Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy in Adolescent Substance Use Disorder Treatment

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EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, is a therapeutic approach originally intended to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). EMDR is based on the theory that traumatic experiences become “stuck” in the brain, interfering with a person’s capacity to function normally and sustain psychological health.

Research on EMDR has shown it to be effective in treating a wide variety of other mental health issues, including addiction, depression, and anxiety. Many individuals report significant improvement in symptoms after a few sessions.

If your teen is struggling with substance use or other co-occurring conditions, contact Guardian Recovery today to learn more about our teen behavioral health treatment programs and the therapeutic services we offer.

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What Is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR is a therapeutic technique known as bilateral therapy, which involves the rhythmic stimulation of both sides of the brain or body. (1) There are numerous ways to conduct bilateral therapy, but in EMDR, eye movements facilitate it. Individuals follow a therapist’s fingers as they move back and forth across their field of vision. This movement is thought to enable the reprocessing of traumatic memories.

Who Can Benefit From EMDR Therapy?

In addition to trauma survivors, individuals who experience other psychological issues can also benefit.

Some Mental Health Conditions Include:

  • Anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder.
  • Addiction and substance use disorders.
  • Depression and stress related to traumatic experiences.
  • Phobias, such as agoraphobia and claustrophobia. (2)(3)
  • Body image and self-esteem issues.
  • Grief and loss, such as the death of a loved one.
  • Negative beliefs and self-talk, such as feelings of worthlessness or shame.
  • Emotional dysregulation, such as excessive reactivity.

EMDR therapy is not appropriate for everyone, and the decision to use this approach should involve consultation with a trained mental health professional at Guardian Recovery.

How Is EMDR Utilized in Adolescent Substance Use Treatment & Rehabilitation?

EMDR can be used for teens struggling with many of the same issues as adults, including substance use and mental health conditions, but there are challenges more specific to teens. 

Specific EMDR Uses for Teens Include:

  • Addressing childhood trauma, including dysfunctional family dynamics or abuse.
  • Identifying triggers that lead to relapse, such as peer pressure, social cues, etc.
  • Resolving negative emotions related to hormonal changes, peer-related issues such as bullying, and low self-esteem.
  • Increasing motivation and building healthy coping skills to more productively deal with the unique pressures of adolescence.
  • Increasing self-awareness to understand how their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are interconnected and contribute to life struggles common to their age group, which helps teens overcome them.

Benefits of EMDR for Long-Term Recovery

EMDR can be very helpful for teens and adults alike and empower a person’s ability to maintain long-lasting recovery. These include promoting improved coping with various mental health and emotional challenges, including trauma, addiction, and psychological issues. Long-term benefits also potentially consist of relapse prevention, reduced triggers, improved emotional regulation, and an overall more positive self-perception.

EMDR Therapy & Teen Mental Health, Trauma, & Behavioral Treatment

In terms of teen mental health and trauma, EMDR can help them process and reframe painful memories and negative beliefs that provoke anxiety, depression, and other psychological issues. It can likewise address complex trauma caused by multiple distressing experiences, promoting healing and resilience.

Furthermore, EMDR therapy can help teens identify stressors that motivate substance use and other disruptive behaviors, which can encourage more productive responses.

Disorders & Conditions Treated With EMDR Include:

  • Acute and post-traumatic stress disorders and complex trauma.
  • Anxiety disorders, panic disorders, and phobias.
  • Performance anxiety.
  • Depression and feelings of hopelessness.
  • Substance use disorders and addiction.
  • Borderline and other personality disorders. (4)
  • Eating disorders and body dysmorphia.
  • Dissociative disorders. (5)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder.
  • Grief and loss.

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What Is the Process of EMDR Treatment for Teens?

The process of EMDR follows a structural and gradual approach that aims to help individuals address traumatic memories and related emotional challenges. 

The 8 Phases of EMDR Include:

  1. History Taking and Treatment Planning—A therapist gathers information about the teen’s past experiences, trauma history, and symptoms.
  2. Preparation—Explaining the therapy process to the teen and what to expect.
  3. Assessment—The target distressing event is identified, along with related images, beliefs, emotions, and sensations.
  4. Desensitization—Side-to-side eye movements, sounds, or taps are begun while concentrating on the traumatic event and continue until the teen’s condition (e.g., substance use disorder) reduces to one or zero.
  5. Installation—In this phase, the teen associates and strengthens a positive belief with the target event until it feels entirely true.
  6. Body Scan—The teen is asked to keep in mind the target event and the positive belief while the body is scanned from head to toe, and any lingering disturbances in the body are reprocessed.
  7. Closure—The teen is assisted to return to a state of calm in the present moment, whether the reprocessing is complete or not, to determine if they feel neutral or positive about the event.
  8. Reevaluation—The therapist and teen discuss recently processed memories to ensure their distress is still low and that positive cognition is still strong, and targets and continued treatment are determined if needed.

Frequently Asked Questions

If you have further questions or concerns, contact Guardian Recovery, and we can provide you with answers and more information. In addition, you may wish to review our FAQs..

Can EMDR Therapy Be an Alternative to Other Therapies for Adolescents?

While EMDR can be a beneficial option for teens to address trauma and other psychological challenges, it is most effective when used as one component of a comprehensive treatment program. It does not take the place of individual therapy, counseling, and other evidence-based approaches considered vital to the recovery process.

How Does EMDR Help My Teen’s Behavioral Issues?

EMDR can be used to address your teen’s behavioral issues by focusing on traumatic experiences that cause them significant psychological distress. By effectively reprocessing these memories, this can lead to improved emotional regulation and the development of healthier coping mechanisms. This can ultimately result in positive changes in behavior. 

Does EMDR Therapy Help With Past Childhood Trauma?

A significant benefit of EMDR is that it can help with unresolved childhood trauma in teens. This can help them address and process stressful memories so they don’t have to carry the full emotional burden of their experiences into adulthood.

How Long Is EMDR Therapy & Treatment?

The duration of EMDR therapy varies depending on the teen’s specific needs and the severity of their trauma. On average, however, EMDR therapy ranges from 6–12 sessions, but some may require more or less depending on their progress and goals.

What Conditions Can Be Treated in My Teen?

In addition to trauma, teens can benefit from EMDR for a variety of psychological issues, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, low self-esteem, and more. You are encouraged to consult with a treatment advisor at Guardian Recovery to learn more about whether EMDR might be suitable for your teen.

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Contact Us Today To Learn More About EMDR for Your Teen

Guardian Recovery can provide EMDR therapy as an integral part of an overall treatment program if it is considered suitable for your teen. Although it can be an important strategy to relieve emotional distress associated with trauma, it can also help teens struggling with substance use, mental health conditions, and emotional challenges.

If you would like to learn more about EMDR treatment and how your teen can benefit from an intensive rehab program, contact us today. You can receive a free, no-obligation health insurance benefits check and learn about our streamlined admissions process. Our goal is to help your teen overcome all of the various psychological issues they struggle with and receive the tools they need to recover and foster long-lasting sobriety and wellness.


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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

(1)https://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/ (2)https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/15769-agoraphobia (3)https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/21746-claustrophobia (4)https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/dissociative-disorders/what-are-dissociative-disorders (5)https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9762-borderline-personality-disorder-bpd

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave


Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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