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How I beat chronic fatigue syndrome

Reading time: 13 minutes

Angela Johnson’s story started when she was in high school, a highly active student who kept up on her academic work and played sports as well as working at several jobs after school for pocket money. But by her senior year, she was stuggling with feelings of complete, overwhelming fatigue that she just couldn’t shake.

“It was like my body just decided to give up,” she says. “I felt like I was in a very vulnerable position. It got to the point where I didn’t really recognize myself anymore. I was only 17, there were all these things I wanted to do socially, and I just couldn’t keep up.”

The fact that she was mindful about her health – eating well, not following the usual sugary, highly processed, packaged, fast-food teenage diet, doing yoga and meditating – made her situation all the more puzzling. But no matter how much she refined her diet and sought out natural answers like vitamins and supplements, nothing had a long-term effect on the exhaustion that was rapidly becoming debilitating.

She was also experiencing a lot of body pain, especially joint and muscle pain. “It was like I was a 20-year-old in a 90-year-old’s body,” she says. “I would struggle to get out of bed. I would struggle to lift a kettle of water to make a cup of tea for myself. I would struggle to walk 10 minutes down the road without feeling absolutely exhausted and puffed out.”

In addition, she couldn’t sleep because she was in constant pain. Since her immune system was compromised, she caught colds easily. Her digestive system was all over the map, and she experienced irritable bowel syndrome. Her period was irregular. Basically, it seemed as if all of her body functions were being affected.

Finally, during her senior year in high school, one of the physiotherapists treating her for a sports injury suggested that she go to the doctor and get checked to see whether she had idiopathic chronic fatigue (ICF), better known as chronic fatigue syndrome. Sure enough, a general practitioner did some testing and diagnosed her with ICF and fibromyalgia.

“I was told, ‘You’re going to have these issues forever, and you’re just going to have to learn to live with it and manage it. Aside from that, there’s not much we can do.’ And I remember sitting there in the rheumatologist’s office as a young person thinking, ‘That’s just not an option. That’s not happening to me!'”

The doctors told her to try relaxation techniques (she was already meditating), but they didn’t give her any suggestions about what to do or where to go. They also told her to change her diet and make sure she ate healthfully, which she was doing anyway. “That was about it. They didn’t really tell me anything, just ‘Come back in 12 months and we’ll check your blood.'”

Immediate relief

Feeling lost and alone, predictably, the daily fatigue and pain and being unable to keep up with any of her friends or classmates played with her head, and Angela began to struggle with ever-darkening mental and emotional troubles as well.

Placed on all kinds of different antidepressants that she was told would also help with the pain, she found that the medications made absolutely no difference to her symptoms, only adding side-effects like horrific nightmares to her list of growing problems.

“I felt even more depressed on the antidepressants than I did off of them,” Angela says. “I just completely felt like I’d left my body, like I wasn’t even here.” One day while she was driving, she had the thought of what would it be like to run into a tree and end it all.

It was at that point she realized she had to figure out something else. “Having that thought gave me even more willpower to figure out what I could do about my situation.”

It wasn’t until after she’d obtained her degree that she ended up in the office of Dr Peta Stapleton, a registered clinical and health psychologist who happened to be one of her professors at Bond University in Queensland years earlier. A global expert on Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) and weight management and eating disorders, Stapleton introduced Angela to EFT, and her whole world changed.

“I’d always been interested in alternative therapies, the metaphysics side of things and how we’re made up,” Angela says. “I decided at a very young age that we’re all energy, and EFT is very much based on energy psychology and the mind-body connection.”

She says her first session was really calm and quiet, but exciting at the same time because she finally felt like she’d found someone who not only understood what she was going through but who could actually help her. During that first session, Stapleton taught her the basics of EFT and how to do it. And the very first issue she decided to address was her pain.

“My pain was so obvious to me and so intense. And I instantly found the benefit of EFT because my pain level dropped significantly in a matter of minutes. I was blown away by the technique and thought, ‘Wow, if this is what it can do in a couple of minutes, imagine what it can do if I do more of it!'”

Stapleton sent her home with some homework and told her to do some tapping to get used to the technique, and she had great success with many of her symptoms. For example, she was constantly getting colds because of her compromised immune system, and now, when she felt the onset of a sore throat, she would tap on her throat and the soreness would disappear.

