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Tap Tap Tap: A Path to Healing and Recovery?

The "energy-medicine" method of tapping—locating acupressure points to alleviate past traumatic wounds—may or may not be useful, but many believe in it. 

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By Jowita Bydlowska

03/18/14

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There was a woman I met in recovery who told me, “If someone said, ‘You can get sober by balancing a Cheerio on your forehead,’ I’d do it. I’d do anything.” Then there was a friend who took up running marathons, another friend who swore by aromatherapy to help with her cravings. When you’re at the bottom everything looks better than being at the bottom—12-step meetings, balancing a piece of cereal on your forehead, or tapping your forehead to stave off cravings.

In fact, there is a technique that encourages precisely that—tapping on various body parts. I was introduced to it when I went to rehab a few years ago. It was called Emotional Tapping Technique (ETT)—which is essentially a different name for Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), a practice founded by Gary Craig, a California-based practitioner who claims to be able to cure almost everything via tapping—diabetes, multiple sclerosis, allergies, etc. According to a 2003 study by Wells et al, “EFT and TFT are the most popular and promoted of emotional tapping therapies. They are based on ‘light manual stimulation of the end points of traditional acupuncture meridians or ‘energy pathways’ … while the person is mentally focusing on the feared object.”

Try it. You don’t have to believe in it. If it works for you great and if it doesn’t let’s do something else.

During my session in rehab, a counselor explained that through tapping with our fingertips—on foreheads, under noses, chins, hands and arms and so on—we could stave away our cravings for drugs and alcohol. That was just one of many tools to help us manage our addictions after leaving. In the same rehab facility, we were also introduced to 12-step meetings and acupuncture. Everything but the Cheerio. During the ETT session, we sat in a circle and repeated different patterns of tapping ourselves while saying affirmative statements such as, “Even though I have this craving I completely accept and love myself,” over and over. People made jokes about tapping away dealers and exes because how could you take that sort of thing seriously and not make fun of it? 

Many do. Or if they don't make fun of it, then at least they dispute the claims of energy psychology, which is part of something called “energy medicine” that includes homeopathy, acupuncture or things like CranioSacral therapy. As with all energy medicine, energy psychology involves a manual stimulation of special points on the body (called “acupoints”) while engaging in cognitive (mental processes) aspects, such as thinking of a traumatic event from the past.

A 2010 study of Rwandan child genocide survivors by C.E. Sakai et al. described a case of a 15-year-old girl whose scores went from above to below the Post-traumatic Stress Disorder cutoff after she used a tapping technique. There were other studies, such as a study by C. Johnson—a retired Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.) psychologist – who had used tapping therapy with many traumatized populations, most significantly civilian survivors of warfare in Kosovo, 105 of whom reported psychological improvement after applying tapping. (Johnson himself was skeptical of these too-good-to-be-true results.)  

David Rourke, a Trauma Specialist based in Toronto, Canada has been in recovery for 28 years and has used EFT to help people overcome their addictions. He says, “When you hold on to your addiction it can actually kill you if you don’t let it go. Through using EFT you’re stimulating your energies that get blocked [and that can help you let go]. Addictions [are used to] cope with the moment of when a bad experience happens to us. Those moments get frozen in time and they get frozen in our system. When something bad happens we freeze first and then we fight or flight after that freeze. We need to discharge that freeze. What EFT does is neutralize emotions hardened over time. It shows you that [the traumatic experience] was just an event; you don’t have to judge it.” 

So how exactly do you discharge that freeze? Rourke talks about everything—including our phone interview—being made out of energy, out of molecules interacting with each other. The theory of energy fields is partly based on the quantum theory of matter and energy being aspects of the same reality. According to energy medicine, the life energy—“qi” in traditional Chinese medicine—is believed to flow through us via a series of paths, known as the “meridian system” that are mapped out by 400 acupoints located on your body. When your body and mind are disturbed, this energy is out of balance and certain therapies, such as EFT, can restore that balance. 

But. Does it actually work?

Yes. And no. On one hand, there’s the 2013 Australian overview of energy psychology studies by G.M. Barker that says that there’s absolutely no supporting research for tapping therapies that proves their effectiveness as according to scientific principles. The invisible energy fields have never been shown to exist and therefore are scientifically implausible. And then there have been many studies that had assigned tapping to random non-meridian points that ended up producing the same results as the proper meridian points when, for example, a person tried to get rid of a specific fear. 

On the other hand, there have been scientific studies that have shown an increase in activity in the amygdala—which facilitates things like learning or fear responses—during acupuncture but not during sham acupuncture. But then again, the same increase has been shown during cognitive and exposure therapy. In D. L. McCaslin's review of claims in energy psychology, he writes, “Acupuncture may bring about activity in the amygdala because participants are relaxed and thinking happy thoughts. Exposure may only stimulate the amygdala because exposure to a feared or hated stimulus brings forth negative emotional memories paired with that stimulus.”

Sandra Lewis, a Toronto, Canada-based therapist, says many of her clients have never heard of EFT and many are skeptical of it, but she’s seen a lot of success. “EFT works extremely well when we use it very specifically," she says. “It’s generally understood that addictions are a result of some kind of trauma, or past experiences of our lives. Addictions are how we forget or how we ignore our strong emotions that are coming to the surface. There’s a whole idea of being triggered by certain experiences when the addictive process tends to kick in. So with EFT you focus on those original traumas or bad experiences—there may be many of them, there may be all kinds of childhood issues that were quite similar—and work through them.”

In order to facilitate a therapeutic situation, Lewis says, a client has to go back to the cause of the addiction or upsetting situations that are triggering the need to use, to escape, and use tapping to work along with recalling those strong emotional moments. Lewis cautions against using EFT through the Internet. “I call those global tapping solutions because it’s like an overall statement that people can use that’s meant to work for everybody. With something as specific as addiction, [a global solution] won’t work.”  She suggests seeing a facilitator first to figure out what you need to tap on specifically. Eventually you can do it on your own. 

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” said astrophysicist and author C. Sagan. But perhaps this is not about evidence at all. As Lewis says, “Try it. You don’t have to believe in it. If it works for you great and if it doesn’t let’s do something else. The vast majority of clients find that it works for them despite their initial skepticism.”

Back in rehab, trying to tap away my uncontrollable giggles, I found the whole experience useless. At the same time, a few months after that, I re-joined a 12-step program, whose members themselves often say that they have no idea how it works exactly, but it works.

Ultimately it might not matter how. Cheerio! And in Rourke’s words, “There’s something that will work for everybody. Everything is just a tool to getting sober.” 

Jowita Bydlowska is a regular contributor to The Fix. Her memoir Drunk Mom will be published in May by Penguin. She last wrote about her rehab experience.

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