Tap Your Way to Healing PTSD With EFT
Finger-tapping for health may not sound like a medical breakthrough, but as Dawson Church reveals, just one look into the compelling evidence for Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) could make anyone want to try it.
EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) represent a genuine breakthrough in healing. Just a decade ago, most research showed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to be an incurable condition (Benedek, Friedman, Zatzick, & Ursano, 2009). A long-term study of veterans with PTSD found that even after a vigorous intervention, “the treatment program’s impact on the course of illness had been negligible” (Johnson, Fontana, Lubin, Corn, & Rosenheck, 2004). Veterans who go into Veterans Administration hospitals for treatment often report lack of success, and some are even retraumatized by having to talk about and re-live their combat experiences (McFarlane & van der Kolk, 2009).
Research shows that PTSD isn’t just a psychological problem with a start, middle, and end, like many kinds of depression. Depression usually lasts around eight months (NIH, 2008). But PTSD symptoms often worsen over time and are associated with adverse changes in the structure and function of the brain (Vasterling and Brewin 2005). One study found that of every 10 veterans that start a prescribed one-year course of mental health treatment at a VA hospital, only one completes it (Seal, Maguen, Cohen, Gima, Metzler, Ren, Bertendal, & Marmar, 2010).
The children and spouses of veterans with PTSD bear a terrible burden. Studies find that domestic violence is more likely in the homes of veterans (Orcutt, King, & King, 2003). The spouses of veterans have a higher-than-average likelihood of developing PTSD themselves, a phenomenon called “transferred PTSD” (Nelson & Wright, 1996). There are more veterans in prison than other demographic groups (Greenberg & Rosenheck, 2009). In all these ways, the effects of PTSD radiate out to affect the whole community.
Against this bleak backdrop of prolonged and hopeless human suffering, EFT stands as a beacon. With an investment of just six sessions, and without drugs or harsh treatments, 86% of veterans in one study experienced a dramatic reduction of their PTSD symptoms. Follow-up assessment shows that the improvements are permanent (Church et al, 2013).
What Is EFT?
A healing method, Emotional Freedom Techniques release traumatic memories by using a combination of acupressure points, along with advanced psychological methods, to produce quick relief from even long-held distress. Used by millions of people, EFT has been proven successful in many scientific studies, and works on a variety of health concerns, psychological problems, and performance issues, even those that have been resistant to other methods.
EFT doesn’t work just for phobias and PTSD; it works well for other mental health problems too. Many EFT studies have investigated its effectiveness with anxiety. Anxiety takes various forms, such as public speaking anxiety, test-taking anxiety, performance anxiety, and generalized anxiety. EFT has been shown to reduce such anxiety dramatically, and it often takes just a few sessions (Sezgin & Ozcan, 2009; Jones, Thornton, & Andrews, 2011; Jain & Rubino, 2012; Karatzias et al., 2011).
Anxiety can be characterized as stress about the future, and depression as stress about the past (Dispenza, 2013). They may be two sides of the same coin, and research shows that EFT is effective for both.
EFT is good for more than psychological problems like phobias, anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Many people report relief from physical problems too. I've presented EFT workshops at many medical and psychology conferences and noticed that doctors usually take readily to EFT. They are very aware of the contribution that stress makes to physical disease and adopt EFT as an adjunctive technique when appropriate. I've had several doctors tell me that after tapping, patient issues resolved without further need for conventional allopathic treatment.
EFT Delivers Healing Online
Inspired by the example of Dr. Brattberg, who offered EFT online for to help patients with fibromyalgia, a group of volunteers designed an online PTSD course for veterans and family members called Battle Tap. It’s available through a nonprofit organization called the Veterans Stress Project.
This means that veterans who want to see a therapist in person can do so, and those that prefer online tapping can get immediate help through Battle Tap. The extension of EFT through online courses promises a series of breakthroughs for other mental health disorders as well.
