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Tap away your pain

MagazineMay 2013 (Vol. 24 Issue 2)Tap away your pain

Nick Ortner describes a simple way to clear the emotional energy responsible for many types of chronic pain

Nick Ortner describes a simple way to clear the emotional energy responsible for many types of chronic pain

DrCallahan was doing his best, but it just wasn't working. A traditionally trained psychologist, he had been working with his client Mary, who had struggled with a severe water phobia since she was a child. Mary wasn't just afraid of swimming; she was afraid of water in all forms-from bathtubs to rain to oceans and swimming pools. Her level of fear was so extreme that she couldn't even bathe her two children, and she was plagued by nightmares about water.

Callahan had been treating Mary for the past year using all the traditional psychotherapy techniques in his tool belt-from cognitive (talking) therapy to hypnosis-without success.

This wasn't the first time those techniques had failed. Dr Callahan had been disappointed with the lack of concrete results and the length of time it took for change to happen for many clients. He and Mary had made only minimal progress in the year they had worked together. She was now able to sit on the edge of Dr Callahan's swimming pool and put her feet in the water, but she was full of anxiety when she did.

Ever curious about the functioning of the body and mind, Dr Callahan had been studying the body's meridian points. Meridians, the basis of the ancient Chinese medical system of acupuncture, are defined as energy channels that carry the vital life force, or qi, to the organs and other systems of the body. Running up and down both sides of the body, each meridian is associated with a different organ-stomach, gall bladder, kidney, and so on.

Each meridian also has what's called an 'endpoint', a specific location on the surface of the body where you can access the energy channel. The point can be manipulated using acupuncture needles or simple touch (acupressure) to balance or unblock the energy flow through that particular meridian.

In one therapy session, Mary revealed that thinking about water caused a terrible feeling in the pit of her stomach. In a flash of insight, it came to Dr Callahan that tapping on the stomach meridian endpoint-just below the eye-might alleviate Mary's pit-of-the-stomach sensation. So he asked her to tap that spot with her fingertips.

Mary did as she was asked. To their mutual surprise, after just a few minutes of tapping she soon exclaimed, "It's gone! That horrible feeling I get in the pit of my stomach when I think about water is completely gone!" She went to the edge of the swimming pool to see if her fear had changed as well and discovered that she felt no anxiety at being close to water.

That was 30 years ago, and Mary is still free of her fear today.

Tapping evolves

As a result of the experience with Mary, Dr Callahan deepened his study of meridian endpoints, developing a set of 'algorithms', or sequences of tapping, to address different issues. If you had a phobia such as a fear of heights, you would use one sequence of tapping points (under the eye, under the arm and at the collarbone, for example). If you were angry about something, you'd use a different sequence.

One of Dr Callahan's students-a man named Gary Craig-determined that the sequence of tapping wasn't as important as the tapping itself. To make things easier, he created a single sequence that became the basis of what he later termed 'EFT', short for 'Emotional Freedom Techniques'. The EFT sequence was designed to hit all the major meridian endpoints regardless of the issue (see page 83 on the magazine).

When you're experiencing a negative emotional state-anger or upset or fear-your brain goes on alert. It prepares your body to enter a full-blown fight-or-flight response, which evolved to mobilize the body in the face of an external threat-think of a sabre-toothed tiger coming after your ancient ancestor. Your adrenaline pumps, your muscles tense, and your blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar all rise to give you extra energy to meet the challenge.

Most of our fight-or-flight responses today are triggered internally, as in the case of Mary's fear of water: her body went into a threat response when she even thought of water.

For many of us, the internally generated stress response is triggered by a negative memory or thought that has its roots in past trauma or conditioned learning from childhood. The stress response in the body takes the same form whether the trigger is a tiger (external) or a negative memory (internal).

Beyond these negative memories, daily life is filled with small fight-or-flight experiences. Your boss sends you an e-mail that upsets you; as you sit down to eat lunch, you stress about your weight; you go home to a messy house and a ton of chores.