She practiced and practiced and found EFT to be so effective at resolving her own symptoms that she eventually decided to become a practitioner.

“What I discovered is chronic fatigue – and that kind of pain – is a very loaded illness. It’s highly stress-related. Often when a person gets to that level of diagnosis of chronic fatigue, they’ve already been under a chronic stress load for very long time. My journey was really just peeling the emotional layers that contributed to my chronic stress, which caused the symptoms.”

Emotions and disease
Also known as systemic exertion intolerance disease (SEID) or myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), ICF is widespread, thought to affect approximately 10 to 15 percent of the world’s population.1 The exact cause of chronic fatigue is still unknown, at least to conventional medicine, although there are many theories ranging from viral infections to psychological stress.

Recent studies have linked ICF to oxidative stress,2 when the production of reactive oxygen species in the body (reactive chemical compounds containing oxygen – peroxide is an example) overwhelms the system’s antioxidant defenses. It has also been linked to perceived psychological stress in general3 and to problems with the functioning of cellular mitochondria, the power packs energizing each cell.4

Because chronic fatigue is so emotionally loaded, Angela says the deepest work she did was recognizing and then consciously releasing the emotional thought patterns and programs she had that were trapping her and continuing to stress her out.

Growing up as a middle child, Angela says she was stressed even as a young girl. She wanted to be liked and to be responsible, so she focused on ways of getting approval, making sure she was fitting in.

“That was a lot of the emotional side of chronic fatigue that I addressed,” she says. “The more layers contributing to the chronic fatigue that needed to be addressed, the longer it would take to experience a real shift. But once I addressed the most intense core of my emotional distress, when I hit that, there was instantaneous relief and often that symptom wouldn’t be an issue in the future.”

In both self-treating her chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia with EFT and working with Stapleton, Angela says she typically started a treatment by focusing on physical symptoms, like the exhaustion or pain she was experiencing. But she quickly discovere
d that these symptoms were always related to some particular emotion she was feeling, such as anxiety, lack of control or fear.

“Fear is a big one. It’s a very unconscious energetic disease, and there are just so many things to address with it. I think that’s how something like chronic fatigue really sneaks up on people.

“I had to focus on how I operated. I had to realize that I was trying to be everything for everybody and nothing for myself. That was the main theme. I was a very capable person; I was very active and involved in helping other people. But I also had a lot of people-pleasing going on. I had to also address the fact that I was just as important as everyone else that I cared about.”

Negative emotions play an enormous part in disease. For example, feelings of anger, anxiety and depression are risk factors for coronary heart disease.5

A person’s outlook might also be related to their immunity. In one study, when healthy volunteers were exposed to the common cold virus, those who had generally positive attitudes were less susceptible to actually developing symptoms, whereas people experiencing negative emotions were at greater risk for coming down with the illness.6

Dawson Church, PhD, EFT trainer, clinician and heir apparent to Gary Craig, the founder of EFT, has successfully worked to have EFT recognized by the American Psychological Association as a legitimate and effective therapy. He says the role of emotions in ill health is epidemic, and that if given the choice between having a perfect diet, eating nothing but the finest organically grown foods available, drinking perfect water every day but suffering from emotional dysregulation, or emotional regulation and eating at McDonalds for every meal, he would choose the latter.

“People worry that they’re not getting enough selenium in their diet, for example, and I just laugh because that is going to have such a minuscule effect on your health,” Church says.

“The real question you should be asking is, ‘Am I getting enough love? Am I getting enough affection? Am I getting enough touch? Do I have an emotional connection with the universe?’ Those things are going to do far more for you than having a perfect mix of supplements.”

My best gift
For Angela to completely eliminate the chronic fatigue took roughly a year or two. Since then, she says, it’s been a matter of self-maintenance. Sometimes symptoms pop up if she’s had a stressful week or didn’t get adequate sleep. But she quickly uses EFT to ease her stress and eliminate the symptoms when they do arise.

“I used to think chronic fatigue was a burden,” she says, “but now I see it is my best gift, because it has given me the tools that allow me to pick up on people’s emotions and energies really quickly. I honestly believe I had to go through something like this to be so body aware, so mind aware and so energetically aware that I can feel little changes in my body instantaneously. And I’m sensitive to the energies of others, too.”

