By gently accessing the body’s meridian system, “emotional freedom techniques” can help resolve stress, anxiety and phobias.
Marieke Verhoeven | September/October Issue
Is there anything bothering you that we can work on during the session?” emotional freedom technique (EFT) practitioner Jan Scholtes asks me when I call to make an appointment for an interview. I give it some thought. Afraid of spiders? Not me. Fear of public speaking? No problems with that. The only thing I can think of is that I often have trouble sleeping.
“Mmm, that’s a tough one,” Scholtes says. There are all kinds of reasons a person might sleep poorly, he explains, and it’s “somewhat harder” to treat with a single EFT session. “We’ll see how far we get.”
Once in Scholtes’ office in The Hague, we don’t even make it to a session. For two hours, Scholtes waxes enthusiastic about the therapy he discovered almost 10 years ago and which is now an indispensable part of his practice. In EFT, people suffering from anxiety, stress, obsessive thoughts or addictions focus on their unpleasant feelings while they apply a few simple physical techniques to help them relax and dissolve their emotional blockages.
EFT began in the 1980s, when American psychologist Roger Callahan conducted a spontaneous experiment on a client with hydrophobia, who was making minimal progress despite all the time and effort invested in her therapy. Callahan, trained as a cognitive behavioral therapist, had tried everything, including alternative therapies like hypnosis and systematic desensitization, but when, after a year and a half, his entire repertoire had been exhausted, he impulsively asked her to tap a particular treatment point. Callahan had recently attended a workshop on meridian therapy, where he learned that tapping specific energy points on the body could help a person overcome anxieties. After a minute’s tapping, his client had, to his amazement, lost her fear of water.
Callahan then decided to apply meridian therapy in a variety of cases, with equally positive results. He named his new technique thought field therapy (TFT). When Callahan publicized his results, he was scorned by colleagues because of the outlandish claims he made, such as that he could treat phobias in less than five minutes, and the minimal value he placed on critical investigation of those claims.
Gary Craig attended a Callahan workshop in the mid-1990s. Craig had no medical background; he was an engineer. But he distilled the TFT principles down to a compact protocol in which the patient repeatedly taps a series of treatment points in a specific order. The first session tapped 13 meridian points—pathways that traverse the body and provide the organs with energy—followed by the so-called “9-Gamut procedure”, intended to induce calm through performing specific eye exercises, humming and counting. The session ends with the tapping of the original 13 meridian points.
The theory is that forceful emotional experiences that have not been properly processed (such as traumatic experiences and different phobias) are stored in the body’s energy system. Those experiences can be processed by focusing your attention on the experience, putting it into words, and then releasing the pent-up energy using what Craig named EFT.
The advantage of EFT over other therapies is that you don’t need a therapist to do it. There are instructional videos on the EFT website (eftuniverse.com) and on YouTube that you can use to do EFT at home. But according to Scholtes, that’s easier said than done. “People repress things for a reason,” he warns. “You have to immerse yourself in that unpleasant feeling and tap the right points. It only works if you really have the courage to experience that emotion.”
Scholtes, a physical therapist and touch therapist, came across EFT in 2002. At the medical center where he worked, he regularly encountered symptoms he didn’t seem able to do much about. But Scholtes’ interest in EFT was piqued when one of his patients, a harpist, told him that she had blacked out during a concert and no longer dared continue her tour—until she lost her fear after a single visit to an EFT therapist. Scholtes began reading about the technique and, though he prefers to avoid fuzzy terms like “energy pathways,” he was quickly sold. He decided to try the technique himself.
In the surgery department where he works, he treated a man with severe pain and signs of paralysis in one leg. Scholtes tapped specific points on the man’s body while the man stated his anxiety. After a single session, sensation began to return; after five sessions, the pain in his leg became less intense; after several weeks, color began to return to the leg and he was even slowly able to put weight on it.
In part because of its fairly simple methods, EFT spread to therapists around the world. But, as is often the case with new therapies that promise quick results, EFT was (and still is) subject to criticism. The therapy is not sufficiently substantiated by science, according to its critics, and it also ignores the complex issues that underlie psychological problems.
A study by Steven Wells, published in 2003 in the Clinical Journal of Psychology, demonstrated that EFT appears to have an effect on people with a fear of small animals. Yet this study also fails to produce convincing evidence. That’s primarily because it requires an assumption with which many Western scientists have difficulty; namely, the existence of meridians. In traditional Chinese medicine (including acupuncture), the existence of meridians is widely acknowledged, but Western medicine still views them with skepticism.
