Saving Pauline: How Tapping Can Help to Heal the Psychological Roots of Illness
Posted August 19, 2021
Over 2,000 years ago, Aristotle said, “Body and soul respond to one another in sympathy.” His poetic observation probably arose from the fact that physicians of ancient Greece believed the life of the spirit is somehow intertwined with the state of the body and that emotional balance is a crucial influencer in health.
Although Western medicine has long grappled with connecting the mind and emotions in treating illness, significant, positive breakthroughs have been made in recent years. This is particularly true when it comes to a mind-body intervention that appears to have special strengths in its ability to address psychological factors in illness.
Energy psychology is proving to be a highly effective approach to overcoming difficult emotions and unhelpful beliefs without a long course of psychotherapy.
Time-honored Healing Meets Contemporary Psychology
Energy psychology is essentially a hybrid discipline that combines practices from time-honored healing traditions, such as acupressure, with concepts and techniques drawn from contemporary psychology. The most well-known energy psychology formulations are the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) and Thought Field Therapy (TFT), which are popularly known as “tapping.”
The approach generally involves tapping on a sequence of selected acupuncture points (acupoints) while the individual doing the tapping spontaneously states emotionally-evocative, personally-relevant phrases. In a clinical setting, the phrases are presented by the therapist and repeated by the client.
The core principle behind tapping on acupoints has to do with sending activating or deactivating signals to specific brain areas that the spoken phrases have aroused. Deactivating signals can, for instance, diminish the brain’s threat response, while activating signals can enhance planning and stress management capacities.
Three paths for using energy psychology to address physical illness include: managing challenging mental states; working with emotions that contribute to illness; and tuning into inner resources to promote healing.
Path #1: Managing Challenging Mental States
Imagine you (or someone you love) is diagnosed with a severe illness. How would you feel? You're likely to experience fear, anxiety, uncertainty, insecurity, and disorientation. You might even find yourself in "denial" as you attempt to cope with the distressing diagnosis.
While denial can be a helpful way to give yourself time to adjust, it also creates an internal conflict. Where there is an internal conflict, the conflict itself may become a source of internal distress. If you are the one who happens to have received the disturbing diagnosis, you might find your denial resulting in your avoiding or ignoring recommended changes in your diet and lifestyle that are likely to advance your healing.
The general approach around dealing with an internal conflict within energy psychology is to acknowledge, accept, and recognize the positive intention of both sides of the conflict. As an example, a phrase that could be paired with your acupoint tapping session might be:
"Even though I hear the diagnosis, I don't want to believe it."
This phrase can validate the external reality of dealing with a severe illness (even though I hear the diagnosis) and the contradictory emotional reality that it has generated (I don't want to believe it).
The problem with internal conflicts -- also known as "psychological reversals'' -- is that they often lead to the reverse of what you are intending. This means that if your underlying desire not to believe the diagnosis goes unattended, it can undermine your conscious intention to heal.
The good news is that tapping on statements which acknowledge both sides of a psychological reversal seems to create a positive shift. For instance:
"Even though I love being taken care of, I want to get better."
Both sides can be put into a single statement in that basic format, or such conflicting statements might alternate with subsequent tapping points such as:
"I don't have to cook as long as I'm sick."
"I long to be independent again."
"Part of me doesn't want to go back to work."
"I'm supporting my body as it heals."
While different brain mechanisms are activated by different types of statements, the guiding assumption is that the body is geared toward healing. Tapping statements are generally created with that as an underlying framework.
Path #2: Working with Emotions That Contribute to Illness
The acupoint tapping used in energy psychology protocols is able to focus on the connections among thoughts, emotions, and somatic (physical) experiences and events. Working at the somatic level often uncovers deeper psychological issues that might have been factors in the development of the illness in the first place.
Symptoms such as pain, tension, and physical discomfort are somatic signals that can not only be regulated with acupoint tapping; they can serve as windows into an individual’s history.