This sensitivity – once a silent saboteur to her health – is now one of Angela’s most important assets as an EFT practitioner, allowing her to efficiently guide her clients through the EFT process. In addition to the basic eight-point technique (outlined on page 70), there are many other EFT patterns she employs to help her clients navigate the often stormy emotional waters underlying many of their situations and conditions.

Since becoming an EFT practitioner, Angela says she continues to marvel at how deeply emotional the foundations of chronic fatigue really are. “People who’ve experienced similar chronic fatigue to what I’ve had seem to be caught in similar thought patterns – emotions that they feel regularly like fear, anxiety and the ‘what if’ syndrome, constantly thinking ‘What if this doesn’t work? What if that happens? What was I thinking?’

“Often people like this never had a healthy role model when they were younger and wouldn’t know what a healthy boundary looks like if they fell over one. I also find that people who are highly sensitive are often the ones who deal with chronic fatigue.”

But as important as it is to have a professional there to serve as a guide if something is very problematic, Angela says one of the things she loves most about EFT is how people can take it and run with just the basics, going home straightaway and beginning to use it.

“It’s quick, it’s effective and it’s noninvasive,” she says. “You can do it anywhere. I tap in the car. I tap in the shower. I tap in the school line while waiting to pick up my son.

“EFT is an effective tool that everybody needs to know about, because the sense of power and control you get back knowing you can create your own healing – it’s profound,” she adds. “And it’s instantaneously recognizable because you feel the difference. The only thing involved is you and your fingertips and the points you’re tapping. You don’t need anything else.”

What is tapping?
EFT uses a specific set of acupuncture meridian points from traditional Chinese medicine, tapping on those points with the fingertips while verbally addressing an emotional issue.

This is done in order to “talk” to the emotional center of the brain, or limbic system – including the amygdala located in the temporal lobe – responsible for regulating emotions, survival instincts and memory.

Although it does have earlier roots, EFT essentially was birthed in the 1990s, when psychologist Roger Callahan discovered a relationship between several acupuncture points on the head and the limbic system after a patient who had a severe water phobia told him she felt the fear in her stomach.

In sudden inspiration, he instructed her to tap on the acupuncture point for the stomach, located below the eye on the cheekbones. Much to his surprise, not only did the woman’s stomach symptoms disappear, so did her life-long, crippling fear of water. And it only took a few minutes.

This discovery led to his eventual creation of the Callahan Technique and Thought Field Therapy, which involve tapping various sequences of acupuncture points while doing verbal processing around the issue being addressed.

Gary Craig later simplified Callahan’s technique, creating a methodology with one basic sequence of points to tap, no matter what the situation.

He termed this streamlined process Emotional Freedom Technique, or EFT.

How eft works
Studies show that EFT works by regulating the expression of genes that contribute to overall health in the body, shutting down stress genes and upregulating stress-reduction genes.1

In one recent study, EFT significantly reduced symptoms of pain (by 57 percent), anxiety (by 40 percent), depression (by 35 percent) and posttraumatic stress disorder (by 32 percent), all while increasing happiness (by 31 percent) and lowering resting heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels.2

And how does it achieve these effects? “In terms of MRI and EEG studies, those show that EFT reduces beta brain waves, which are the brain waves of stress, while augmenting alpha, theta and delta waves,” says Dawson Church, PhD, EFT trainer of trainers and successor to the work of EFT founder Gary Craig.

“Theta is the primary wave of healing and stem cell generation, as well as stem cell migration to wound sites. All of these brain waves are dramatically increased when people tap.”

The combination of tapping on certain acupuncture points while focusing on a particular emotional issue not only affects gene expression, it is also thought to reduce stress and trauma by reassuring the limbic portion of the brain – responsible for emotion, survival instincts and
memory – that “Everything is okay now.” This rewires the brain into a more stable and calm neurological state around a particular issue.

What does EFT treat?
There have been hundreds of clinical studies conducted using Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) for a wide variety of health conditions. EFT has proven effective in reducing intense fears relating to numerous causes,1 and is a particularly powerful treatment for anxiety.2 It’s also highly effective for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) within as little as four sessions or as a self-help practice.3

EFT has been clinically proven to aid in weight loss via improved body mass index, lowered food cravings, increased craving restraint and psychological coping.4 It’s been shown to relieve depression in a lasting manner,5 and in injured veterans, it was found to improve mental health and quality of life while reducing anxiety and insomnia and strengthening the immune system.6

EFT has also proven to be effective in reducing the symptoms of fibromyalgia.7 Dawson Church, PhD, points out that EFT is far more effective for treating fibromyalgia than the standard medical approach of using statin drugs like Lipitor to treat cardiovascular disease. “The number of people you need to treat with EFT is three,” he says. “In other words, statistically for one patient to be cured of fibromyalgia with EFT you have to treat three people.