We don’t have to rely only on stories to make the case for EFTs effectiveness for pain. Several studies quantify it. A randomized controlled trial performed at the Red Cross Hospital in Athens, Greece, found that headache pain was reduced significantly with EFT compared to a control group (Bougeia, Spandideas, Alexopoulos, Thomaides, Chrousos, & Darviri, 2013). A study of 216 health-care workers such as nurses, psychotherapists, doctors, and chiropractors found that their physical pain was reduced by a startling 68% after about 30 minutes of EFT (Church & Brooks, 2010).
A randomized, controlled trial of veterans who received EFT found that their pain dropped by 41%, even though they were being treated for PTSD, not for pain (Church, 2013a). The reductions in pain were simply a fortunate side effect of their PTSD treatment.
Other research on EFT for physical symptoms includes a pilot study of psoriasis (Hodge & Jurgens, 2010). Psoriasis, a painful skin condition, is the most common autoimmune disease in the United States. As many as 7.5 million Americans suffer with it. The researchers found that after EFT, the psychological health of study participants improved by 50%, and on follow-up, their psoriasis symptoms improved by 75%.
A case study also found EFT to be effective for dyslexia (McCallion, 2012), and another for TBI or traumatic brain injury (Craig, Bach, Groesbeck, & Benor, 2009). One randomized controlled trial found reductions in TBI symptoms of 41% after six sessions of EFT for PTSD (Church & Palmer-Hoffman, 2013). Dr. Paul Swingle (2011) found EFT useful in the treatment of seizure disorders. There are also many accounts on EFT Universe of people who’ve used EFT for diabetes.
And when we talk about side effects, we aren’t talking about the long list of warnings that might be printed on the side of a bottle of prescription drugs. With EFT, side effects are usually of the happy kind, such as improvements in skin tone, less conflict in marriages and family relationships, and increased fulfillment in the work place.
Three Key Reasons for the Efficacy of EFT
How is EFT able to make such dramatic and permanent changes, even for “incurable” conditions like Type 1 diabetes and fibromyalgia, and in cases where people have tried other therapies without success?
There are three key reasons for EFTs efficacy, and they work hand in hand. One is that EFT reduces stress. The second is that EFT diminishes the intensity of emotional trauma. The third is that EFT modifies the way the brain processes emotional information. We’ll look at each of these three mechanisms in turn.
When you think about an experience that produces negative emotion, such as a rivalry with a colleague at work, a fight with a family member, or a miserable childhood event, you increase stress. You have an emotional response to the experience. You feel emotions like anger, fear, shame, resentment, or guilt. When you use EFT, the intensity of those emotions diminishes, often to nothing, and often in just a few minutes.
This reduction in emotional intensity indicates that your stress level is going down. Stress involves your whole body, from your heart rate to your breathing to your blood pressure to your degree of muscle tension. Your body, brain, and emotions function as a whole. When you feel an emotional response, your body translates this into physical changes in circulation, respiration, digestion, and every other organ system.
This is also why EFT works with such a wide range of problems. Besides the mental health issues and physical symptoms covered earlier, people use EFT to improve their athletic performance, trade stocks and bonds, enhance their love lives, and deepen their spiritual practices. The reason that EFT is beneficial in so many life domains is that they’re all affected by stress. A world-class athlete might have the skill to win a game, but if that skill is impeded by stress, the athlete’s performance is compromised. A stock trader might be excellent at reading the stock market, but the emotions generated by manipulating large amounts of wealth can produce stress which degrades the trader’s ability to make rational decisions.
As EFT reduces stress, all our other resources become available to us. When our emotions are calm and positive, even though our life circumstances may not have changed, then our bodies are no longer receiving those stress signals. As we become calm, our bodies respond by shifting all our systems to a relaxed state of functioning. That’s why EFT works on such a wide variety of seemingly-dissimilar problems. Stress usually plays some role in our problems, so I encourage you to try EFT in addition to your other strategies for solving them.
Our brains evolved to associate emotions with experiences. Your distant ancestors learned to associate the emotion of fear with tigers, wolves, and other predators. This helped them to survive. Their brains created an emotional tag saying “danger” to attach to the image of a predator.
