How and why does EFT work?
When carried out with skill and knowledge, EFT (derived from Callahan's Thought Field Therapy) is highly effective. Outcome research unequivocally demonstrates this.
Unfortunately, EFT is widely used but not often applied in the correct way. Tapping on a few acupoints, verbalising a problem, and saying "I completely accept myself" will not resolve any emotional or physical distress - although it may provide a little temporary relief.
There are several effective components of EFT, which together form a remarkable synergy:
- Practitioner and client explore the significant formative experiences that have given rise to the presenting problem (this crucial component is missing from most EFT practice and teaching)
- Relevant emotionally-charged memories are selected as targets
- Thoughts and beliefs associated with these experiences are noted
- Emotions and somatic sensations associated with these experiences are also noted
- Succinct forms of words are used to activate the 'thought fields' (a Callahan term) of these experiences, with all their perceptual, sensory, emotional, cognitive, and somatic details or aspects
- These are combined with a brief statement of self-acceptance
- The client is guided through a simple process of acupoint tapping
- Since client and practitioner both tap on their own acupoints, a close mirroring and attunement is facilitated, which assists in the interpersonal down-regulation of affect
- As the flow of energy and information is facilitated, the practitioner follows the emerging material with the EFT process until the target issues are completely resolved
- Careful testing takes place to ensure that all emotional charge has been removed from the targeted emotional memories
- Where emotional charge is very strong - for example, in connection with PTSD - there are strategies to keep the arousal to a minimum (contrasting sharply with other exposure methods and trauma-focused CBT)
When conducted in this way, the EFT process follows the natural architecture of emotional problems and dysfunctional personality development.
An unfortunate slogan was associated with the early development of EFT, sometimes referred to as the 'discovery statement': "The cause of all negative emotions is a disruption in the body's energy system". Whilst having possibly a superficial attraction, a moment's thought will reveal this to be one of the most absurd assertions ever made in relation to psychological matters - one which moreover is completely inconsistent with the actual practice of effective EFT! Any psychologist with knowledge of cognition and affective neuroscience will be aware that our emotions are signals of our appraisal of the meaning of events and circumstances. Except in those instances where our emotions are the direct neurobiological effect of chemical substances, they are a result of the meaning and implications of our perceptions and thoughts about events and situations. Thus, if we are violated in some way, we may feel a range of emotions including rage, shame, humiliation, helplessness, and sadness. If we win the lottery, we may experience moments of euphoria and other pleasurable emotional states. These are not the result of some kind of biological electrostatic or a quasi-plumbing problem in our energy system. It is regrettable that such a silly 'discovery statement' was used in such a way that undermined the credibility of acupoint tapping methods and made their integration with other areas of psychology more difficult.
What we do know is that tapping on certain acupoints helps to lower states of stress, calming the brain, body, and mind. This key effect is combined with a number of other important therapeutic components to create a remarkably efficient method of resolving emotional problems.
It is quite possible to formulate the EFT process in a way that makes no reference to 'energy'. The observation that tapping on acupoints calms the brain does not in itself require a concept of 'energy'.
The nature of the meridians and acupressure points is a matter of ongoing speculation and investigation, with theories including the primovascular system (Stefanof, et al., 2013) and the peripheral nervous system (Longhurst, 2010).
However, acupoints are traditionally associated with the concept of meridians, channels of subtle energy (Tiller, 1997) in the body. Most practitioners and clients will be aware of sensations of subtle energetic flow during the EFT process.
The experience of EFT certainly includes these subtle sensations of energetic flow, but this does not mean that 'negative emotions' are caused purely by disruptions in the meridian system. The developer of Thought Field Therapy, Dr Roger Callahan, always emphasised that his method addressed information in the energy field - or 'thought field'. A slight adjustment to the problematic discovery statement provides a conceptual solution: "The cause of negative emotional states is a disruption in the flow of energy and information". This is also consistent with interpersonal neurobiologist, Dan Siegel's (2012) formulation of the mind as the flow of energy and information. Thus we can indeed confidently assert that a negative emotional state (where a person's negative emotions and thoughts are either 'frozen' or looping, rather than processing and flowing) is one in which the flow of energy and information is blocked. When we are traumatised, we do tend to stop processing our experience because of the intensity of the associated emotions; this results in the bipolar phenomena of PTSD and related conditions where there is alternating avoidance (of thoughts and reminders of the trauma) and intrusion of flashbacks and other disturbing thoughts and emotions (Horowitz, 2001). EFT and related methods reduce emotional intensity and helps enable the flow - so that emotions are experienced but shift and evolve, along with cognitive reappraisal, as experiences are processed and 'digested'.
There are, of course, many other modalities of energy psychology -- but for most presenting problems EFT is pretty good! The ACEP online interactive training in EFT provides an excellent basis.
Horowitz, M. 2001. Stress response syndromes. New York. Aronson.
Longhurst, J. C. 2010. Defining meridians: a modern basis of understanding. J Acupunct Meridian Stud 2010;3(2):67−74.
Siegel, D. 2012. The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. New York. Guilford Publications.
Stefanof, M., Potroz, M., Kim, J., Lim, J., Cha, R., & Nam, M-H. 2013. Journal of Acupuncture and
Meridian Studies. 6(6), 331-338.
Tiller, W. A. (1997). Science and Human Transformation: Subtle Energies, Intentionality, and Consciousness. Walnut Creek, CA. Pavior.