It's a lower-grade response to the adrenaline and cortisol rush you'd get if you were being chased by a tiger. But when you add up hundreds or thousands of these responses in a given week or month, the cumulative effect on the body and mind is massive. The ongoing fight-or-flight response leaves us worn down, sick, upset, overweight, stressed out and just generally unhappy with our lives.

What tapping appears to do with amazing efficiency is to halt the fight-or-flight response and reprogramme the brain and body to act-and react-differently.

Turning off your brain's smoke detector

Science has established that the stress response begins in the almond-shaped amygdala, one of the components of the limbic system, or midbrain, located between the frontal lobes (the cortex) and the hindbrain (also called the 'reptilian brain'-the earliest, most primitive part of the brain). The limbic system is the source of emotions and long-term memory, and it's where negative experiences are encoded.

The amygdala has been called the body's smoke detector. It signals the brain to mobilize the body in the fight-or-flight response. An early negative experience can programme the amygdala to raise the alarm when something similar triggers it in the future. If you spoke in front of the class in fourth grade and someone laughed at you because of a mispronunciation or a stumble, your embarrassment may have caused the mind and body to connect 'danger' with speaking in front of people. After that, similar experiences-or even the expectation of similar experiences-can set off the amygdala. Remember, the body does not distinguish between an actual threat and what the amygdala perceives as a threat. As a result of this early training, the daily stressors of life can signal the amygdala to raise the alarm. Though we're not yet sure why, tapping seems to turn off the amygdala's alarm-deactivating the brain's arousal pathways.

What's more, tapping while experiencing-or even discussing-a stressful event reprogrammes the hippocampus, which compares past threats with present signals and tells the amygdala whether or not the present signal is an actual threat.

You can change your brain

Working with psychological issues by tapping on the meridian acupoints is part of an emerging field known as 'energy psychology', which has also been called 'acupuncture without needles'.

Not only does tapping halt the stress response, but the combination of stimulating acupoints while thinking about an upsetting event or problem also appears to retrain what's called the 'limbic response'.

When you think of something that causes you anxiety or other uncomfortable feelings, the thought sets off the amygdala fire alarm (see box, left). Tapping as you trigger your fight-or-flight response sends the message that the amygdala can deactivate itself even though the threatening thought is still present.

The amygdala learns not to set off the alarm. You remain calm and, by repeating the tapping, the hippocampus, the structure in the limbic system that controls contextual associations, also gets the message: this thing that was previously filed as 'dangerous' is not, in reality, a threat.

The formerly upsetting event or thing is now filed as 'no big deal'. So the next time you think about or encounter the trigger, the amygdala will not set off the alarm-and you will not be plunged into a stress response.

Scientists speculate that retraining the limbic system in this way permanently alters the neural pathways in your brain such that the conditioned fear pathways in the amygdala are eliminated. This fits with the recent scientific discoveries regarding the neuroplasticity of the brain-the fact that the brain's pathways aren't permanent, but changeable.

Besides emotional pain, tapping can also work on physical pain, largely because limiting beliefs and emotions are often tied in with physical conditions.

Scientifically speaking, no one can claim that tapping is a cure for physical ailments. The human body is incredibly complex, and any number of factors contributes to the millions and billions of changes, positive and negative, that are taking place inside us at any given moment.

What is clear is that tapping appears to be a powerful tool for releasing the emotional energy that gets stored in our bodies. That emotional energy may be manifesting itself in our physical bodies in more obvious ways than we recognize-not just through the cold or flu you "caught," but through everything from mysterious aches and pains to serious diseases.

With the constant high cortisol levels of chronic stress the body is more apt to enter into a state of disease.

Tap on the diagnosis

Patricia, for instance, had been in a terrible boating accident where she shattered her L1 vertebra, the first of the large lumbar spinal bones in the lower back. Surgeons had succeeded in stabilizing her back using four titanium rods and eight sets of screws and bolts. But the resulting pain was excruciating. She was taking morphine, a combination of paracetamol and oxycodone, hydrocodone and diazepam. She had trouble sleeping, so on top of everything else, she took Zolpidem to get a good night's rest.

