Does EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy work for trauma? It has been all the rage recently, but what is it? Does it have any studies or scientific basis — or is it just the latest internet fad?
The basis of the therapy is reliving a traumatic memory while receiving bilateral stimulation, such as a therapist waving their hand in front of your face. It may sound out of the ordinary, but it actually has robust data showing its effectiveness. Join us as Timothy Meyer of the Lukin Center for Psychotherapy explains this puzzling therapy for PTSD and other traumas.
Timothy Meyer, LCSW, is a psychotherapist specializing in working with trauma, anxiety, and depression, focusing primarily on working with adults, teens, and families. He also serves as the Assistant Clinical Director at Lukin Center in northern New Jersey.
Timothy has completed extensive training in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and is EMDRIA certified: the highest level of certification for an EMDR practitioner. Timothy is also a Certified Clinical Trauma Professional Level II (CCTP-II), which allows him to treat complex trauma clients effectively. He also has advanced training in hypnotherapy, trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), motivational interviewing, and structural family therapy. He has extensive experience working with children, adults, and families with a broad range of difficulties.
Using evidence-based practices and theories, Timothy’s goal-oriented approach to therapy addresses each of his clients’ particular concerns. He and his clients collaborate to craft personalized treatment plans that address their individual needs. His objective is to get them feeling well and to help them become the best possible version of themselves.
Timothy earned his master’s degree (MSW) from Columbia University and his BA in psychology from Montclair State University. Working through the Lukin Center for Psychotherapy, one of the largest private practices in the area, Timothy also supervises and trains other clinicians in the field along with providing evidenced-based psychotherapy to his clients.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.
To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Hello, everyone. I’m your host, Gabe Howard, and calling into the show today we have Timothy Meyer, LCSW. Timothy is a psychotherapist specializing in working with trauma, anxiety and depression. He has completed extensive training in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, EMDR, and is EMDR certified, the highest level of certification for an EMDR practitioner. He also has the number one video on YouTube about EMDR. Timothy, welcome to the show.
Timothy Meyer, LCSW: Gabe, thank you so much. I’m so happy to be here.
Gabe Howard: Now, per the EMDR International Association, EMDR is defined as a structured therapy that encourages the patient to briefly focus on the trauma memory while simultaneously experiencing bilateral stimulation, typically eye movements. Which is associated with a reduction in the vividness and emotion associated with the trauma memories. Now, when I hear that and when I first heard about it, I thought, okay, this is just another YouTube fad. It’s another TikTok video. It’s somebody is trying to sell me something. It just seemed it seemed science fiction-y and I was very, very skeptical. However, the research is there. Can you walk our listeners through a little history of EMDR, including the robust study on its effectiveness?
Timothy Meyer, LCSW: You know, even being a practitioner myself, first hearing about EMDR, I had those same skeptical thoughts. And it was until, you know, I sort of dove into the research and got trained in it and started using it, that I really, really understood the effectiveness of it. So EMDR is an evidence-based practice. It’s been around for a few decades. It’s been more popular recently in the media and so a lot of more people are hearing about it now. And EMDRIA.org does a great job of explaining exactly what it is. And it is a psychotherapy that does exactly what the definition says. We systematically and intentionally revisit painful life events from the past while utilizing bilateral stimulation. And what that does is it reduces the intensity and the severity of those memories to reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Gabe Howard: It really sounds like exposure therapy a little bit like if you’re afraid of snakes, you’re supposed to handle snakes. And then that makes you more used to snakes, which makes you less afraid of snakes. Is it kind of like that, or am I really oversimplifying it?
Timothy Meyer, LCSW: So yes, EMDR is similar to exposure therapy and the fact that we are revisiting a painful life event memory over and over and over again and we do become desensitized to that memory where the emotions are less intense after having gone through it numerous times. However, that’s not all that it is. So, we utilize eye movements, that that’s the E and the M in EMDR, to utilize bilateral stimulation, which stimulates the healing properties of our brain to actually move memories over from one part of our brain to a different part of our brain, where they can be processed and encoded differently. And also, the DR part of EMDR is the reprocessing, and the memory truly becomes reprocessed and changed and therefore felt and experienced much differently. So, it is far more than just exposing ourselves to something over and over and over where we get used to it. The memory actually is moved to a different part of our brain and it is experienced differently after a memory is processed with EMDR.
