First responders encounter disturbing scenes and help people during the worst times in life. The ongoing exposure to tragedy and life-or-death situations causes traumatic responses, not only for the people first responders are helping, but also for the workers themselves. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can become a long-standing challenge when traumatic events overwhelm a person. Treatments like EMDR can have radically beneficial effects on trauma survivors with PTSD, making it one of the more promising recovery methods for first responders.

What Is EMDR?

EMDR is the abbreviation for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It is an effective treatment that incorporates eye movement or sound in a repetitive, back-and-forth format during the recollection of a traumatic event. The combination of recall and sensory factors can help decrease problematic PTSD symptoms. 

Experts disagree on the exact mechanism that makes this treatment so effective, but regardless of the cause, EMDR works. In fact, one Kaiser Permanente study showed positive results in 100% of single-trauma and 77% of multi-trauma participants. These incredible results were achieved from a six-session series of EMDR treatments. 

EMDR can treat conditions such as:

  • Trauma
  • PTSD
  • Addiction
  • Panic disorder
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Bulimia
  • Phobias
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder

EMDR Phases

EMDR requires specific elements to be successful. Therapists discuss the treatment stages with the patient before starting, so there aren’t any surprises. Describing and planning treatment thoroughly in advance also helps establish trust through each phase of treatment. 

History Taking

During the history-gathering phase of treatment, the provider determines whether the person would benefit from EMDR based on their history, current triggers and future needs. Questionnaires and other assessment tools help providers understand the traumatic event’s impact on the person’s life and how EMDR might help. 


If a person is well suited for EMDR, the next stage is preparing for the specific targets they’ll focus on during treatment. The patient and provider will explore the way symptoms impact life and identify strategies for personal control. 


The assessment phase identifies the images, beliefs, emotions and physical sensations causing distress. This information creates a baseline by which to measure progress. During the assessment, the primary memory of the events is brought out.


The desensitization process uses eye movements, bilateral taps or tones while observing emotions and sensations as they arise. Desensitization and processing physical sensations, thoughts and feelings create a new experience that feels safer and takes some of the discomfort out of the memories.


During installation, a positive result or neutral outcome is introduced and joins the memory processing. Adding this different perspective can create a less burdensome association and reduce trauma symptoms. 

Body Scan

The body scan process helps resolve any residual issues that linger after desensitization and installation. If any physical symptoms remain while recalling the memory, they can be resolved with the body scan aspect of treatment. 


Closing EMDR treatment empowers the person to use guided imagery and other effective techniques to reduce symptoms. It’s crucial to track your progress and attend maintenance appointments as needed. Patients may observe themselves between sessions and share their observations with their therapist during this final span of treatment.


Over time it is important to reevaluate progress and determine whether EMDR has had a long-standing effect. Exploring the patient’s quality of life and EMDR’s impact on the original target areas can help determine if additional challenges need treatment. 


First responders with PTSD can benefit from EMDR. The aspects that cause some of the most painful symptoms can be minimized and even eliminated. The symptoms that frequently emerge for PTSD can vary but often include:

  • Flashbacks of traumatic experiences
  • Intrusive thoughts or memories
  • Hypervigilance and always feeling on guard
  • Intense feelings of fear, distress, irritability, guilt or anxiety
  • Physical signs of stress like racing heart, tremors or sweating
  • Being startled easily
  • Avoidance of triggers
  • Problems with concentration
  • Loss of interest in activities

PTSD symptoms can be severely disruptive for those who experience them. First responders may find these symptoms make it difficult to function at work, at home and in the community. If left untreated, PTSD can contribute to

  • Alcoholism or drug abuse
  • Relationship issues
  • Cardiovascular problems
  • Digestive and gastrointestinal issues
  • Musculoskeletal disorders

When first responders are treated with EMDR, risk factors for physical and emotional health problems may decrease. Symptoms such as hypervigilance, flashbacks and distressing thoughts decrease through desensitization. The installation phase helps make new associations when traumatic memories come up.

EMDR for Alcohol Use and Drug Addiction

Addiction is a common co-occurring issue for people with PTSD. The intensity of PTSD symptoms can be overwhelming, leading many to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Between 36–52% of people diagnosed with PTSD also struggle with a substance use disorder. 

EMDR can be an effective treatment for people with addiction and trauma. EMDR can help people with addictions:

  • Identify triggers for substance use
  • Reduce trauma triggers that fuel substance use
  • Build tolerance for difficult emotions
  • Boost motivation for recovery

EMDR helps patients identify and maintain their focus on a positive goal, which is vital to managing addiction and trauma symptoms at the same time. 

EMDR Treatment for First Responders

People who work in first responder positions often face severe trauma in their careers.

The FORTITUDE program is specifically designed to treat first responders with addiction and trauma challenges. When medically appropriate, the program offers EMDR as an effective treatment for PTSD and co-occurring substance use disorder. 

Don’t face these challenges alone. If you or your loved one are struggling with addiction and co-occurring trauma, contact The Recovery Village Columbus. Our intake specialists can answer your questions about treatment, discuss the first responder specialty track and get you started on the path to recovery. Contact us today

Editor – Melissa Carmona
As the content manager at Advanced Recovery Systems, Melissa Carmona puts years of writing and editing experience to work helping people understand substance abuse, addiction and mental health disorders. Read more
Medically Reviewed By – Paula Holmes, LCSW
Paula Holmes is a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist and freelance writer who lives and works in midcoast Maine. She received her master's degree in Social Work in 2008 from the University of Maine. Read more

US Department of Veterans Affairs. “PTSD: National Center for PTSD. Eye Move[…]ion and Reprocessing.” Accessed December 9, 2021.

Shapiro, Francine. “The role of eye movement desensitization[…]rse life experiences.” The Permanente Journal, 2014. Accessed December 9, 2021.

The British Psychology Society, The Psychologist. “EMDR- more than just a therapy for PTSD?” July 2014. Accessed December 9, 2021.

National Institute of Mental Health. “What is post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD?” 2020. Accessed December 9, 2021.

Jankowski, Kay. “PTSD and Physical Health.” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Accessed December 9, 2021.

Zweben, J. and Yeary, J. “EMDR in the Treatment of Addiction.” Psychological Trauma and Addiction Treatment, 2018. Accessed December 9, 2021.

Vujanovic, Anka; Bonn-Miller, Marcel; Petry, Nancy. “Co-Occurring Posttraumatic Stress and Su[…]o the Special Issue.” Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, November 2016. Accessed December 9, 2021.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.