Even with all the meds, she was regularly in pain and stressed out about her difficult situation.

As much as she was trying to keep her spirits up-she was naturally a determined and positive person-the pain was simply wearing her down.

American EFT expert Rick Wilkes worked with Patricia, and one of the first things he addressed was everything the doctors had told her about her back-what was possible and not possible. The diagnosis and prognosis, especially since we are often most vulnerable at the time we hear them, can have devastating effects on our bodies and our futures. When we hear "you'll always have pain" or "you'll never be active again", the body internalizes that limiting belief on a subconscious level.

Patricia loved doing yoga before the accident and was told she would "never do yoga again". Emotionally this devastated her, sending negative chemicals coursing through the body, and it limited what she thought was possible. Perhaps if she had never been told that, she might have attempted to do yoga-slowly stretching, opening up and healing. But her doctors' pronouncement ended that possibility in her mind.

Over one weekend, Rick guided her back through everything the doctors had said to her and how she felt about it. They systematically tapped to clear the negative emotions she felt and to address the subconscious messages her body was storing.

The tapping had incredible results. By the end of the weekend, Patricia felt no pain in her back. The constant heaviness from the rods and screws was gone. And perhaps most important of all, she felt hopeful for the future and excited about what was possible for her-she was no longer focused on everything she couldn't do. After the event, she got off all the pain and sleeping medications and started doing yoga again.

The Western medical industry is constantly looking for and reminding us about what's wrong with the body-the 'likely' future negative scenarios-as opposed to what's right with the body.

Often we hold on so tightly to the 'truth' of physical pain and disease-to what we know about it, to what others have told us about it-that it becomes part of our identity, part of who we are.

We are no longer our hopes, dreams, goals and desires. Instead we become the pain. We become the diagnosis; we are ruled by everything that's wrong with us as opposed to everything that's right with us.

The angry pain

When I first met John, he was subdued, quiet, and clearly in a tremendous amount of physical and emotional pain. A Vietnam veteran, he had suffered 30 years of chronic back pain after an accident in 1974 had given him a severely herniated disc. He'd had four operations over the years with little to no results. He had trouble sleeping through the night and suffered from high blood pressure, diabetes, tinnitus and more.

As with Patricia, John had been told by medical doctors that there was something physically wrong with his back-that he would always have pain, that he would need more surgery. Steve Munn, another US-based EFT expert, took a different approach.

"What emotion is in your back?" he asked. "What story are you holding on to there?" John didn't hesitate.

"Anger," he replied.

He went on to recount (and tap through) how his father had beaten him repeatedly with a heavy leather strap as a child. He continued to tap with Steve on various emotions and events related to his father.

Beyond his anger and sadness about his father, John tapped on his guilt about what he had done in Vietnam, his anger toward the people in charge then and now, and even his deep fear of rats.

John was astonished to discover his back pain disappearing-after 30 years.

Perhaps the most revealing result of John's experience with EFT isn't the disappearance of the back pain. Instead, it's what his daughter now says about her father.

"I feel like Dad is a new person," she says. "I love this new person!"

Looking deeper

Amy had complained of sciatic pain for the past several years. She was a toned, athletic young woman who loved to run and was severely hampered by her pain. I asked her when it started, and she knew exactly.

"I was at a wedding. I was dancing and had a bad fall," she reported.

When I asked her what was going on emotionally at that time, she had a quick answer to that as well: "It was an awful night. I got in a huge fight with my ex-boyfriend, and everything seemed to go wrong from there."

It would seem from her answers that tapping on the original event and emotional conflict would resolve it, so that's what I tried to do. (I had already begun with the global tapping on the pain and hadn't seen a shift.) So we went through the original event, all the emotions, all the memories. While she certainly felt better about the event, it wasn't doing anything to shift the pain, which surprised me. It seemed the pain might not have been related to the fall at the wedding after all.

I then asked her, "What's the most stressful thing in your life right now?"

She answered, "Work. I hate it."

