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Bringing light to Darkness; How Tapping Can Bring Peace and Healing to Survivors of Earthquakes, Shootings, Pandemics, and Other Disasters

It is with great appreciation and perfect timing that my dear friend and colleague, David Feinstein posted this important article. We are indebted to his writings and published works…

This article was originally posted on February 24, 2022, written by David Feinstein, PhD and can be found in its original form here.

The number of natural disasters, from hurricanes and tornadoes to floods and forest fires, has nearly doubled in the past decade compared to the previous decade due largely, according to the United Nations, to “extreme weather events.” Meanwhile, human-made disasters–such as mass shootings, warfare, violent conflicts impacting civilian populations, and industrial accidents–have also increased exponentially.

Whether natural or otherwise, disasters can severely impact mental health. Between 30 and 60 percent of individuals who survive a disaster suffer with the symptoms of PTSD, and all must deal with enormous emotional and practical challenges. Even for those who do not develop PTSD, symptoms of anxiety, depression, paranoia, sleep disturbance, substance abuse, and stress-related physical illness are not unusual. Based on hundreds of reports from the field and a growing number of formal studies, energy psychology or acupoint tapping has been remarkably effective in the treatment of trauma-based psychological difficulties.

A Powerful Post-Disaster Treatment

Energy psychology has been applied in the wake of natural or human-made disasters in more than 30 countries worldwide. From Sweden to South Africa and Thailand to Tanzania, tapping has played a crucial role in helping survivors address the psychological effects of a disaster. Teams in the U.S. have used energy psychology to support survivors of fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, industrial accidents, and school shootings, as well as communities and health care institutions hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Several international humanitarian relief organizations have also adopted energy psychology as a treatment in their post-disaster missions.

Charles Figley, who served as the chair of the committee of the Department of Veteran Affairs that first named PTSD and who is also the founder of Green Cross, posted on an energy psychology website in 2005: “Energy psychology is rapidly proving itself to be among the most powerful psychological interventions available to disaster relief workers for helping the survivors as well as the workers themselves.” Reviews comparing studies of a variety of interventions for disaster-related psychological symptoms have consistently found acupoint-tapping approaches to be among the most effective.

The Four-Tier Framework

The most fundamental difference between acupoint tapping protocols and other approaches following disasters may be in one of the primary procedures used for healing the long-term effects of catastrophic experiences, a technique known as psychological exposure. Psychological exposure involves using imagination or memory to mentally evoke an anxiety-provoking situation in a safe context. The procedure is designed to reduce the threat response to fear triggers. Conventional forms of psychological exposure utilize prolonged exposure sessions with multiple repetitions. Adding acupoint tapping to the formula sends signals directly to the emotional centers of the brain that reduce excessive arousal. The length and number of sessions needed are markedly reduced.

While exposure treatments are generally used for long-term healing rather than immediately following a disaster, acupoint tapping protocols can be applied at any point after a catastrophic event. If a person is experiencing acute trauma, it is not necessary for them to imagine the traumatic event. You can direct them to tap to immediately decrease their emotional distress. Tapping can then also be applied at a later stage of recovery for defusing intrusive or otherwise unprocessed memories about the trauma.

After attending to physical needs, establishing safety, and fostering trust and rapport, the following four-tier energy psychology framework can be used in interventions in post-disaster situations according to their purpose.

The First Tier: Immediate Relief

Tapping on specified acupuncture points whose stimulation has been shown to decrease activation signals in the amygdala appears to rapidly decrease elevated emotional responses in stressful situations. This simple procedure can be a potent intervention for providing psychological first aid in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.

Practitioners often start with the most comforting interventions available for fostering relief and stabilization–such as diaphragmatic breathing, self-hugs, gentle rocking, and offering reminders that the person survived and is safe now— then introducing tapping as appropriate.

The Second Tier: Reducing Trauma-Based Triggers

At the core of PTSD and other stress-related conditions is the ability of everyday triggers–such as a loud sound, a crowd of people, or simply a memory–to evoke the terror of the traumatizing event.  Beyond immediate relief, acupoint tapping can be applied to change such stress response patterns. Amplified fear, rage, or anguish may have become neurologically associated with a particular internal or external cue. By reducing hyperarousal in the brain’s emotional centers while visualizing a situation that triggers an extreme response, self-defeating thoughts, feelings, and behavioral patterns may be interrupted.

The Third Tier: Overcoming Complex Psychological Problems

Complex issues involving early attachment experiences, current relationships, personal goals, coping styles, work setting, and physical health may surface because of a traumatic experience.

An energy psychology approach can target contributing factors of complex problems. Low self-esteem, for instance, might include unresolved memories of parental emotional abuse, self-defeating beliefs, exaggerated appraisals of interpersonal threat, and anxiety in social situations.

Whether using tapping to resolve an earlier traumatic memory that is tied to obstacles in overcoming the more recent trauma or addressing a childhood belief that contributes to pessimism and hopelessness, untangling such constellations frequently becomes a focus of ongoing treatment and may be necessary in post-disaster counseling for complete healing to occur.

