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How EFT works

by Jacqui Footman
4 minutes
How EFT works

To be absolutely honest, no-one fully knows how or why EFT works.  People have just observed that it does, picked it up and used it.  It is simple and safe so through experimentation and sharing uses and knowledge of EFT have grown.  There have however been various efforts made to explain how it works.  These fall into two categories, the energy-meridian-based explanation and the psychotherapy-science-based explanation.  Perhaps this is how the term Energy-Psychology comes to be used so readily to describe EFT and similar techniques.  I give below examples of each type of explanation.

Meridian Points diagramThe Meridian-Energy-based Explanation

Based on the ancient principles of acupuncture, EFT is a simple tapping procedure that gently realigns the body’s energy system, without the discomfort of needles. Unlike other energy healing methods, EFT incorporates an emotional element to the healing process, addressing unresolved emotional issues as a likely cause of physical disease, psychological dysfunction, and personal performance limits.

Negative emotional experiences disrupt the energy meridians that run through our body. The physical changes we feel from those disruptions, like nausea or anxiety, become attached to the memory of that experience and affect the way we see the world…until we heal that disruption. Properly applied, EFT quickly realigns the energy meridians with respect to negative memories, disconnects the physical discomfort that we attached to it, and quite often removes the resulting symptoms.

The Scientific Explanation

The extract below is taken from the article:
The Neurochemistry of Counterconditioning: Acupressure Desensitization in Psychotherapy, James R Lane, Journal of Energy Psychology, Nov 2009

A growing body of literature indicates that imaginal exposure, paired with acupressure (as in EFT), reduces midbrain hyperarousal and counterconditions anxiety and traumatic memories.  Recent research indicates that manual stimulation of acupuncture points produces opioids, serotonin, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), and regulates cortisol.  These neurochemical changes reduce pain, slow the heart rate, decrease anxiety, shut off th e fight/flight/freeze response, regulate the autonomic nervous system, and create a sense of calm.  This relaxation response reciprocally inhibits anxiety and creates a rapid desensitization to traumatic stimuli.

Scientific Discussion

The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease in June 2011 published the first ever controlled comparison between EMDR and EFT (Karatzias et al, J Nerv Ment Dis 2011; 199: 372-378).  A total of 46 participants were randomised to either EMDR or EFT.  The participants were assessed at baseline and then reassessed after an 8-week waiting period.  Two further blind assessments were conducted at posttreatment and 3-months follow-up.  Overall, the results indicated that both interventions produced significant therapeutic gains at posttreatment and follow-up in an equal number of sessions.  Similar treatment effect sizes were observed in both treatment groups.

The authors suggest, "given the speculative nature of the theoretical basis of EFT, a dismantling study on the active ingredients of EFT should be subject to future research".  They assert that the fact that EFT produced significant posttreatment effects comparable with those of a well-established intervention such as EMDR suggests that the EFT protocol does somehow facilitate recovery from trauma symptoms.  They consider several possible hypotheses:

  • The stimulation of the meridian points may release serotonin in the amygdala and prefrontal cortex and therefore quite rapidly reduce hyperarousal
  • The stimulation of the meridian points has been shown to increase plasma and brain tissue levels of endomorphin-1, beta endorphin, enkephalin and serotonin.  These may cause sedation.
  • The protocol may facilitate the release of oxytocin, a hormone that promotes relaxation and decreased sympathoadrenal activity.
  • EFT provides a gentle method enabling the client to concentrate on a traumatic event and thus facilitates exposure through imagination or narrative to aspects of the event.  Repeated exposure can have a desensitising effect on the distress associated with traumatic memories.
  • Exposure may facilitate the emotional processing of the traumatic event and modify associated cognitions that underlie PTSD and decrease hyperarousal.
  • The affirmations included in the EFT protocol may have a meditative effect and create some sort of beneficial trance state.

Karatzias et al have difficulty explaining why EFT produces gains comparable with such a well-established therapy as EMDR given the speculative nature of its theoretical basis, but they note that both EFT and EMDR share similarities between them and perhaps CBT(cognitive behavioural therapy).  Both protocols incorporate distraction and desensitisation coupled with exposure.