CHAPTER 5 of 'Getting the Zs You Want'.
(links to two videos at the end of article)
“Energy psychology” is described as comprising of a set of physical and mental procedures designed to bring about therapeutic shifts in targeted emotions, thoughts and behaviors. It represents a blending of traditional healing and spiritual systems of the East, along with elements of Western psychology. In terms of its legacy from the East, many forms of energy psychology have borrowed practices and concepts from acupuncture and acupressure, whereas others have borrowed from yoga, meditation, qigong, and other traditional practices for well-being. In regards to their legacy from Western psychology, energy psychology therapies can be conceived as being within the tradition of “exposure” therapies, a form of behavioral psychology.
There are more than two dozen different variations of energy psychology. Typically, they entail undertaking a physical procedure while psychologically focusing on target emotions, thoughts or behaviors. As will be presented in this chapter, energy psychology can be well used in conjunction with the other ideas presented in this book to assist you in getting better sleep.
The method of energy psychology utilized in the sleep-sense program is referred to as EFT, and involves tapping on genuine acupuncture points while reciting statements about the problem you are wanting to change- as such, it can be thought of as acupressure rather than as acupuncture. Acupressure is also seen to be effective in treating emotional or psychological complaints. A survey of evidence conducted by the Harvard Medical School in 2008, which included a literature review of forty-five peer-reviewed studies published since 2000, found at least preliminary support for the efficacy of acupressure with a majority of the conditions for which the World Health Organization found acupuncture to be effective, including anxiety, depression, addictions, insomnia, and hypertension.
Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT)
The application of acupuncture to emotional issues was aided by chiropractor George Goodheart who, in the early in 1960s developed what he referred to as “Applied Kinesiology.” Goodheart discovered that he could get equally impressive results by stimulating the acupuncture points with either pressure or tapping. The next step in the development of what ultimately became EFT was the work of psychiatrist John Diamond, who in the 1970s created what he referred to as “Behavioral Kinesiology.” Diamond applied Goodheart’s approach to emotional difficulties, having his patients repeat affirmations while stimulating specific acupuncture points.
In the early 1980s, as a psychologist specializing in the treatment of anxiety states, Roger Callahan had undergone training in behavioral kinesiology as well as acupuncture. He treated a woman who experienced an extreme phobia to water, so much so that even seeing water on TV would lead to a large anxiety response. As part of his treatment, Callahan was attempting to desensitize her to water by having her sit on the edge of a swimming pool. When the woman complained of stomach pains whilst attempting this, he suggested that she tap a point on her cheekbone which corresponds with the “stomach meridian.” The woman reported that not only did her stomach pain quickly go away, but so did her phobia of water. In fact, she began joyously splashing it on her face. None of the other standard psychological approaches to reducing her anxiety over the previous two years of treatment had helped this woman at all.
Callahan investigated and researched the potentials of this discovery further, arriving at a process which he called Thought Field Therapy (TFT). As stated, this involved tapping on a range of acupuncture points whilst mentally focusing on specific thoughts. Gary Craig, a minister of religion who studied TFT under Callahan, concluded that the process was unnecessarily complicated and convoluted. While learning these procedures, he observed many occasions when the person administering the taps accidentally did it out of the supposedly correct sequence, however the person’s symptoms still improved. From these observations, he decided to modify TFT into a more simple sequence of taps which could be applied to a very wide range of presenting problems, including pain.
