EMDR Therapy & Virtual Reality – How New Technologies Can Help Substance Use Disorders

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EMDR Therapy & Virtual Reality - How New Technologies Can Help Substance Use Disorders

For some people who have experienced tragedy, certain images, sounds, and even smells can trigger memories of the tragic event. If the trauma, emotions, and memories associated with the experience are not properly addressed, this can lead to mental health issues such as anxiety, PTSD, and substance use disorders. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) changes the way your brain processes these events and can help you heal from the symptoms and negative emotions resulting from trauma. 

Keep reading to learn about the fundamentals of EMDR therapy and the treatment stages, as well as new advances in EMDR technology that could change the way therapists work with clients in the future.

What Is EMDR?

EMDR therapy was initially developed for the treatment of PTSD to address past trauma (such as combat) that continued to cause emotional distress in patients because the memories of the event were not properly processed. These memories often contain thoughts, feelings, images, and sounds that occurred at the time of the traumatic event. As the memories are triggered, these stored sensations are experienced and cause the symptoms of PTSD or other mental health disorders. 

The American Psychological Association (APA) explains, “Unlike other treatments that focus on directly altering the emotions, thoughts, and responses resulting from trauma, EMDR therapy focuses directly on the memory, and is intended to change the way that the memory is stored in the brain, thus reducing and eliminating the symptoms.” During treatment, negative emotions are eventually replaced by positive ones.

EMDR is now shown to be effective in treating many mental health issues such as anxiety, chronic pain, and eating disorders. Unfortunately, substance use disorders are also highly prevalent among those living with a mental health illness. In order to treat these co-occurring disorders, psychotherapists use EMDR to target and resolve the trauma that is contributing to the alcohol or drug abuse. 

Stages of EMDR Therapy

The treatment stages are as follows:

  1. History Intake of the patient.
  2. Client Prep

The therapist explains the treatment process and procedures to the client, practices the various eye movements, and discusses the treatment objective.

  1. Targeting the Specific Memory

The client and therapist work together to process the tragic event while targeting the specific thoughts, images, sounds, or other sensations that pose as triggers for each particular memory.

  1. Desensitization

During this stage, EMDR therapy techniques are now used to treat specific memories. The client focuses on the negative memory or image while the therapist asks them to do specific eye movements. Clients are then asked to recall any feelings or thoughts they have while refocusing on the same traumatic memory. This technique continues until the client states the memory no longer causes negative feelings. 

  1. Installation

The therapist replaces the negative thoughts or feelings with positive ones. For example, the client may have an image of being shot in a robbery and the negative thought associated could be “I am powerless.” During this stage of treatment, the negative thought is changed to a positive one, such as “I am in control.”

  1. Body Scan

The therapist checks the client’s body for any physical response to the specific memory and adjusts treatment if any distress occurs.

  1. Closure

Clients are asked to note any issues that happen in between sessions and keep a log of these issues to help future meetings. 

  1. Re-evaluation

In the final phase, the client and therapist evaluate progress after these sessions to make sure the treatment is successful. 

EMDR and Virtual Reality

As virtual reality becomes more accessible, researchers and therapists are looking for new ways to use the technology, especially in the fields of mental health and substance use disorders. Dr. Barbara Rothbaum, professor at Emory University School of Medicine, explained to APA how using VR in EMDR therapy helps treat her patients with PTSD. “The potent stimulus available through virtual reality, which can include explosions and even provide vibrations through a special vest, enables patients to connect with their emotions and engage more deeply with the treatment,” Rothbaum said. 

Additionally, researchers are using virtual reality to help people with substance use disorders. According to APA, “Virtual experiences have been shown to successfully trigger cravings in people being treated for dependence on alcohol or illicit drugs. Such cravings can be useful in treatment for addiction, since they give people a chance to practice what they’ll do in high-risk situations.”

What’s New in EMDR VR?

A Dutch start-up company, Psylaris, recently created new virtual reality technology that allows clients to conduct EMDR sessions from the comfort of their own homes. Using an Oculus VR headset and app, the client can follow an EMDR session independently without a therapist. The goal of the product is to make more intensive treatment possible for individuals without the need for additional in-office visits. 

Are therapists still involved? Yes. The objective is to be able to extend treatment sessions that are already in motion and for health practitioners to be able to treat more clients at the same time. The best feature in the Psylaris app is that the settings are customizable, allowing the data to be adjusted and shared immediately with the therapist after each session. These settings offer a personal and improved session each time. 

Mental health and substance use disorders often co-occur and must be treated simultaneously for the best chance of long-term success in addiction recovery. The Kimberly Center understands that many people who are in recovery have experienced trauma during their lifetime. We want to help you heal not only from addiction, but also from trauma. We offer many different therapy modalities, including EMDR, to help you process trauma during your treatment. Call us today at 855-4-KCENTER (855-452-3683) to learn how we can help you on the road to a full recovery – mind, body, and spirit.

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