Gabe Howard: It does still sound confusing to me because it seems like you’re just reliving the memory. And I’m not certain where the eye movement part comes in. Can you help clarify how you’re thinking about a traumatic event and EMDR sort of work more hand in hand?
Timothy Meyer, LCSW: So, I’ll give you a picture of what it might look like in an actual session when we’re doing EMDR processing. So, I will have someone recall a memory, identify the worst part of that memory, and keep that image up in their mind. Have them identify any negative beliefs that they have about themselves and any feelings that come up right now as they are tuning into that image. And so, we take those three things, and that’s sort of our starting point. And then I have people go with it, right? And that’s a very vague ask for them to do, but as they quote go with it, they allow their mind to go wherever it goes. And that’s when we start the bilateral stimulation for about 20 to 30 seconds. I will kind of move my hand across someone’s face and they follow my fingers with their eyes as they go with it. And then we stop and we pause. And then I say, What came up? And the client will then give me a brief summary on where it is that their mind went. And nine times out of ten, I will say, okay, go with that. Which just means continue kind of down that thought process. Wherever your mind goes, it goes, That’s okay. And then we continue with the bilateral stimulation and we really do that over and over and over again. And it’s a really interesting process because really what I’m doing as a therapist is I’m getting out of the brain’s way, right? I’m utilizing the most intense part of that memory as a starting point or a launching pad. I’m doing bilateral side-to-side stimulation to stimulate the brain’s own healing properties and allowing the client to go through this memory in the safest environment possible. And by doing that sort of over and over and over again and with the practitioner getting out of the way, the brain is actually able to heal itself, remembering always that our brains do always try to heal themselves.
Gabe Howard: It does seem like there’s a talk therapy component. As you mentioned, you’re asking your patients questions and they’re giving information to the therapist. But there’s this added step. Is there a commonality there or is it completely different from talk therapy?
Timothy Meyer, LCSW: So, I would say that it is more different than talk therapy than it is similar to talk therapy. So, in the beginning, typically of a session, as we’re sort of setting up the memory there, there is a lot of talking and information gathering. I’m understanding a little bit about the memory. I’m understanding about the worst part. I’m understanding about those negative beliefs about themselves and the feelings that come up when that memory is experienced. And then after that, once I have the person begin with the bilateral stimulation, there’s not much talking. It’s actually a very quiet hour or 45 minutes, because really what we want to do is sort of get out of the way. So, I will be doing bilateral stimulation for, let’s say, 20 to 30 seconds. I say, what came up? They give me a brief summary. Oh, I began thinking about the fact that I remember this happening. Okay, good. Go with it. And then we’re silent again. Most of the work really is happening inside the person’s mind, and that’s actually what we want, because that is where the memory lives. That’s where the emotions are. When we begin to talk too much, we actually get outside of that emotion center in our brain and we kind of come more to the top of our brain. And I don’t want us to do the work there. With EMDR, we really dive into the emotions and the experiences. We notice what it feels like. We sort of experience these memories again, and while we’re doing that, we’re utilizing bilateral stimulation to work and really like, chew on this memory and process it and digest it in our mind.
Gabe Howard: When you were describing this, somebody shares their trauma. You wave your hand in front of their face. They don’t talk for 30 seconds. And then you ask them essentially how they’re feeling it. It seems like voodoo almost. What is the person supposed to do for 30 seconds and what does the hand-waving actually do? Because I’m sitting here picturing it in my mind. And it once again, as we’ve talked about, I’m putting on my skeptic hat again. It just doesn’t seem like it does anything. What happens during those 30 seconds?
