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Is EMDR effective in the treatment of phobias, panic disorder, or agoraphobia?

There is much anecdotal information that EMDR therapy is effective in the treatment of specific phobias. Unfortunately, the research that has investigated EMDR treatment of phobias, panic disorder, and agoraphobia has failed to find strong empirical support for such applications. Although these results are due in part to methodological limitations in the various studies, it is also possible that EMDR may not be consistently effective with these disorders. De Jongh, Ten Broeke, and Renssen (1999) suggest that since EMDR is a treatment for distressing memories and related pathologies, it may be most effective in treating anxiety disorders which follow a traumatic experience (e.g., dog phobia after a dog bite), and less effective for those of unknown onset (e.g., snake phobia).

There have been several randomized clinical trials assessing EMDR treatment of spider phobia (Muris & Merckelbach, 1997; Muris, Merckelbach, van Haaften, & Nayer, 1997; Muris, Merkelbach, Holdrinet, & Sijsenaar, 1998). These studies indicated that EMDR was less effective than in vivo exposure therapy in eliminating the phobia. Methodological limitations of these studies include failure to use the full EMDR treatment protocol (see Shapiro, 1999) and confounding of effects, by using the exposure treatment protocol as the post-treatment assessment. When the full EMDR phobia protocol was used in case studies with medical and dental phobias (De Jongh et al., 1999; De Jongh, van den Oord, & Ten Broeke, 2002), good results were achieved.  A randomized controlled trial (Doering et al., 2013) indicated that three sessions of EMDR therapy memory processing resulted in remission of dental phobia. “After 1 yr, 83.3% of the patients were in regular dental treatment (d = 3.20).”

Clinical utility is an important consideration in treatment selection. The application of in vivo exposure may be impractical for clinicians who do not have easy access to feared objects (e.g., spiders) in their office settings; some phobias are limited to specific events (e.g., thunderstorms) or places (e.g., bridges). EMDR may be a more practical treatment than in vivo exposure, and the in vivo aspect can often be added as homework (De Jongh et al., 1999).

There have been three studies that investigated EMDR treatment of panic disorder with/out agoraphobia. The first two studies were preliminary (Feske & Goldstein, 1997;Goldstein & Feske, 1994) and provided a short course (six sessions) of treatment for panic disorder. The results were promising, but limited by the short course of treatment. Feske and Goldstein write, “Even 10 to 16 sessions of the most powerful treatments rarely result in a normalization of panic symptoms, especially when these are complicated by agoraphobia” (p. 1034). The EMDR effects were generally maintained at follow-up. A third study (Goldstein et al., 2000) was conducted to assess the benefits of a longer treatment course. This study however changed the target population and treated agoraphobic patients. Participants suffering from Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia did not respond well to EMDR. Goldstein (quoted in Shapiro, 2001) suggests that these participants needed more extensive preparation, than was provided in the study, to develop anxiety tolerance. The authors suggest that EMDR may not be as effective as CBT in the treatment of panic disorder with/out agoraphobia; however no direct comparison studies have yet been conducted.