Simply asking, “What was happening in your life when your symptoms first appeared” may reveal a treasure trove of insights. Answers such as “That was right after my mother died” or “I had lost my job, and my marriage was breaking up” are not unusual. Tapping while keeping these memories active seems to reduce their emotional power as obstacles to overcoming the illness.
Other questions that can be used in this context include:
“If an emotion were associated with this illness, what might it be?”
“If a belief contributes to this illness, what might it be?”
“What are these symptoms telling you about your life?”
“If these symptoms reminded you of something in your family, what might that be?”
Responses to these questions can then be used to formulate phrases for subsequent rounds of tapping. In a clinical environment, a therapist can guide the patient to acknowledge, attune to, and tap on relevant cognitions, emotions, images, and sensations that arise during the tapping session.
Path #3 Tuning into Inner Resources to Promote Healing
Tapping while visualizing scenarios that focus on an obstacle to changing an undesirable mental habit or behavior pattern sends deactivating signals to the areas of the brain that are maintaining the pattern.
For instance, imagine you’re at the end of your workday. You have had dinner. Your body is restless. You have the choice of lounging on the couch in front of the TV or doing a 20-minute yoga routine.
Visualizing yourself choosing the yoga routine, making statements about how much you are enjoying it, and sensing the good feelings after the stretching, all while tapping, can embed the imagery, sensations, and the statements’ meanings into the nervous system (like hypnotic suggestions), but more powerfully than imagery and verbal affirmations alone.
Pauline's Astounding Recovery
Clinical trials have shown that tapping treatments have helped patients achieve modest to significant improvements in emotional difficulties, as well as physical symptoms across a range of illnesses such as fibromyalgia, the side effects of chemotherapy, tension headaches, and blood sugar control in diabetes.
Acupoint tapping protocols have also positively impacted patients with Alzheimer's, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Crohn's, Huntington's, Lyme's, Parkinson's, and even Hodgkin's disease, as in the case of a patient called Pauline.
Pauline had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease and a brain tumor 3 years before seeking energy psychology sessions from EFT practitioner Pascale Lutz. Chemotherapy to reduce Pauline's brain tumor was proving ineffective. At 38, with 2 young children, she had been told to "put her affairs in order."
Over the next 10 months, Pauline had 20 sessions with Lutz. Some of the wordings Lutz had Pauline use during the first round of self-administered tapping on acupoints included:
Even though I have this pain in my right side that cuts like a knife, I deeply and completely love and accept myself.
Over the next 9 months, the sessions produced noticeable progress (as well as a few painful setbacks). 10 months after the first session, Lutz relates that Pauline said, "the doctors can't believe the results, which are 65% better than what they expected."
Eleven long years after their initial session, which followed Pauline having just been told she had 6 to 18 months to live, Lutz responded to our inquiry: "Pauline is alive and kicking as we speak, and it is wonderful to see. We are still in touch. She says EFT has literally saved her life" (e-mail communication, December 3, 2020).
Of course, not every patient responds as rapidly and dramatically as Pauline, and not every cancer patient who is treated with an energy psychology approach recovers, but systematic clinical trials and case studies suggest that tapping can have a powerfully strong positive impact on the course of an illness.
How to Get Access to the Full Paper
This post is based on the research and discussion from clinical psychologist and leading expert on Energy Psychology, David Feinstein, Ph.D. The original paper is entitled "Applications of Energy Psychology in Addressing the Psychological Roots of Illness."
The full paper is published in the journal, OBM Integrative and Complementary Medicine, and includes details on beneficial phrases and examples around the 3 effective paths to working with tapping protocols. The full paper can be found here.
If you have thoughts, ideas, insights, or experiences you'd like to share on this post or the full paper, please comment below. David will regularly review the comments and reply to those that move the discussion forward.
Next month's feature will discuss energy medicine as the context for energy psychology.
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