Timothy Meyer, LCSW: Really a great question and I’m happy that you asked it because it literally does seem like. So, what’s happening is, you know, the my hand going in front of people’s faces. Right. It’s moving their eyes back and forth, side to side, back and forth. That’s the bilateral stimulation that stimulates our brain to chew up and process some of these things. Right. And so, as that’s happening, I ask people to go with it. And again, that’s a very vague ask for people to do, but they allow their mind to go wherever it goes. There’s no rights, there’s no wrongs, there’s no supposed to’s, because we know that the brain has an innate ability to heal itself, and it’s always trying to. And so, we allow the person’s mind to go wherever it needs to go, trusting that it will. At the same time, we’re stimulating the brain’s healing properties and the restorative nature of the brain with the back-and-forth bilateral stimulation. To say a little bit more about that, I like to make the connection between this and REM sleep. So. When we’re in REM sleep, we’re typically dreaming and our eyes are moving back and forth rapidly. And when we dream, that is when our brain is processing the stuff that happened in our day, right? That’s when memories move from short term memory to long term memory. That’s where things get digested and processed and all of that sort of stuff. So, if you think about it that way, typically if we’re dreaming about something very painful, well, that’s usually a nightmare. And we’ll usually wake up from that nightmare. And then wouldn’t you know it, the memory is still not processed. Now we’re stimulating that same type of process that happens in REM sleep. But we’re awake. We’re intentionally bringing up the memory, we’re doing eye movements, and we’re processing it in the most safe way possible.
Gabe Howard: When I think about my own therapy sessions and my own trauma, I want to do everything I can to avoid it. And when you were describing it, I thought, okay, so what’s going to stop me from thinking about pizza, right? You’re telling me to think about the trauma and go with it. So, I’ll just I’ll just think about pizza and then I’ll pull something out when you ask me about it. How do we keep the patient accountable, and how does the therapist know that the patient is? I don’t want to say doing what they’re supposed to do because that sounds paternalistic, but I know myself, especially when it comes to my trauma, any way that I can avoid it, I will take, even though it’s not in my best interest.
Timothy Meyer, LCSW: I think that that’s a really great point. You know, the tendency, of course, is to avoid or bury these traumas. Right. And. And our brain does that on purpose to protect ourselves. And because it’s a very, very unpleasant experience to kind of go back to it and re-experience it, etc. The way that we get around that really is explaining the process to the patient, you know, having them understand that, yes, this is going to get worse before it gets better. And this is going to be a really difficult series of weeks as we work to process these memories. And yes, it will be hard, but it will be worth it because, I don’t know, let’s say a month or two or six or however long it is down the line, you know, you won’t be triggered by those things anymore and you won’t have this overwhelming sense of panic or dread or anxiety. Right. So really what I think is so important is the psychoeducation in the beginning of the EMDR to allow people to understand what it is, how it works, why it works, how difficult it’s going to be, and why that’s going to be worth it. And, you know, oftentimes there are people that come in and I explain all that and they say, I don’t know if I can do that. And I say, that’s totally fine. Maybe you’re not ready. But when people are ready and they can do the work, it’s very, very powerful and lifetime lasting work.
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Gabe Howard: And we’re back discussing Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, EMDR, with psychotherapist Timothy Meyer.We’ve been talking about this in the abstract for a little while now. Do you have a case example that you can share with us of where EMDR has been effective and really illustrate how it was used to treat trauma?
Timothy Meyer, LCSW: Sure. Sure. This is. Well, this is a this is a recent example. So, it’s at the top of my brain. So, I’m working with this woman in her late twenties. Um, and it’s a, it’s a very complex case because there’s, there’s numerous traumas. But the most recent memory that we were working to target a memory of about five or six years ago, where her stepfather broke into her room with a gun and she was very fearful for her life. And so, she and her sister had to hide in the closet. And then there was a struggle to get the gun away. And thankfully, luckily, everyone left unscathed. But of course, that is a very traumatic memory. So that was the one that we worked on most recently. So, the way that it works is we set up the memory. I asked her, what’s the image of the of the of the worst part of that memory? And she says, you know, as the door opened and I saw the barrel of the gun come through the door and I say, okay, as you tune into that image, is there a negative belief about yourself that feels it all true right now as you tune into that image? And she goes, Yes, the belief about myself is that I’m going to die. And I say, okay, is there a belief that you would prefer to have about yourself right now with that image? And she says, Well, yeah.
Timothy Meyer, LCSW: I mean, I would prefer that to believe that I’m going to be okay. And I say, okay, as you tune into that image and you say the words to yourself, I’m going to be okay. How true does that feel? And she says, Not true at all. I say, okay. Then I say to her, as you tune in to that image and you say that negative belief of, I’m going to die, what feeling comes up right now? And she says, I feel panic in my chest and it’s level ten out of ten. And I say, okay, great. Then what we do is we take that image, we take that negative belief of I’m going to die, and that feeling of panic in her chest and we go with it. And then I start doing bilateral stimulation for about 20 to 30 seconds. I stop, I say, what comes up? She fills me in on where her mind went, and I say, okay, go with it. Now, that memory took. Oh, about I’m going to say, five weeks in order to clear. And when the memory was clear and this is how we know that a memory is clear, we’re able to go back to that original image. And I say, do you notice any disturbance that goes along with that image? And the disturbance goes all the way down to zero.
