By Linda Conlin, Pro to Pro Managing Editor

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a method which was initially used for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, but it is now being used in different therapeutic situations. Although most research into EMDR has examined its use in people with PTSD, EMDR is sometimes used to treat other psychological challenges. They include panic attacks, eating disorders, addictions, and anxiety. A new Florida Atlantic University pilot study is showing promise in treating addiction cravings by combining eye movements and guided instructions to process memories. (

EMDR uses a patient's own rapid, rhythmic eye movements. With the help of an EMDR therapist, these eye movements can decrease the power of emotionally charged memories of past traumatic events. During eye movement desensitization, the saccadic eye movement is produced by following the movement of the therapist's finger and simultaneously the person should have an awareness of the image of traumatic memory, negative self-assessment of trauma, and physical responses of anxiety. The person is not able to simultaneously maintain awareness to internal stimulus and the new external stimulus. When the finger wagging is sufficiently intense, the person will be distracted from trauma relevant thoughts. (

“Because Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing has been shown to reduce the vividness of negative memories associated with trauma, we anticipated that this therapy would also reduce the vivid imagery that fuels addiction cravings,” said Elizabeth Woodruff, first author, a graduate of the Phyllis and Harvey Sandler School of Social Work within FAU’s College of Social Work and Criminal Justice, and a practicing clinical therapist in West Palm Beach. FAU’s “Addiction-focused Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing” study focused on cravings, repetitive negative thinking, and irrational cognitions about the substance of choice. For the study, researchers tested Addiction-focused EMDR with and without cognitive behavioral therapy, a psycho-social intervention aimed to reduce symptoms of various mental health conditions including depression and anxiety disorders.

EMDR can be separated into eight phases. The first three basically help identify the issues to be addressed during therapy and explain how the process works. The next three phases are grouped as “EMDR bilateral stimulation.” They are the active part of therapy. These phases connect the emotional trauma and troubling memories with the current state of mind and the ways the body responds to therapy. Bilateral stimulation activates both sides of the brain, with a therapist directing side-to-side eye movement to deal with traumatic memories or difficult emotions in a different way, called “reprocessing.”

In the FAU study, thirty participants were recruited from a residential program or a partial hospitalization program in a recovery center in Florida, from October 2021 through January 2022. Nearly 57 percent of the study participants reported alcohol as their primary substance dependence and 20 percent reported heroin or other opiates, including morphine, as their primary substance dependence. Results of the study, published in the Journal of Evidence-based Social Work, showed a nearly 100% participant retention rate. Addiction-focused EMDR was as effective as cognitive behavioral therapy for cravings with the combination of both resulting in more reduction in craving than cognitive behavioral therapy alone. Both the experimental group and control group, using only cognitive behavioral therapy, had clinically significant reductions in cravings, repetitive negative thinking, and irrational cognitions, with the experimental group showing greater decreases overall.

EMDR is a different type of therapy developed in 1989. Studies have shown eye movement desensitization and reprocessing can help replace negative emotions tied to traumatic events or situations with more positive ones. However, more clinical trials with a larger sample are necessary to assess the efficacy and sustainability of such effects in persons with substance abuse disorder.