Looking to Science to Explain the Effectiveness of EFT Tapping
How many of you (or your skeptical friends or colleagues) have asked “How in the world can tapping on my face do anything to help me change my life, heal my body and even help me to heal from painful events in my past?” Even though tapping can look funny, how it works requires us to go “beneath the surface” and explore the research and theories.
A 2014 a paper published in the Review of General Psychology, examined 51 peer reviewed reports or studies on EFT or tapping published in scientific journals. Eighteen were randomized controlled studies (RCTs), also known as the gold standard. In those studies, one group received tapping and the other received a different intervention or none at all. Results are then compared. All 51 studies demonstrated a positive outcome, ranging from slightly to vastly improved; with conditions ranging from anxiety, depression, physical pain, tension headaches, Fibromyalgia Syndrome (FMS), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and more.
EFT’s effectiveness with such a wide variety of conditions may be explained by how our brains and bodies respond to stressful and traumatic situations. If EFT can reduce the way that an individual’s nervous system and physiology respond to highly emotional situations, then he or she has a wider range of healthy emotional, cognitive and perhaps even physical responses to a wide array of challenging any number of challenging situations or conditions.
Understanding EFT Step by Step
Tapping Can Affect Electromagnetic and Electrical Information Flow
Let’s examine the physical part of tapping. It is performed on easily-accessed surface acupressure points on the face, upper body and hands. Tapping can also be adapted to simply applying pressure on the points. Activating these points can result in the increased flow of information to the brain through the piezo-electric effect. Piezo is a Greek word meaning “to squeeze” and the piezo-electric effect refers to certain material’s ability to convert mechanical energy into electrical energy.Tapping may facilitate and increase the flow of electrical information through the nervous system to certain key areas of the brain and influencing the way the information is perceived.
A series of studies and reports were done using EEGs, or electro-encephalograms to measure brain-wave changes after tapping was performed. (Diepold and Goldstein, 2009). Prior to tapping and upon recalling a traumatic memory, the subjects exhibited chaotic brainwaves. After tapping, their brains exhibited normal brain-waves when thinking about the painful memory. Another EEG study showed a calming effect by decreasing right frontal cortex hyper-arousal after the tapping treatment following traumatic car accidents. (Swingle, Pulos, and Swingle. 2004). These studies indicate that tapping on these points changed brain functioned.
Acupoint Stimulation Affects the Emotional Brain’s Limbic System and Stress Hormones
David Feinstein, PhD., a clinical psychologist and pioneer in tapping research, references the Harvard University Medical School research that explored the physiological results of stimulating certain acupuncture points. Hui et al documented that when certain acupoints are stimulated and activated, they have a calming effect on the amygdala, a critical part of the brain’s limbic system. That is important because the amygdala is a key player in the “emotional brain” or midbrain. It acts like a sentry, alerting the rest of the brain and body when something around us is perceived as dangerous or is a potential threat to our safety and well-being. When our brain and body perceive threat, whether it be a loud angry person carrying a baseball bat or a growling dog coming our way, it swiftly responds by going into fight or flight mode. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol surge to assist us in mobilizing our physical resources to survive the impending threat by beating off the onslaught or getting us safely away from it. Research published in 2012 by Church, Yount and Brooks in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, demonstrated that EFT reduced cortisol levels by 24%, significantly more than the other therapeutic interventions offered in the study. This potentially explains how EFT can help reduce the stress load on our bodies that can diminish our physical and mental well-being.
When threats are real, this fight or flight stress response can save our lives. Stressful and traumatic events can generate a chronic and persistent state of arousal, making us vulnerable to even minor stresses that can appear trivial to others but instead feel intense and sometimes overwhelming. If threat is perceived; “perceived” being the key phrase, our bodies can respond to an event like a boss’s criticism with the same intensity that it would respond at the sight of a dog baring its teeth. This occurs because our brain-body interface remembers another time when there was a real threat, but now it cannot tell the difference. Our responses can become exaggerated and easily triggered, and we are not always aware of what may have triggered our exaggerated emotional response.