“But if you look at the number of patients you have to treat going the conventional medical route with statins to be effective at preventing a stroke in one person, you have to treat 270 people. And one in 21 of those patients on statins is experiencing adverse effects like muscle damage or pain. So more people are being harmed by those statins than benefiting from them.”

The difference between the effectiveness of the EFT protocol and standard medical treatment for a wide variety of health issues is profound. And yet Church also admits that EFT isn’t the perfect methodology.

He says it doesn’t work well in purely physiological situations, for example with something like tinnitus. “But when there’s an emotional component – to the degree the problem is psychological, it will work.”

How to self-treat with EFT
The more psychological the issue, the better the results with EFT will be.

To start:

  • Think about a problem you want to work on. It can be an anger issue with your partner, a sense of insecurity at work, general anxiety about money – you name it.
  • Contemplate the level of emotion involved, as you think about your issue/problem. Say you’re working on a fear of spiders. Rate how great the fear is on a scale of zero to 10.
  • Create your set-up statement. The EFT set-up statement is a combination of a) identifying the issue you want to work on and b) reassuring yourself it’s okay to have this issue. The two-part set-up statement goes like this: “Even though I have a fear of spiders, I deeply and completely accept myself.” Or perhaps your issue is insecurity at work. If that’s the case you could say: “Even though I feel insecure about my work, I deeply and completely accept myself.”

Tap the karate-chop point – the outer edge of the hand below the little finger – of either hand while repeating your set-up statement three times.

Using your fingertips (not fingernails), gently but firmly tap the following eight points, seven times each (or more), while repeating a short “reminder” phrase summing up your issue. For example, addressing a fear of spiders, you would tap the eight points below in sequence while stating once for each point: “fear of spiders.”

As you tap on each point, remember to repeat your reminder phrase – and don’t forget to breathe.

Go through this sequence three times. Then stop and breathe deeply and quietly. Tune in and check on the level of your emotion around your chosen issue (spiders, your work, etc.). Again rate your level of fear (or anxiety, whatever the emotion) on a scale of one to 10 from non-existent to acute.

Has your fear decreased or increased? Has it stayed the same? Don’t be dismayed if it hasn’t changed. Just keep tapping and checking in.

You can change your set-up statement to reflect your progress. For example, you can say “Even though I’m still scared of spiders, I deeply and completely accept myself.”

Don’t be afraid to change the wording of your reminder statement if something else comes up while you’re tapping. For example, maybe you have a flash of insight and realize you’re only scared of fat black spiders. Go ahead and change your reminder statement to “Fat black spiders” or whatever reflects your insight.

Keep doing your rounds of tapping, checking in every two to three rounds to access your emotional state. Try to see if you can get your emotional rating down to level two or below.

How EFT works

1 Energy Psychology, 2016; 8: 17-32
2 J Evid Based Integr Med, 2019; 24: 2515690X18823691

What does EFT treat?

1 Energy Psychology, 2003; 2, 13-30
2 J Nerv Ment Dis, 2016; 204: 388-95
3 Explore (NY), 2017; 13: 16-25
4 Energy Psychology, 2012; 4: 13-24
5 Explore (NY), 2016; 13(6), 416-26
6 Iran J Allergy Asthma Immunol, 2015; 14: 37-47
7 Integrative Med, 2008; 7: 30-5

Main article

1 J Psychosom Res, 2008; 64: 357-62; J Affect Disord, 2010; 127: 248-56
2 Sci Rep, 2018; 8: 12890
3 BMC Res Notes, 2011; 4: 238
4 S. Myhill, Diagnosis and Treatment of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Myalgic Encephalitis: It’s Mitochondria, Not Hypochondria (Hammersmith Health Books, 2017)
5 J Psychosom Res, 2000; 48: 323-37
6 Psychosom Med, 2003; 65: 652-7

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Article Topics: Emotion
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