You still have all that neural wiring in your brain even though you no longer face an environment full of dangers. It now works to your disadvantage, in the form of irrational fears and worries. Perhaps you had a bad experience with a school teacher with bushy eyebrows when you were five years old. You now have an unconscious fear of male authority figures, and whenever you have a job interview, you become so nervous that you make a fool of yourself. You don’t know why, and you think that your reactions are normal, caused by the external world. They’re actually just old neural tags in your brain.
Psychologists used to think that these strongly encoded memories were permanent, that “learnings formed in the presence of strong emotion,” could not be changed, because “the brain threw away the key.” (Ecker, Ticic, and Hulley, 2012). However, recent research in a field called “memory reconsolidation” shows that there is a brief period just after a memory has been reawakened when its emotional content may be “untagged.” The neurological wiring governing our old response can be rewired during this window. If such reconsolidation occurs, we may still have the memory, but it will no longer evoke a strong emotional response.
This is exactly what those who use Clinical EFT report. After tapping, they can still recall the traumatic life events that occurred, but those events are no longer associated with strong emotion. Before tapping, they report a high SUD level. After tapping, recalling the same event, they report a low SUD score. When followed up weeks, months, or years later, their SUD levels when recalling the traumatic event are still low. Not only are they no longer emotionally triggered by the old event, they are less troubled by all similar events that occurred in their lives.
In this way, EFT appears to be permanently rewiring the neural network of those who use it. EFT may be more than psychology, working on the mind and emotions. While we can’t peer into the workings of the neural circuits of the brain, the experiences of practitioners and clients suggest that memory reconsolidation is taking place in the brain circuits that conduct the signals of trauma...
No Method Is a Panacea
EFT reduces the stress component of disorders, whether they’re psychological disorders like anxiety and depression, physical disorders such as pain and inflammation, or performance problems like fear of public speaking. This indicates a wide range of problems with which EFT can help. However, EFT is not a panacea. It does not work on all conditions, and it is better with some than with others. While the 86% success rate in the PTSD study quoted above is impressive, that still means that 14% of the veterans were not helped by EFT (Church et al., 2013). Why is that?
EFT works on the emotional component of traumatic memories, whether they’re childhood memories or adult memories. But how do you work with events of which you or a client has no memory? This includes memories that are so traumatic that you’ve dissociated, or “forgotten” about them. It also includes events that happen so early in your childhood, perhaps at the age of one or two, that they occurred prior to your brain developing the ability to record memories. Another example is birth trauma or womb trauma. EFT has some specialized techniques for use in these cases, but even expert practitioners often find them very difficult to address.
Another limitation of EFT is problems which are purely physical and which have no emotional component. There’s usually some emotional component of even a purely physical issue such as a bone fracture. The person with the fracture might feel angry about the event that produced the fracture, dissatisfied with their hospital treatment, frustrated that their body is healing slowly, and a range of other emotions. Yet the fracture itself is a purely physical injury, and EFT is likely to be less effective than a problem which is primarily emotional.
There are many more cases of failure than success with the use of EFT for tinnitus, for instance. Tinnitus is a ringing in the ears, often due to nerve damage associated with loud sounds. The physical stimulus of loud noise produces the physical phenomenon of damaged auditory nerves, and there may be little emotional component to the ailment. EFT practitioner and physician Dr. David Lake also says that addictions are very hard to treat successfully whether by EFT or any other method (Lake, 2013).
In a book I authored with Harvard-trained neurosurgeon Norman Shealy, MD, PhD, Soul Medicine, we caution against any therapy, conventional or alternative, that makes broad and sweeping claims of efficacy (Shealy & Church, 2008). This applies equally well to EFT. In fact, EFT practitioners may be at more risk of making over-enthusiastic and inflated claims than practitioners of other therapies...
Even though studies show excellent results from EFT in most cases, they never show 100% success with 100% of cases. This is part of the human condition. It’s wise to approach any healing event with humility and a sense of wonder. If healing occurs, we can be humbly grateful. It can stoke our sense of wonder at the preciousness of life and the miracle of healing itself. If healing does not occur, we can hold ourselves and others in love and compassion regardless of the result.
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Adapted from The EFT Manual by Dawson Church. © Dawson Church. Used with permission.