Craig titled this reworking of Callahan’s approach “Emotional Freedom Techniques,” and created an extremely thorough website dedicated to it in which he gave EFT away for free. More than a million people have downloaded the beginners’ manual for EFT, and have benefited from the enormous archive of reports which have accumulated over the years in which both health professionals and sufferers of various conditions have reported their findings. I have had clients report an almost immediate results for a range of issues when they have undertaken the simple and brief EFT procedure (to be described below), and there are scores of such accounts on the EFT website, http://www.eftuniverse.com/
As I have no training in either Traditional Chinese Medicine or behavioral kinesiology, such energy psychology theories are simply not the language that I use to make sense of how EFT works. However, as a treating psychologist, I do have a need to understand these remarkable outcomes, especially as I often introduce the process to clients. Whilst not a neurologist or a neuropsychologist, I am more able to develop some understanding of what may be happening with EFT from a very basic neuro-psychological point of view. As such, my way of making sense of EFT has less to do with Chinese medicine, meridians or life-energy, and more to do with conventional psychology and neurology.
While neuroscience has developed rapidly in the last couple of decades, and produced some remarkable insights in the process, one is still left with the impression that we know relatively little of what goes on inside our ‘black box’ of a brain. However, there are neurological observations from studies which pinpoint specific brain changes that occur as a result of actions and experiences. Where the knowledge is incomplete, we are able to hypothesize about the possible neuro-psychological components of the changes that have been observed from processes like EFT. It is still somewhat speculative in that, despite recent advances, there are few absolute certainties when dealing with the human brain.
Other people who use EFT may not have the same need to understand its ability to produce results, and therefore may settle on the acupuncture and/or energy psychology theories. Or these explanatory systems may be inherently meaningful to them. In the end, I suspect that acupuncture/energy psychology explanations on the one hand, and neuro-psychological explanations on the other, are simply different languages used to describe the same phenomenon. As such, I am not too concerned about the different explanations. The results are the same, regardless of how one makes sense of them.
Acupuncture has been demonstrated in scientific research to change the electromagnetic field of the skin surface. Other forms of sufficient stimulation, such as the application of heat, mild electrical current, pressing or tapping, also impact on the surface of the skin. Through an elaborate system of sensory nerves, our mind/brain is highly aware of changes in the skin caused by different forms of stimuli. Put your hand in either cold or hot water, and the part of your brain which processes sensory input from your hand will become electro-chemically activated in order to make sense of the nerve experience. The same is true for other forms of stimulation to your skin as skin tissue is being manipulated, including the insertion of acupuncture needles, or the sensations derived from tapping, pressing or massage. Change the stimuli experienced by your hand, and you will also change the corresponding parts of your brain (sensory cortex) in their attempt to make sense of the physical experience.
Acupuncture theory suggests that in order to produce the greatest response, and corresponding change in the meridian, the stimuli needs to be applied to specific points on the skin. Neurological theory would suggest that the type of stimuli applied during either acupuncture or acupressure will produce corresponding alterations in the brain. It is possible that the benefits seen with EFT may derive from its ability to create such alterations in the brain. In the EFT procedure a range of sensory stimuli, via tapping, are being presented while the person is engaging in essentially a psychological process of repeating phrases about the problem they are wanting to change. It is also possible that the observed high level of correspondence between “meridians” and the “channels” in intramuscular connective tissue planes may make specific points on the skin even more able to produce changes in the brain than non-acupuncture points. No definitive answer to this question is yet available.
We have multiple neurological pathways which correspond to all of our experiences and actions, taking in the actions of millions of neurons. For example, we have “driving a manual car pathways,” “brushing my teeth pathways,” as well as a “feeling anxious about sleep” or “feeling back pain pathways.” In fact, it is likely that each of these simple experiences and actions actually require hundreds of neural pathways in getting us to anticipate and prepare for the action (such as brushing your teeth) then in executing and controlling the action. Multiple pathways in the brain will be activated and associated with each of these activities, in which the brain cells connect with other brain cells via their “tentacles” (axons and dendrites) to form specific patterns of connection.
Any experience that we repeat on a regular basis, either internally or externally generated, will have a pathway which is “well-travelled,” involving multitudes of neurons. If we regularly drive a manual car, the neural pathway for changing gears is very well established after many years of use, such that it is rare to make a mistake. If we are regularly anxious, upset or in physical pain, then likewise, the neural pathways for these experiences are also very well-travelled. It is not unusual for people to follow a typical emotional course of sinking into despair or anxiety once they commence the very familiar route to becoming anxious or despairing, e.g. when a regular argument with a spouse begins.