People with anxieties or phobias are stuck in a specific pattern, a “thought cage,” that also blocks them physically, Scholtes explains. With a drawing of the brain on his lap, he explains how a blockage occurs. When a negative emotion presents itself, the brain stem, which regulates bodily functions, views it as an external threat. That gives us three options: fight, flight or freeze. Emotions are stored in the midbrain, and we think with another part of the brain, the cerebrum. “These parts are connected,” Scholtes says. “But they can also work against each other.”
The idea behind EFT is that you locate the spot where you feel a blockage in your body while you return to a specific memory in your mind. At that moment, you apply the technique. The imbalance in your system can be resolved by seeking out the negative emotion rather than avoiding it. If, at the same time, you tap on specific energy points and gently breathe deeply in and out (instead of allowing your breathing to become shallow or rapid, as it does during stress responses), you can dissolve the blockage.
This is why Steven de Nie, a psychologist and EFT trainer with his own practice in the Dutch city of Arnhem, uses EFT as a tool—and explicitly not as a miracle cure, he emphasizes. “EFT has such a powerful effect because it decouples the emotion from the situation,” he explains. “You feel something unpleasant in your body, and usually a difficult situation has preceded it.” That situation is neurologically linked with an unpleasant emotion, and therein lies the key. First, you must have the courage to experience a negative feeling, after which you can process it using EFT. De Nie is quick to point out that some problems require continual treatment: “It’s not true that a single session will relax you once and for all. EFT’s power lies primarily in repetition.” EFT’s effect is measured and experienced when symptoms like sweating, increased heart rate, muscle spasms and shortness of breath no longer occur when the upsetting thought or situation is called up.
Apart from Wells’ research into EFT’s effect on the fear of small animals, the only other study to investigate not only EFT’s effectiveness but also its mechanism of action is one by Canadian psychologists Wendy L. Waite and Mark D. Holder. In the Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, they concluded that the therapy is effective, because of the relaxation and breathing techniques EFT employs. The tapping specific to EFT has no further effect, they concluded.
Hard scientific evidence for EFT’s effectiveness has not yet been found. Nonetheless, the technique seems to be generating interest among an increasing number of psychologists. De Nie gives regular EFT workshops in which psychologists also participate. They often have trouble with the therapy, which De Nie attributes to the belief that difficult emotions are resolved by changing the way we think. The idea that you can resolve anxiety or tension by returning to the experience and the emotion is one some psychologists find hard to accept. “EFT seems complicated to people who are focused on thinking,” De Nie says.
Marion Blique, a French psychologist who now lives in New York City, is an EFT enthusiast. In France, she often worked with traumatized children. Just talking doesn’t work, she recalled: “Something was missing. EFT turned out to be exactly what I needed.” Blique admits that it seemed ridiculous to her at first. “That tapping just looks silly,” she laughs. “But somehow it makes a lot of sense. The body does, in fact, provide all the tools to help itself.” Blique describes a courier who had been the victim of a robbery and came to her for therapy. “For 15 years, he threw up from the stress every morning before work. After a single two-hour session, he was able to let go of the emotional charge linked to the trauma.”
EFT has come to be viewed as not only a technique for combating phobias and anxieties, but also as a tool for other health issues. For example, British reflexologist Sarah Holland uses EFT on women with fertility problems. Holland noticed that many women who visited her were very tense, either because they were unable to conceive or were worried about their pregnancies.
According to Holland, EFT helps them not because it has any effect on fertility, but because it’s a relaxation technique. “The link between stress and fertility is well known,” she explains. “If you can lower that stress using EFT, that has an indirect positive effect on fertility.” Holland says EFT can also help combat obsessive thinking and overeating. Take someone who overindulges in chocolate. Holland says that has nothing to do with the taste of chocolate, but with an emotional link to chocolate you can sever with EFT.
Yet Holland also says that EFT doesn’t work for everyone. In her experience, people who are not open to the technique respond barely or not at all to a session. But, she counters, “EFT is simple, painless and inexpensive. Why wouldn’t you try it?”
I’m not planning to say goodbye to chocolate, but I do decide to duke it out at home with my sleeping problems using a little help from YouTube. The most highly viewed EFT videos come from Rod Sherwin, an Australian who has a few short exercises for sleep-related issues. Just before I go to bed, I tap the 13 meridian points and do several breathing exercises. I’m asleep before my head hits the pillow, but that’s never been the problem. This time, however, instead of waking up several times, I sleep through the night. Maybe it’s just coincidence, but I’ll be tapping into a good night’s sleep again.