Positive Results from Focusing on the Negative
In addition to the physical tapping, there is an important EFT concept commonly referred to as “focusing on the negative.” This can be seen in the first part of the set-up statement “Even though I feel this anger thinking of my mother embarrasing at me…” It is also used in the reminder phrase “This anger, this anger…” The reminder phrase helps to keep the person tuned in to the problem and introduces an element of mindfulness or witnessing.”
A part of our brain, especially the medial pre-frontal cortex, is involved with “interoception”, or the ability to look inward and notice oneself. It has an important regulatory and dampening role on our stress response and helps explain the effectiveness in stress reduction resulting from mindfulness meditation practices. You might think, “Why would I want to think about a negative feeling? After all that’s what gets me into trouble all the time, worrying and thinking about all the bad things. I thought that I was supposed to focus on the positive, like affirmations.” There is the old adage that warns “What we resist, persists.” When we ignore, avoid and detach from painful feelings and memories, healing rarely happens. Acceptance of the uncomfortable feelings that we are experiencing, like pain, anxiousness, anger, frustration, guilt, and shame set up the possibility for change.
EFT helps us connect the negative emotion we are feeling with our body’s “felt sense” of the thing we are focusing on. This is called the somatic component which can be described as where and how we feel the emotion in our body. For some people this is a simple instruction to follow. For others it can feel impossible. Some people, for a variety of reasons, have never felt truly safe in their bodies and therefore may have more difficulty with this element. However, ongoing clinical evidence is showing, especially in the field of trauma resolution, that adding a body connection of how we feel an emotion, as it exists in our physical body, coined by psychologist Eugene Gendlin as a “felt sense,” increased healing from traumatic past events.
Why Be Specific and Not Global?
The EFT set-up statement also asks that we recall a specific event that has caused us some kind of limitation or emotional reaction. For example “Even though I feel all this anger when I think of my dad making that mean comment about how I looked the night of my first date…” Why is thinking about and naming a specific experience so critical to EFT’s effectiveness?
Identifying a specific time and place that something occurred or that is currently taking place makes it much more manageable to address by the brain. Tapping on “all the times that…” or “the way he always makes me feel” have so many incidents connected to the statement that it can be overwhelming and actually increase a person’s stress response. Recalling a specific incident involves the activation of the frontal lobes of the brain, the structures that enable us to picture or imagine things. The process of “bringing a time to mind” is being shown to make a thought or memory more accessible to change and healing.
For some memories we can offer many details…”Like the time that I drove down I-90 with my family in the station wagon through the Everglades and we ate baloney sandwiches and…”. These are called “explicit” or narrative memories. “Implicit” memories, aka body memories, are the unconscious memories that are often associated with very early childhood memories and or traumatic events. They sometimes are repressed or “forgotten” by the conscious mind. These kinds of memories can be the source of our physical stress response in situations , making us wonder why we are feeling so anxious and stressed without our understanding why we are feeling that way.
Beyond Pavlov and Counter-Conditioning
So an early memory, like being a kid and having your bathing suit fall off after diving in a pool, may well set up an unconscious beliefs and behavioral patterns. Perhaps ever since the incident you never feel comfortable in a bathing suit, even decades later. Thank Pavlov for helping you understand this classic example of a conditioned response (especially if it happened more than once!). The implicit body memory of embarrassment may well be embedded in both the neural networks of your brain and in your body; perhaps your face starts to flush, your palms get sweaty or your heart begins to beat faster with just the thought of putting on a bathing suit. Using EFT with such an incident may also be calling into play what is in psychological circles known as counter-conditioning. Whereas the original “conditioned response” would be entertaining the thought of going to the beach and putting on a swimsuit brings up uncomfortable feelings of perhaps self-judgment or embarrassment, implementing the tapping process may just be creating a “newly-conditioned” or re-conditioned response. Upon imagining the original incident, introducing self-witnessing and self-acceptance statements, while tapping and creating electromagnetic signals, the potential for re-wiring in the brain may just well be setting up the result that is seen so often; the ability to contemplate and speak of what had forever been a stressful re-telling, that now appears as neutral or perhaps even amusing.
“Counter-conditioning” offers another option, a second neural choice for the brain, though under certain conditions and stressful triggering situations, the original learning may again peek through. Counter-conditioning is not necessarily therefore the same as permanent change or erasure of the past memory.