Timothy Meyer, LCSW: So, I say, what about that panic in your chest that you felt level ten? And she says, Well, is that a zero right now? Maybe a one, but really a zero. I say, okay. And then I say, Remember that positive belief about yourself that you would prefer to believe that I’m going to be okay? Can you take that image and tune into it and also say that positive belief about yourself? And how true does that feel? And she says, well, it feels all the way true. And then we do a really quick what we call a body scan as she’s tuning into that worst part of that image and ensuring that there are no more disturbances that she notices in her body with that image in mind. And that’s how we know that the memory is cleared. And she even came back in, I think, two weeks later. And she can she goes, you know what? Do you remember how I would always get triggered by that memory whenever I would drive past this one place? And I said, Yeah. And she goes, I didn’t even realize it, but I’ve been driving past that place and there have been no triggers. I say, That’s amazing. So that’s one example of trauma, the EMDR, how it works and what it looks like at the end.
Gabe Howard: Keeping that example that you just gave us in mind, can you help our listeners understand which part was the E? Which part was the M, which part was the D, which part was the R? So that they understand how that all fits together and how it all works.
Timothy Meyer, LCSW: So, the EM stands for eye movements and so that is the bilateral stimulation me moving my hand across her face throughout basically all of our sessions. So, eye movement desensitization. You know, she spent about five whole sessions diving into this memory and almost reliving it and re-experiencing it. So, the desensitization happens as we kind of continue to go into it over and over and over again. And then the ah, reprocessing. And I’ll explain this one and explain a little bit more about this case. You know, there was that negative belief about herself. I’m going to die now. At the end, there was a new belief of I’m going to be okay right? So now, this story in her mind, this memory, none of the parts of the story changed because we can’t go back in time and change the parts of the story, but we can change the meaning behind the story. So initially the story was remembered with that negative belief of, Oh my gosh, I’m going to die. This is this is terribly scary as the memory was buried back in there. But now it’s a story of well, that was that was awful and it was extremely scary. But I know I’m okay. I know I survived that. I know that that actually had me grow stronger. And actually, I’m proud of myself for what I did in protecting my sister. The reprocessing, it’s all about the new meaning that is attached to the memory and also how it is reprocessed and remembered differently inside our brain neurologically.
Gabe Howard: So, Timothy, if I make an EMDR appointment, I call you up, I make an appointment. So, the very first session, I walk in the door. I have to explain to you my trauma. Why you wave your hand in front of my face. Is that how this works? It’s just I need to be prepared to dive into my deepest trauma in the very first session.
Timothy Meyer, LCSW: Great question. And the answer is no, no, no, no, absolutely not. What we’ve been speaking about with EMDR so far, we’ve been speaking about the phases of EMDR where we’re reprocessing trauma. Now, there are beginning steps before that, a decent amount of things that we have to do before we even dive into these traumas. I need to get to know the person. The person needs to get to know me. We have to build a rapport. I have to get a sense on the trauma history a bit about what’s happened. And most importantly is we need to learn skills. These skills are super-duper duper important. They’re always priority number one, because rule number one of EMDR is we have to take care of ourselves. That means that we have to take care of ourselves in session and out of session. Now we’re going into literally the worst things that have ever happened. And if we just decide to waltz right into them without being prepared first, well, that’s never going to go well. So, the first handful of sessions, really what I’m working with folks is, is building skills, building mindfulness skills, building skills with breathing emotion, regulation, how to take care of ourselves, all of these sorts of things, because EMDR is really hard work and you’re going to get triggered and you’re going to feel a lot of things. And we need those tools in our toolbox to help take care of ourselves when it happens. Also, when people are in EMDR therapy, it’s far more likely that they’ll have more nightmares and more triggers because we’re stirring all this stuff up that’s been very neatly buried for X amount of years. So. So again, rule number one, we have to take care of ourselves. So, step number one, we learn how to take care of ourselves. That’s a huge first step. And then once we accomplish that, then we dive into the traumas and work on processing them.
