Phobias can be a another debilitating condition, where a person being exposed to, or even thinking about, certain things like spiders or flying can trigger a whole sequence of distressing mental states for them. Can EMDR help with this?

EMDR can help resolve phobias, since it is a treatment which can specifically handle the state of internal distress which is aroused inside a person when the phobia is triggered.  The process has been shown to be effective in treating specific phobias such as spiders and other insects.

By using eye movements or other forms of bilateral stimulation to calm down this internal reaction, EMDR can very effectively allow a person to let go of phobias.

It is a form of treatment most commonly used for dealing with trauma. However, the crucial connection here is that when looked into more deeply, phobias often develop from some form of traumatic event earlier in life. EMDR therapy can uncover these connections, resolving the underlying trauma and therefore the phobia which often stems from it.

Let’s look in more detail at the nature of phobias and how EMDR can be used to treat them.

A Brief Summary of Phobias

Phobias can be broadly defined as an excessive fear of a certain thing, place or situation to the extent that being exposed to that thing can lead to states of subjective distress and discomfort inside the person.

Phobias are usually considered to be connected to some kind of trauma early in life, but they can also develop in adults. There are some commonly cited stereotypical types of phobias, but in reality you can have a phobia about almost anything. Some of the more common ones include:

  • Spiders
  • Needles
  • Enclosed or Open spaces
  • Water, especially deep or dark water
  • Insects, frogs or other animals
  • Driving or Flying
  • Lifts or Bridges
  • Other people/socializing

Phobias can be severly limiting and debilitating, as a person’s excessive need to avoid these things leads to them living a very restricted life, depending on what the phobia is. Or else the fear triggered when a person is exposed to certain animals like spiders and insects can be severely distressing and impact their quality of life noticeably.

How EMDR Can Help

EMDR can be an enormously helpful therapy here, since it is very effective at resolving any underlying traumas which often drive phobias, as well as effectively quietening any states of anxiety and distress that can be produced in the person when confronting phobias.

In this sense EMDR can be considered a more fundamental and core approach to treating phobias and indeed other conditions like anxiety, as opposed to other types of therapy which try to confront the phobia on it’s own terms, like exposure therapy for example.

EMDR is not always resolving the phobia directly, but rather indirectly by uncovering and resolving any dynamics of trauma which are often driving it. It is often the case that resolving the trauma resolves the phobia which is built on the trauma.

It is also very effective at resolving any negative feelings associated with the triggering of a phobia, like fear and helplessness.


General Steps For Treating Phobias With EMDR

Here is a general outline of how an EMDR therapist might use the treatment to address specific phobias. Of course every therapist is different and may tailor the process to fit each individual client. Here is a broad summary of how EMDR may be used:

  • The therapist will draw up a client history, of any and all phobias they have, including any early experiences they can connect these phobias to.
  • They will also identify what catastrophic fears of consequences you have regarding the phobia.
  • Any experiences that are connected to the phobia will be processed using the EMDR methodology of hand movements or other stimulus.
  • When correctly processed to resolution, the patient may find that the phobias dissolves when the early memories it is connected to are also resolved.
  • Some therapists may use some kind of exposure to the phobia as well, to stimulate and then process the internal state of distress it arouses. See the video below for an exampe of this.


Evidence of Effectiveness

Much of the research into the effectiveness of EMDR has been directed towards the treatment of trauma; however there is also ample scientific and anecdotal evidence that it is indeed very effective at also treating phobias.

In many ways phobias can often form in a similar way to PTSD, with a traumatic event creating a “complex” within the person which is then triggered by certain memories or exposure to certain things. Some of the papers below discuss this.

It is therefore no surprise that the effectiveness of EMDR in treating trauma also crosses over into the treatment of phobias, since the two can be related in so many ways, with trauma often a key driver of conditions like anxiety and phobias.

Here are some research papers which have looked into the treatment of phobias with EMDR. The conclusions are very positive, as are the anedotal accounts of people undergoing EMDR for phobias.

  • Study by EMDR founder Francine Shapiro on effectiveness of EMDR in treating phobias
  • Dutch Study into EMDR and phobias 1999
  • 2015 paper into the use of EMDR for specific phobias
  • Link to page from EMDR Institute with more studies on EMDR and phobias

Click here for our page on finding an EMDR therapist in your area if you would like to pursue it further as a treatment option.


  • Mary-Beth Zolik, M.Ed LMHC

    Mary-Beth is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor with a M.Ed in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from the University of Montevallo. Mary-Beth has been in the field of psychology in a variety of roles for the past 20 years.

    View all posts