confidence and acts as relapse prevention, minimizing the risk of them lapsing into old, unhelpful habits when challenging situations arise.

Additionally, the different phases of EMDR therapy can help a person address and heal past wounds, identify and eliminate triggers, and look forward to a life free from substances.

EMDR & cravings: How EMDR can help to reduce cravings and positive associations with substance use

EMDR treatment can also offer promising avenues for reducing the positive or pleasurable effects associated with substance use and, therefore, can add tremendous value for relapse prevention.

By focusing on the emotions and associations that underlie substance use, EMDR can help individuals to desensitize the positive connections they have formed with the drug. 

For example, every time you go to the bathroom, you might think about vaping. 

So, the bathroom can elicit a very positive feeling/state because it is paired with vaping. 

Another example is that you might like that feeling after having two glasses of wine and want to chase that positive, relaxing feeling. Processing the positive associations and feelings connected to substances makes it easier to avoid relapse.

By repeatedly engaging in bilateral stimulation while focusing on these triggers, individuals can gradually desensitize the positive connections and reduce the intensity of their cravings. 

Furthermore, EMDR helps people identify and reprocess the underlying emotions driving substance cravings, allowing them to gain insight into the root causes of their addiction and manage it more effectively.

What to expect during EMDR treatment sessions

EMDR, a type of psychotherapy, uses bilateral (side-to-side) eye movements and other techniques, such as tapping and specific sounds and vibrations, to help activate the brain’s natural healing process, thus reducing the emotional impact of negative emotions associated with traumatic memories and experiences.

Your EMDR therapist will help guide you through the process of targeting and reprocessing painful memories and experiences that may cause or worsen your addiction (or other emotional challenges.)

Fundamentally, there are eight steps or phases involved in EMDR therapy, including:

1. History taking

During the first phase of EMDR therapy, your therapist will ask you a series of questions about your history and current emotional difficulties, focusing on traumatic events or experiences you may have encountered in the past. 

Once you have discussed your history, you and your therapist will develop a treatment plan.


2. Preparation

The second phase involves educating you on what to expect during your sessions. 

Your therapist will explain the basics of EMDR therapy and the techniques used during sessions. 

They will also provide you with coping strategies to help you deal with disturbing or distressing emotions that may arise during treatment.

3. Assessment

The third phase involves selecting the traumatic memories you wish to target during your sessions, including images, beliefs, feelings, and sensations associated with the traumatic experiences that need to be reprocessed.

4. Desensitization 

During this phase, your therapist guides you through specific eye movements, tapping, or other techniques. 

At the same time, you will be asked to think about the traumatic memory, making room for new, more positive associations to be harmonized with the event. 

5. Installation

This step involves strengthening and cementing the paired positive associations during desensitization.


6. Body scan

Your therapist will ask you to think about your targeted traumatic memory again while they make note of any remaining tension, distress, or negative associations in your mind and body.

7. Closure

During this stage of treatment, your therapist will use techniques to help ground you in the present moment, using some of the strategies learned in the preparation phase.

8. Reevaluation

This involves assessing your current emotional state since your last session, determining how you have responded to treatment so far, and identifying areas that still need to be addressed and unpacked for future sessions.


Are there any downsides to EMDR therapy? 

EMDR has been deemed a safe and effective treatment for treating various mental health conditions, including trauma, PTSD, substance use disorder, and behavioral addictions.

However, some research shows that brief side effects may occasionally occur, including:

  • Mood swings
  • Headache, nausea, and feeling dizzy or light-headed
  • Re-emergence of upsetting or distressing memories
  • Intense or vivid dreams


Trauma can leave a lasting imprint on the mind, body, and spirit, leading to various adverse outcomes such as substance addiction, PTSD, anxiety, depression, and many other health complications.

However, recovery is possible with proper treatment, help, and support.

No matter how challenging it is to envision a life free of trauma, EMDR offers hope and a much brighter future for those who have endured adversity in their life.

By enamoring individuals with healthy coping skills and effective relapse prevention strategies, EMDR practitioners can help their clients look towards a more promising future free of substances.

If you’ve been experiencing symptoms of trauma or PTSD and find yourself reaching for a drink or drug to cope, it may be time to consider EMDR therapy.

We know how daunting it can be to begin treatment. 

However, once you move through the different phases of recovery, you will start to feel more confident in your decision to improve your quality of life and enjoy an existence free from the grips of your past and unhealthy habits that have held you back and limited your potential for far too long.

Contact our friendly team at The Lighthouse Bali today and begin your transformational journey toward lasting healing and sobriety.


We are here and ready to help.

Additional resources

  1. EMDR Therapy for Trauma and Substance Use Disorder, PsychCentral, Jared C. Pistoia, ND, June 23, 2022

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How the EMDR protocol works with relapse prevention

EMDR is an effective, some might even say, pioneering treatment for addiction and substance use disorder primarily because it targets the underlying causes of these conditions, such as trauma, childhood development and PTSD.As the research landscape on substance misuse evolves, so does our understanding of the pivotal role that trauma very often plays in alcohol and drug addiction.

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