Therapeutically Employing Memory Reconsolidation
For years, the scientific consensus was that a stored memory, especially one that was laid down during a strong emotional response, could never be altered. However, new memory research began to appear in the 1990s have demonstrated that “a consolidated (stored) memory can return to a labile, sensitive state – in which it can be modified, strengthened changed or even erased.” (Nader, 2003, p. 65). The theory of “memory reconsolidation” points to what may well be happening for individuals that after using EFT find that they no longer have the same emotional arousal or intensity upon recalling an event than they did before.
Its All About Feeling Safe: Neuroception and Polyvagal Theory Made Simple
Tapping can be done alone or with another person. There are many areas of one’s life that one can tap by oneself on. There are however times that one should consider not tapping on oneself and would be better served by tapping with an experienced professional. This is especially important in the cases of single and especially multiple experiences of physical or sexual trauma.
Tapping with another person has several advantages. We are increasingly observing the positive effect that a person who creates a safe and supportive relationship can provide in “neuroregulation”, the process of bringing our nervous system into a relaxed and balanced state. The work of Stephen Porges, PhD, and his scholarly work on the Polyvagal Theory describes how our brains utilize “neuroception”, a pre-conscious mechanism of sensing friend or foe, safety or danger based upon another person’s facial expression, tone of voice and body movements. When an effective tapping session is performed, it is critical to consider the positive “social engagement” aspect that stimulates the most advanced part of our Vagus nerve, which helps us to feel calm, safe and balanced even when we are focusing on and talking about difficult or painful subjects.
Rewiring the Body and the “Somatic Implanting of Affirmations”
Finally there is the last part of the tapping statement known as the acceptance statement. That may look like “Even though I feel this anger in my stomach thinking about getting fired yesterday, I deeply and completely accept myself.” The importance of self-acceptance, of accepting oneself has significance, perhaps beyond the ability to measure objectively. It has been offered that tapping while stating the acceptance statement may be a way to “facilitate a somatic implanting of the affirmation” (Feinstein, The Neuropsychotherapist, Jan. 2015). According to Chamberlain and Hagaa of American University, we should “work toward unconditional self-acceptance, meaning that “the individual full and unconditionally accept oneself where or not he behaves or behaved intelligently, correctly or competently and whether or not other people approve, respect or love him.” (Ellis 1997).
An important aspect of the self-acceptance statement, in the opinion of this author, is that the person saying this phrase must find a statement of congruent acceptance, in other words the statement should ring true. If one can ultimately accept what one has done, said, felt, feels then this is a powerful window to healing. That this statement is performed simultaneously while tapping electromagnetic signals of information into the brain and nervous system may end up proving to be a potent element of this technique. This does not in itself take a moral stand, it offers a possibility taking of responsibility for one’s self and one’s feelings and actions and can be a profound tool for healing. So the art of creating a powerful tapping statement may require an alteration from the standard phrase in exchange for “I hold the possibility that maybe someday I can accept myself.” The often repeated “I deeply love and accept myself” is one that we can all aspire to with lots of tapping and self-forgiveness but is rarely ever a place to start.
Rewiring Core Beliefs
The contrast of stating a negative situational feeling with a statement of self-acceptance creates a powerful juxtaposition. Interestingly, this juxtaposition, this oscillating back and forth repeatedly in an EFT tapping session appears to be a pre-requisite for what was spoken earlier of in terms of permanently changing or the eradication of old emotional learning that often creates dysfunctional life patterns and behaviors that can last for a lifetime.
Summing it Up
Weaving the specific events of a situation (from the past or present) with the emotion that is being felt, and connecting it to a feeling in the body creates a rich neural network that offers the possibility of rapid and profound change. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change how thoughts, memories, sensation and patterns of behavior are processed.Neuroplastic re-wiring of the brain and the subsequent messaging to the tissues of our bodies through the nervous system, hormones and neurotransmitter chemical messengers may explain why EFT is quickly emerging as such a powerful tool for healing.
Craig Weiner, DC
Great appreciation for editorial suggestions and support goes out to Ronna Wetlman.
Chamberlain, John M., and Hagaa, David A.F., Unconditional Self Acceptance and Psychological Health, Journal of Rational Emotive and Cognitive Behavior Therapy vol. 19 No 3 Fall 2001 http://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1011189416600#page-2
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