EMDR Opens Up New Possibilities in Trauma and Addiction Treatment: An Interview With Cheryl Grant

Healing from drug, alcohol, or sex addiction is an intense process of transformation that requires fundamentally changing some of our most powerful internal drives and deeply ingrained behavioral patterns. But treating only the addiction is often not enough to create long-term recovery; unless the roots of the addiction are addressed, it is likely that your self-destructive behaviors will re-emerge down the line. Even people who faithfully work their “12 steps” and are committed to the recovery process too often find themselves relapsing if the underlying cause of their addiction is not acknowledged. And often, that underlying cause is trauma.

Cheryl Grant, a Trauma Therapist and Certified Sex Addiction Therapist, sees the relationship between addiction and trauma in the lives of her clients every day. At Bridges to Recovery, she helps clients achieve lasting relief from addiction by engaging them in specialized trauma-focused therapies that seek to address the roots of addictive behaviors, to facilitate sustainable recovery.

In this interview, she shares her insights into how trauma impacts addiction and how a cutting-edge therapy called Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) is creating new paths toward healing.


Understanding Trauma and Addiction

The roots of addiction run deep, and are typically the result of powerful biological and environmental forces that coalesce to create the conditions in which self-destructive compulsions take shape. For some, addiction takes the form of substance abuse, while others develop process addictions to behaviors (such as sex). But regardless of the specifics, trauma is typically what lies at the heart of addiction. “Most often, people in recovery can go back in time and identify specific incidents that made them feel that there’s something wrong with them and caused them to turn to a substance or a person as a way to avoid those feelings of shame,” says Cheryl. “Whether it’s a family style that’s very abusive or it’s isolated instances of overwhelming distress, many people believe that trauma is the root of their addictive behavior.”

Drugs, alcohol, and sex all provide an escape from the pain of traumatic experiences, serving as a kind of self-medication for psychological distress. As a result, it is no surprise that people who have histories of trauma are significantly more likely to develop both substance and process addictions than people who don’t. But while those who have experienced trauma may have augmented psychological incentives to engage in self-destructive behaviors, they often also have neurological features that diminish their ability to make meaningful behavioral change. “Brain scans of people who grow up with repeated trauma show a lot of broken connections between the right and left hemispheres,” Cheryl tells me. Without healing the broken connections by addressing the trauma, even those who try to get clean remain prone to relapse.

When someone has a highly traumatized brain, it’s almost like they have a well-worn neural pathway that causes them to relapse if they experience stress. Because they don’t have their full brain available to them, they continually engage in the same self-destructive behaviors.

In other words, the very trauma that created the foundation for the addiction also prevents healing from that addiction.

Unfortunately, many addiction treatment centers focus solely on the addiction, letting the underlying trauma go unaddressed. “Typically, drug and alcohol treatment is based on cognitive behavioral therapies that do help with stopping the behavior, but they don’t address the trauma,” Cheryl explains. “But unless someone receives specific trauma treatment, they often miss getting at what’s underneath the addiction.” With the roots of the addiction left intact, long-term recovery often remains elusive.

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Treating Trauma with EMDR

At Bridges to Recovery, Cheryl works with clients to address the trauma that drives addiction using EMDR, a trauma-focused therapy that seeks to help clients process memories and distressing symptoms in a healing way. The EMDR model is based on the idea that in times of extreme duress, the brain is not able to process information normally, creating emotional and behavioral disturbances that can last for years after the traumatic event has occurred. By using a combination of directed eye movements and dialogue, EMDR helps you complete processing in a safe and healthy manner, to alleviate the residual psychological impact of the event. Cheryl explains:

If somebody comes up behind me, steals my purse, and runs away, I may find that I become hypervigilant, always looking over my shoulder. By working with EMDR, I am able to work through the incident and allow my nervous system to finish the processing. After a session, I don’t feel the need to look over my shoulder anymore. I’m at peace. That feeling of always waiting for the other shoe to drop can get processed.

With Cheryl’s guidance, clients are able to work through traumas that even years of traditional talk therapy have been unable to adequately address. “Often people talk round and round about something in traditional therapy and don’t feel that they get any kind of resolution.” EMDR allows them to recontextualize their experiences and process them in new ways to finally achieve relief from distressing symptoms.

By lifting the pain of trauma and allowing you to see your experiences in a new light, the need for self-medication through drugs, alcohol, or sex naturally diminishes. But EMDR also addresses something even deeper: your innermost thoughts about yourself, helping you break through the negative core beliefs trauma often imparts.

“Underneath most people’s addictive, self-sabotaging behaviors lie negative core beliefs,” Cheryl says. These beliefs often include things like “I am unlovable. There’s something wrong with me. I’m not smart enough. I’m not interesting. No one cares about me.” By addressing those through EMDR, clients are able to understand the roots of those beliefs and destructive thought patterns with new, healthy, reality-based ways of thinking. “I’ve had so many clients tell me they feel less haunted by early experiences they’ve had. They’re able to shed the belief that there’s something wrong with them, and that intense shame gets lifted.”

Opening Up New Pathways

Part of the reason EMDR is such an effective treatment for trauma and, in turn, addiction, is that it stimulates both sides of the brain at once, encouraging cohesion. “It helps both sides of the brain come together,” says Cheryl. “People who work through issues with EMDR feel like they’re more aligned.” By engaging the entire brain in the therapeutic process, maladaptive neural pathways that formed as the result of traumatic experiences begin to lose strength.

It allows you to release the well-worn groove and open up other neural pathways. So rather than getting stuck in the same behavior over and over, there is more space to make different choices.

As a result, you become better able to make the emotional and behavioral changes necessary to finally end the cycle of suffering and addiction, opening up new possibilities for how to feel, think, and behave. This allows you to be receptive to not only the learning that happens during EMDR, but also that which happens in other therapeutic modalities and 12-step support groups.

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Creating Recovery

At its core, EMDR is a way of re-imagining yourself, your history, and the possibilities of the world around you. By giving you meaningful ways to cope with trauma, you can begin to truly heal from both emotional and behavioral distress, and create a new future free from addiction. “EMDR helps people find internal resources so that they can weather the storms without feeling like acting out sexually or drinking or using drugs as their go-to,” Cheryl says, “They feel more comfortable inside.”

The highly customizable nature of the therapy allows for personalized, safe, and gradual exploration of painful experiences designed to meet the needs of each client in the present moment:

We can work with a client about something that feels difficult for them in really small ways. We often want to build the internal resources first before we start going into the trauma, so they know they have a way to cope with distress. It’s not just about going into the trauma, but it’s about helping people find things that feel good.

As such, EMDR can be uniquely inviting to trauma survivors who may find talking about their experiences too painful and re-traumatizing in more traditional therapeutic modalities.

In her time at Bridges to Recovery, Cheryl has seen the power of EMDR enhance the lives of her clients and create new avenues for healing from both trauma and addiction.

EMDR is a powerful therapeutic tool that for many people allows them to break the chains of addiction and suffering from the past and to feel joy and live in the present.

Bridges to Recovery provides comprehensive treatment for people struggling with trauma-related mental health disorders as well as substance abuse disorders and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our renowned residential program and how we can help you or your loved one start on the journey toward healing.