Anyone who has struggled to overcome addiction—or who has fought to help others overcome it—realizes that there is no blanket solution to “fix” living with this chronic disease. So the relatively recent emergence of eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR) and emotional transformation therapy (ETT) as effective addiction treatment methods is a major breakthrough in the field of healthcare.
Dawn “DJ” Griffith, one of the primary therapists at Sunspire Health Desert Palms, has seen the success of both of these therapies firsthand. With two and a half years of experience in treating patients with EMDR and almost a year of using ETT in patient sessions, Griffith believes that these groundbreaking treatments will help to revolutionize the road to recovery.
“I think [EMDR and ETT are] vital because a lot of people aren’t prepared to just sit and talk about traumatic events that’ve happened to them. This gives a methodology for them to actually be able to have that trauma and be able to decrease the level of disturbance it’s having in their life,” she says.
But what exactly are EMDR and ETT, and why are they so effective at treating addiction? Griffith was happy to share her knowledge and experience so more healthcare professionals can be aware of just how beneficial these therapies can be.
Developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro, PhD, in the late 1980s, EMDR was originally developed as a method to alleviate the trauma connected to emotionally distressing memories. Therapists practicing EMDR use hand taps, audio stimulation, and most frequently, lateral eye movements in order to change the emotional response from traumatic memories to one of fear or sadness to one of neutrality or acceptance.
“A lot of people come in and wonder, ‘Why does this work? This doesn’t make sense,’” says Griffith. Simply put, “The bilateral stimulation […] mimics REM sleep, when our brain is trying to process trauma on its own. That’s why EMDR works—because it picks up where the REM sleep leaves off.”
But EMDR isn’t just a treatment for trauma. “There is a protocol to treat addiction triggers, and then being able to desensitize people to that so it isn’t a trigger anymore,” says Griffith. She adds, “There are a lot of protocols that I don’t think mainstream therapists realize exist within EMDR.”
In a patient’s first session with EMDR, he/she and the practicing therapist do a “history taking”: he or she will “come in with an event they believe is most traumatic to them, and use that event and just come up with what the negative beliefs about themselves are, what the emotions they’re feeling, and how disturbing it is,” explains Griffith. “Then, you’ll have them think of other times in their life when they felt the same way.”
The number of traumatic events that come up in this first session will determine the rest of the patient’s course of care. Griffith says that it’s generally 3-6 weeks of EMDR treatment, depending on how many traumatic events came up during the patient’s history taking. The end goal of each session is to decrease the negative associations surrounding a memory.
Griffith summarizes, “You’re taking the negative belief and want to turn it into a positive belief.” As patients remember these painful memories, “we’ll work on the feelings that come up, why [the patient] feels that way, and then we’ll work on distilling how [the patient] can feel good enough,” she says. “They’re never going to leave a session feeling worse than when they came in.”
EMDR and ETT are inextricably linked. The founder and developer of ETT, Dr. Steven Vazquez, was inspired by Dr. Shapiro’s research on EMDR as he was developing his own way to process trauma: with colored light. As Griffith puts it, ETT practitioners “manipulate colors to change people’s emotional response” to events or memories.
“You can use ETT for basically anything,” Griffith continues. Indeed, there have been breakthroughs in treating everything from substance addiction to weight loss using different applications of ETT. Griffith uses a light box in her ETT sessions at Desert Palms so she can easily adjust the color, its saturation, and flickers of light that patients are exposed to.
“The way [patients] respond to lights, colors, and flickers tells you what you need to work on [in that session]. Then, you’ll go over that with them and they’ll say, ‘Wow, that’s totally right! How do you know that just from me looking at colors and lights?’” explains Griffith.
Consider blue as the color of communication. When she turns a blue color on the light box during an ETT session, her patient will “start talking about how they need to communicate better. Every time.” If patients are having trouble connecting to emotions, Griffith “might use a flicker in order to get more of a response.”
“Each time I change a color, I can see and hear that a patient’s emotional response changing. It’s pretty amazing because when you pull out a color, they will automatically start talking about the emotion associated with that color. And they don’t know that’s the emotion associated with that color. It’s so cool,” Griffith raves about her experience using ETT.
Using EMDR and ETT in Practice
Healthcare professionals should proceed with caution when first introducing EMDR and ETT to patients. “When people initially come into a treatment facility, they’ve often been through a lot due to substance use dependence and many associated life challenges. Their ability to cope and manage intense emotions associated with the trauma needs to be carefully evaluated prior to beginning this work,” explains Dr. Rebecca Gaba, PhD, LMFT, Clinical Director of Desert Palms.
She adds that at Desert Palms, the staff helps patients to "learn the emotion regulation skills necessary for them to be better able to address their trauma history and work through those experiences" so they can be prepared to participate in these new therapies. Griffith notes that patients “can’t be completely dysregulated” from the trauma surrounding their addiction for EMDR or ETT to be effective.
The amount of time a patient is in your care should be considered as well. “I don’t do EMDR in inpatient [treatment] because [those patients are] only here 30 days,” which is not enough time for a full course of EMDR care, says Griffith. This treatment is mostly for patients in Desert Palms’ intensive outpatient facility, Palm Desert.
However, “ETT is used in inpatient [treatment] because you can use it in long-term treatment, and you can also use it to process something that comes up immediately,” says Griffith. Most of her ETT sessions aren’t more than 20 minutes when she and a patient are working through an individual event because of the rapid change in emotional response.
Currently, about 50% of the combined inpatient and outpatient populations at Desert Palms receive either EMDR or ETT treatments throughout their course of care. Dr. Gaba wants to see this number rise. “I would like to see [EMDR and ETT] become an integral part of treatment for everyone who comes here because they’re both very versatile practices, and I think we can achieve pretty good results in a fairly short amount of time,” she explains.
To learn about how EMDR and ETT at Sunspire Health Desert Palms can help your patients recover, please contact us at sunspirehealth.com.