A Community of Heart Profile: Robert Tinker
Bob Tinker is no stranger to trauma. It began when he was 5 years old and his mother died of breast cancer. In retrospect, he realized that this event caused a reaction in his father that led to his developing PTSD symptoms resulting in alcoholism. Bob has been observing the effects of trauma in his family and in the world at large ever since. It has been an organizing phenomenon that has been the crucible from which has emerged his tremendous sensitivity and his drive to make the world a better place for children and adults.
The first objective look at people’s stories came from his love of literature. Bob delved into books as a way of learning about people and their mysterious ways. If Bob had not pragmatic and concerned about earning a living, he would have been an English major. However, lucky for us, Bob chose the Social Sciences when he went to Michigan State University and he declared his major as Divisional Social Science that included Political Science, Sociology-Anthropology and Psychology. When he was deciding to move further in his education, he had found that Psychology fascinated him the most and he went on to earn an M.A. in Clinical Psychology. Here his experience included evaluation and psychotherapeutic work with children, adolescents, adults, families and couples and in various settings such as Mental Health Clinics, college, prison and the state hospital. Bob went on to receive his Ph.D. at Michigan State University in Clinical Psychology and minored in Developmental Psychology.
Throughout the course of his training, Bob noticed that many of the psychologists that he observed became “burnt-out wreckages” by the time that they were in their 50’s or 60’s. He decided that he would prevent this outcome for himself by constantly be willing to learn about new approaches to keep his mind and interest in change active. After 20 years of being a psychologist and many seminars of different ideas, Bob “found EMDR.” He remembered that in 1990, he was working at the Center for Creative Leadership in Colorado when his colleague, Len Loudis, came back from an early EMDR training talking about this amazing new method. He decided to get trained immediately.
Bob came back from his first training and was excited about EMDR. He had the good fortune to have a tremendous success with the first patient with whom he used it. “Sometimes, you are just lucky!” he said. This woman was a multiply traumatized women who had been in treatment with him for several years and in treatment all of her life. After several sessions of EMDR, this woman felt that she had had “a transformational experience.” She went on to say that “I am where I need to be. I have emotional resolution I never had before.” Bob was hooked! This same woman stayed in contact with him over the years and, as a result, he knows that the results held.
At first, Bob was apprehensive about using EMDR with children. However, he had seen the good results with adults so he began to work with his child patients with. He videotaped everything because he could not believe the results. The videos convey to people what words cannot convey and have the added benefit of practitioners saying, “I can do this, too!” Bob is thrilled to see the effects that his videos have had on other therapists because of the generative quality of passing on knowledge to others that they can put in use.
Bob’s view on what happens with trauma, children and EMDR is the following: “What happens with trauma is that it dysregulates the neurophysiological system. When that happens to a child, the trauma changes their developmental trajectory. EMDR, with a limited number of sessions, puts them on a normal developmental trajectory so that they can be back to learning normal developmental tasks. We have learned through working with children, even prenatal, birth and early medical trauma that those events dysregulate their system and they become hyperaroused, hyperfearful and hyperaggressive. I do not know if it makes sense to talk about memory then when autobiographical memory does not occur until 2 years of age; but there is the dysregulation that is there. With being able to intervene and re-regulate that aroused system downward, they are responding more normally physiologically.”
Recently, Bob told me of an insight he had that had been right under his nose from the beginning. He noted that in all the years he had been videotaping children, he would let them watch themselves playfully on TV so that they could desensitize themselves to any fearfulness about it. A few weeks ago, he had been working with a 4 year old who had a medical trauma and a short attention span. She asked to watch herself on TV and, as she sat in rapt attention through the 20-minute video, he tapped her as she watched, thus doubling the length of her attention span and the EMDR session. “How come I had never thought of this before?” he wondered. He thought about how fascinated he had been with how the Tele- Tubbies would play a song and sing and act it out. The kids would get excited and ask them to do it again encouraging the kids at home to learn through repetition. Bob noted, “As brilliant as I thought it was, I never thought to repeat it with EMDR!” With the right timing, observations and continued exposure to new material, Bob came up with another way to use EMDR.
Bob’s work with children has been the source of much thought. One of the things that he is most delighted about is that EMDR affords him the opportunity of being able to intervene with a limited number of sessions, allowing the children to get “back on track” quickly. Also, they can ask to come back to see him when needed. He has noticed that when a child who has worked with him has something upsetting happen, they ask to come back to see him and they have a few sessions to clear up whatever the issue is. He has a whole crew of children who have had EMDR sessions over 4-5 times in segments throughout their formative years. Another observation has been that many of the children are anxious, bright and imaginative. As they move through their “little t” traumas, they become more capable of becoming talented writers, artists and performer. Bob thinks that it is because they live in the world of imagination, that they are so creative. However, the liability of this is that they are more easily traumatized. Thus, when they watch the news or scary movies, they imagine it so vividly that they do not need to be in a plane or an accident to have a plane phobia or car phobia. EMDR helps deal with the downside without being overwhelmed by their imagination.