Gabe Howard: Thank you so much for clarifying that, because as I was sitting here, I was thinking, wow, that’s just that’s just a lot to ask of a person, just instantly. And I wondered how many people now that you’ve answered, I wonder how many people were listening to this and thinking, Well, I’m not making that appointment. I’m not ready yet. It sounds like, just to clarify, you don’t have to be ready to share the trauma to make an EMDR appointment. That’s part of the process. You just have to have trauma that you’re interested in mitigating, and then it sort of takes off from there. It’s not a you don’t have to be 100% all in to make that that first appointment.
Timothy Meyer, LCSW: Absolutely. And, you know, I will never dive into trauma right away with people unless I know that they’re ready. And interestingly enough, there have been numerous times where I’ve gone through sort of the beginning parts of the EMDR where we build all of these skills and we learn this and that and put them into practice. And a lot of people say, you know what, Tim? I think I’m good. These skills that you taught me even before we even go into processing, I’m I think I’m better. And then I say, okay, you know, we certainly don’t have to process every single thing. So that’s always step one. And sometimes step one is enough.
Gabe Howard: Timothy, thank you so much for all of this information and for helping us better understand. EMDR was gigantic, trying to research this in the few hours that I have per episode proved to be extraordinarily problematic. So, this is not a question that I normally ask on a podcast, but is there anything that I forgot? Is there anything else that you want our listeners to know that I just did not uncover in my research? Because clearly you are in a much better position to figure out what we should be taking away, and I want to give you that opportunity.
Timothy Meyer, LCSW: Yeah, I appreciate that question. So, what I want people to know about EMDR. I’ll say this. It is not hypnosis. Everyone thinks, Oh, you’re going to wave your hands in front of my face, and then all of a sudden, my trauma disappears. You must be trying to hypnotize me. It’s not hypnosis. It’s nothing like hypnotherapy whatsoever. It is completely different. EMDR, there are a lot of skeptics out there, which I totally understand. But I can assure you that the research and the data and the studies are out there to support it. It’s not someone just saying, Oh, I think that this works. It does seem a little unorthodox. And it is. It is definitely much different than any other psychotherapy, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a hoax. I think my last things that I would want people to know about EMDR is. It’s a very deep, immersive, experiential therapy. It’s not just talk therapy. We dive into these memories. It’s almost like we’re playing movies of them in our head. We re-experience them, and that’s where the healing happens. I have so many people come in and they say, You know, I’ve talked about my trauma a hundred times and it’s still I’m still being triggered. I’m still not over it. I still can’t X, Y or Z. And that’s because we haven’t actually gotten down to the deep roots of it. And it’s extremely hard work, but in my opinion, it’s extremely worth it. To the listeners, what I would say is if you feel as though your trauma work with any therapist might not be getting you to where you want. I would recommend even just giving EMDR a little bit of a thought, knowing that it’s going to be challenging, but knowing that it’s going to be worth it.
Gabe Howard: Timothy, thank you so much. At the beginning of the show, I referenced that you have a YouTube channel, a number one YouTube video about EMDR on YouTube. Can you tell folks where to find you on the Web and what your YouTube channel is?
Timothy Meyer, LCSW: Yes, absolutely. So I practice at a practice called the Lukin Center for Psychotherapy. That’s L U K I N Center. On YouTube, we have numerous videos on there about different types of therapies that we do and on YouTube, we actually have a demonstration video of what EMDR actually looks like. So, we get so many questions of What do you mean? You wave your hand in front of my face? Like, what do you mean, what does that look like? Well, there’s actually a video to show you exactly what that looks like. So, I do recommend that people give it a look just so that way they have a better idea and understanding of what this actually looks like.
Gabe Howard: Timothy, once again, thank you so much for being here.
Timothy Meyer, LCSW: Of course. Thank you so much.
Gabe Howard: You are very welcome, Timothy, and a huge thank you to all of our listeners. You all know my name is Gabe Howard, but did you know that I am the author of a book? The book is “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations.” I’m also an award-winning public speaker who could be available for your next event. Look, we all know my book is on Amazon, but did you know that you can get a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me just by heading over to my website at gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe to the show. You don’t want to miss a thing and it is absolutely free. And here’s a personal favor that you can do for me. Please recommend the show. Sharing the show is how we grow and I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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