The Fourth Tier: Promoting Optimal Functioning

A catastrophic experience may accentuate questions of meaning, uncertainty about the future, the reality of evil, and awareness of the inevitability of death. Yet people who have seen the worst of life prevail emotionally and spiritually.

As Tolstoy observed, “There is something in the human spirit that will survive and prevail; there is a tiny and brilliant light burning in the heart of man that will not go out no matter how dark the world becomes.”

Interviews with energy psychology practitioners suggest that an energy-attuned approach can help uncover and strengthen that “tiny and brilliant light,” fostering feelings of spiritual connectedness and promoting serenity, confidence, and courage. Although these are ongoing issues and often involve intense challenges, greater personal stability and a higher level of functioning are attainable outcomes following traumatic experiences.

The Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting

Positive outcomes after treating chronic PTSD in civilian populations in the years following a disaster have been striking. The Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting tragedy was followed by hopeful stories about bringing energy psychology to communities after a human-made disaster.

This widely reported, heart-breaking event occurred in 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut. A 20-year-old former student of the elementary school shot and killed 28 people, including 20 children between six and seven years old, six adult staff members, the shooter, and his mother.

Nick Ortner, a long-time resident of Newtown, happens to have founded one of the most influential organizations promoting an acupoint tapping approach to healing and personal development. He was determined to bring his knowledge of energy psychology and EFT, as well as his local and global connections, to do something that would generate genuine healing for Newtown.

Long-Lasting Results

On the day after the shootings, Nick contacted Dr. Lori Leyden, a colleague, and internationally known trauma expert. He asked Dr. Leyden’s advice about providing an immediate response and facilitating long-lasting healing. Three days later, Dr. Leyden arrived and began conducting sessions with individuals as well as groups.

Because the effects of long-term trauma are well-known, and because of her success working with other survivors of horrific violence, she was able to immediately bring this experience to the task of establishing a community approach for Newtown that incorporates long-term, sustainable practices for relief.

A Vision of Hope, Love, and Healing

To help create and build a long-term healing model for Newtown, Nick sent out a request for volunteers to his 500,000 strong mailing list. He and Dr. Leyden then hand-picked 35 volunteer tapping practitioners out of hundreds of responses.

The volunteers spent an additional 35 to 60 hours in training and many more in supervision to prepare for the immediate and future needs of those directly and indirectly affected by the tragedy. Here are is a sampling of comments from family members, first responders, and the volunteers:

Scarlett Lewis, Mother of 6-Year Old Jesse Lewis, Slain During the Shooting:
“Nick Ortner introduced me to tapping, and I always finish these sessions with a deeper understanding of myself, feeling better, with a lightness of being and hope. Tapping makes me feel better when nothing else does…”

A Physician and First Responder, from the Office of the Medical Examiner:
“Dr. Leyden offered her services just days after the tragedy, spending hours with technicians, doctors, investigators, and other staff directly involved with the Sandy Hook shootings. Her tapping and breathing exercises, as well as the group discussions have been very helpful to me and my staff. . . I personally am sleeping better and functioning better.”

Alison Held, Volunteer:
“There is significant positive change happening in Newtown and beyond as a result of tapping! The EFT Stress and Trauma Relief Project is unfolding in the most beautiful way imaginable, with a core community of talented volunteers with a clear and unified vision of hope, love, and healing.”

Coming Full Circle

Following the Sandy Hook tragedy, a poignant “full-circle” story involves a 12-year-old boy whose 6-year-old brother was killed during the shooting. While the boy’s mother had quickly embraced tapping, the boy was highly skeptical. He was understandably extremely angry about losing his brother.

Dr. Leyden had previously worked with orphaned genocide survivors in Rwanda, first for healing but then teaching them to become “heart-centered” leaders. The program was later formalized as “Project LIGHT: Rwanda.” Graduates of the program are referred to as “Ambassadors,” and a goal of the initiative is to connect traumatized young people around the world to support one another.

An online video meeting was arranged between the 12-year-old boy in Newtown and two of the Rwanda Ambassadors, young people like himself who had been through the worst of human tragedies. They shared deeply, tapped together during the long call, and genuinely bonded.

The boy in Newtown was so inspired that he returned to school the next day to make a speech to his classmates about why it is important to care about people who have experienced even worse tragedies.

Completing the full circle, he created a non-profit organization that raised money for two of the Rwanda Ambassadors to attend university. Several years later, he traveled to Rwanda for an emotional reunion with the Ambassadors who had helped him so much while he was deep in grief about his brother’s death.

Easing the Aftermath of Major Trauma

The Sandy Hook tragedy is just one of many real-world disasters where tapping has been successfully used to help survivors find relief from tremendous emotional, mental, and physical pain. Applications of energy psychology interventions following disasters in more than 30 countries have shown great promise. Efficient means of delivery include large groups, lay counselors, digital technology, and community empowerment.

Reports from those providing these services and a limited number of empirical studies appear compelling, thanks to the technique’s unique ability to quickly ease the aftermath of major trauma.

This article is based on research and findings in a paper entitled “Uses of Energy Psychology Following Catastrophic Events” by David Feinstein, Ph.D. You can access the full paper here.