Bob is concerned that children are underserved and are not included in any national health insurance. Unless parents are well off, children have to go to Departments of Human Services or Community Mental Health services where their care is variable and often implemented by people who are in training. Bob firmly believes that the next generation is very important and we need to do as much as we can do to help.
Another facet of Bob’s professional development has been his remarkable collaboration with Sandra Wilson and Lee Becker. As a result, he has become an even stronger supporter of the Scientist- Practitioner Model. As Bob puts it:
“In terms of doing research, I am struck that you need such vast knowledge. It is hard to imagine one person who has enough knowledge to conduct all aspects of research. You need a team approach. Lee provided the scientific and statistical expertise, while Sandra gave clinical and administrative expertise and I furnished clinical expertise. I was the corpus callosum and they were the right and left hemispheres.”
There have been many projects that have benefited from this collaboration. Sandra Wilson’s dissertation was the very first project that resulted in the study that replicated Francine Shapiro’s findings about EMDR and was published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (JCCP) in 1995. Bob was involved as a research therapist and taped all of his sessions. This is where the famous “Mary tape” came from; a tape that is used in all of the EMDR Institute trainings. He was involved with analyzing and writing up that study as well as the 15-month follow up that was published in the same journal in 1997. Bob underlined “I like to make a medical comparison that if a drug company announced that they had a cure for PTSD and that with 3 injections (because EMDR can be painful) and 15 months later there are 75% functioning normally like before the trauma and the other 25% would show improvement and only need several more injections, that would be on the front pages of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times! The drug companies would make billions of dollars. But, with EMDR we do not have a proprietary product that somebody makes billions of dollars from and the word spreads more slowly! We have to deal with it.” To have these 2 studies published, he remembers how difficult it was to jump through all of the hoops. However, due to their strong data and Lee’s extraordinary analysis (which ended up in Statistical textbooks as state of the art), they were able to present their data in a way that fit a new standard of excellence that included statistical and clinical significance as well as individual and group effectiveness.
In 1996, this team began work on phantom limb pain. Bob was particularly pleased with this study as it showed that phantom limb pain had much in common with trauma. He noted that after 20 years of an amputation, 70% still have the pain. With EMDR intervention, they are getting 80% relief with leg amputees. Bob believes that “EMDR has an effect on pain whether it is emotional pain or the pain memory. I see this with motor vehicle accident (MVA) survivors. Whenever you deal with someone injured, the pain of the MVA is evoked in the EMDR session itself. The person hits their head and that pain comes up within the EMDR session that illustrates how strong the mind-body connection is even to the point of stigmata appearing on the body from early abuse or from an MVA the bruises will reoccur. Neurology does not have a clue how that happens.”
Other notable projects include working in Oklahoma City after the bombing and being part of the team that set up an EMDR free clinic. This was an event that was directed by Sandra Wilson and resulted in the founding of the EMDR Institute’s Humanitarian Assistance Program. Bob and Sandra created their own Spencer Curtis foundation with the mission to create psychological services for humanitarian purposes and to document their effectiveness. One of the first projects sponsored by the Spencer Curtis foundation was working with Kosovo children in Germany. This resulted in the first study of the use of EMDR with children exposed to war. Another project was with stress management with law enforcement personnel. It was found that EMDR produced more changes in a positive direction when compared to the usual psycho- educational information. This study was published in the International Journal of Stress Management in 2001. Previously Bob trained therapists who were participating in Claude Chemtob et al.’s study, “Brief treatment for elementary school children with disaster-related posttraumatic stress disorder: a field study” that was published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology in 2002. Also, Bob and Sandra are the designated EMDR children’s trainers for EMDR Europe.
Bob has held teaching positions at the University Colorado, Michigan State University and the EMDR Institute. He has been a Consultant in Drug and Alcohol, Autism, Education, Child treatment, Hemodialysis and Creative Leadership.
In 1999, he wrote a well-received book with Sandra Wilson called “Through the eyes of a child: EMDR with Children which has been translated into German, Japanese, Spanish and Turkish. He has also received 2 awards from the EMDR Humanitarian Assistance Program: in 1995 for his Contribution to Disaster Relief Effort in Oklahoma City after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building; and in 1996 for his Contribution to Disaster Relief Effort in Nairobi. In 2000, along with Lee Becker and Sandra Wilson, he was a recipient of the EMDRIA Outstanding Research Award.
To the EMDR community Bob has this to say: “I would like to ask that all the EMDR therapists consider being child EMDR therapists as well because when they work with adults who have been traumatized as children they are really working with children. Anyone who works in the area of trauma with EMDR should be skilled in working with both children and adults. Over the last 12 years, people have become like family. I feel it strongly. They are real leaders and innovators and courageous. When our 3 grandchildren died, we got condolences – hundreds and hundreds of cards and condolences. It shows how much a family people who work with EMDR are and how well people who work with trauma can understand the effects of it. We were buoyed up by these expressions of sympathy. It truly helped us get through this devastating loss. When someone dies, you want it to be noticed and have meaning in it. The outpouring of life and affection was awe-inspiring.”
To Bob –our clinician, scientist, researcher, consultant, teacher and friend- we offer our heart felt thanks for being such an active and integral part of our EMDR community.