The brain works on a “use it or lose it” principle, meaning that neural pathways which get a lot of traffic typically become very well established, and like driving a manual car after many years, a regularly rehearsed action or emotion requires very little effort to engage in. For this reason, it can feel like the emotion or behavior takes on a life of its own. After years of doing it, you don’t have to think about changing gears in a car, or how to make yourself miserable about sleep problems.
Having an overactive mind while, for example ruminating about distressing events, is a key component of difficulties with sleep. Many people feel that once they start ruminating over their misfortunes, they are simply unable to stop, despite their desire to do so. When experiences are similar enough to another distressing event, or are related in theme to a well-rehearsed distress, then the electro-chemical activity in the brain is likely to follow the well-travelled pathways that are most relevant for that experience.
Neural pathways, in which are contained beliefs like “I am a poor sleeper and will find it hard to sleep tonight,” (along with the associated sleep anxiety) are good targets for interventions like EFT. Being very well-travelled, it is often not so easy to change these pathways purely by conscious choice. People can intellectually recognize that there is no good reason for them to not sleep, as per managing their sleep environment. However, at a much deeper level, their view of themselves as a poor sleeper and the associated feelings of anxiety and even despair can be highly resistant to change, as they are emanating from a much deeper part of the brain than the thinking neo-cortex, i.e. the emotional limbic system. The electro-chemical activity can simply whiz around the old pathways, intensifying as it goes and increasing the level of distressed feelings with each circuit it completes. Again, you may simply feel unable to stop this vicious cycle of distressed thought and feeling, and find yourself ruminating endlessly about it throughout the night. EFT can be thought of as a useful circuit-breaker in this type of scenario.
There are several metaphors to help you make sense of how EFT works. If you have ever lived on a dirt road, you will be familiar with what happens to it with torrential rain. Water will generally run across the road at the lowest point, and cut something of a channel across it. The way of rectifying the problem is not to simply fill the channel with a wheelbarrow load of gravel, as with the next heavy downpour of rain, the same channel will again be cut across the road and the gravel will be washed away. The answer to the problem is to firstly cut what are referred to as “feather-drains” near the low point. These are a series of smaller drains, taking water away from the main channel and dispersing it from the direction of the road. When the next rain comes, rather than simply follow the old pathway towards the deeper channel, water will now be dispersed in different directions along the feather-drains. You can now fill the main channel in with gravel and be confident that it won’t just be immediately washed out, as long as you maintain the feather-drains.
The deeper channel across the road is analogous to the well-travelled neural pathway of “I am a lousy sleeper”, along with the emotional distress. Any time there is an “emotional storm” with torrential rain, such as being frustrated due to inability to sleep (electro-chemical activity), the energy associated with the storm will travel down the usual channel/pathway and result in distress. This distress will make you ‘psychologically heavy’, such that when the next wave of BRAC induced sleepiness comes your way, you are unable to catch it.
EFT can be thought of as giving the mind/brain a range of alternative pathways (like feather-drains) through which the electro-chemical activity can travel, dispersing the energy and diluting the negative power of the experience. With each component of the process, a new ‘feather-drain’ is being dug, so that when the next ‘storm’ occurs, the brain has a range of pre-established pathways which the electro-chemical activity can travel down, rather than simply remain stuck cycling in the old pathway.
This proposed neuro-psychological change is supported by the now established reality of neuro-plasticity, wherein it has become apparent that the brain is highly able to develop new neural pathways in place of older ones. With more use of these alternative neural pathways, the use-it-or-lose-it notion begins to work for you, and with regular practice of EFT, electro-chemical activity is now routinely dispersed away from the problematic pathways, and with it the distress dissipates.