She shared with me how miserable she was in her job, how she didn't like the work she did or the people she worked with. She just wanted to get away, she told me. So we began tapping, starting with, Even though I hate work and it really stresses me out . . . To both our surprise, her pain shifted dramatically after just one round. We went on to tap longer on her work stress until the stress-and her sciatic pain-abated.

She was in shock as she turned, stretched and tried to otherwise activate her sciatica-but to no avail. It was truly gone. Somehow it had been connected to all her stress at work.

So when you're stuck or don't know what to tap on, don't be afraid to take a leap. Try something else. Just the process of tapping can often relax the body and mind enough that different ideas, impressions and leads come your way.

Through trial and error, you can determine what's really going on and how to clear it.

Simple tapping on the symptom can have profound results. At other times, it's necessary to dig a little deeper.

My best friend, NickPolizzi, had suffered from migraine headaches his whole life. We did some tapping on the symptoms and he saw some relief, but they kept coming back. It wasn't until we dug deeper, and he could connect the migraines with some unresolved feelings and events with his father that the headaches stopped for good.

What emotion or event is creating your pain?

Take a moment and tune in to any pain, stiffness, tightness or constriction you might be feeling in your body. Then ask yourself, "If there is an emotion in my ________ [name the part of your body that hurts], what might that be?" You can also ask yourself, "If there is an event or story in my ________ , what might that be?"

Ask yourself:

o When did the pain first start and what was going on in your life at that time? For example, "It was ten years ago, and that's when I changed jobs."

o Who comes to mind when you think of this pain? For example, "This neck pain might represent that pain in the neck, my mother-in-law."

o How do you feel about having this pain?For example, "I'm angry that I've had it for so long."

o How do you feel about yourself with this pain? For example, "I feel like I'm not enough since I can't find a solution."

o Who would you be without this pain? For example, "I'd be a totally different person, able to do so much more . . . but with a lot more responsibility than I have now."

o Does this pain have a message for you? For example, "It's telling me to slow down."

o Describe the pain. What quality/texture/colour/size does it have? For example, "It feels red and small, but the whole area is swollen."

Answers to these questions are all clues to finding the underlying issue.

Choosing a reminder phrase

The reminder phrase is short-just a couple of words that bring to mind your MPI. You will speak this phrase out loud at each of the eight points in the EFT sequence. For example, if your MPI has to do with the anger you feel towards your partner, you might tap through each point in the sequence saying, "This anger . . . this anger . . . this anger . . ." Other examples of reminder phrases might be:

o This fear I'm feeling . . .

o This sadness . . .

o This frustration . . .

o This back pain . . .

o This headache . . .

Repeat the reminder phrase out loud to remind yourself of the issue at each point. This reminder phrase serves to keep your focus on the MPI so you don't get distracted. It also acts as a barometer, helping you determine along the way how true the MPI feels to you.

Once you get used to tapping, you can change your reminder phrase as you tap through each point. For example, you might say, "This anger... this red-hot anger... it's burning in my chest ... am so angry..."

But to start with, keep it simple and say the same statement at each point.

Proof that tapping works

Research at Harvard Medical School over the past decade has shown that stimulation of selected meridian acupoints decreases activity in the amygdala, hippocampus (another part of the limbic system) and other parts of the brain associated with fear, findings that have been captured on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron-emission tomography (PET) brain scans.

In one randomized controlled trial, researchers examined levels of the stress hormone cortisol, a different component of the fight-or-flight reaction released during the stress response, and psychological symptoms in 83 people after receiving an hour-long EFT tapping session, an hour of conventional talk therapy or no treatment (the control group). Cortisol levels in the tapping group dropped significantly by an average of 24 per cent-with some showing results as high as 50 per cent-while those in the talk therapy and control groups experienced no significant changes. The reduced cortisol levels in the EFT group also correlated with significant decreases in the severity of anxiety, depression and overall psychological symptoms.

A recent review published in one American Psychological Association journal deemed acupoint stimulation "well-established treatments" for phobias and test-taking anxiety, and as "probably efficacious treatments" for post-traumatic stress disorder, public-speaking anxiety and depression.

How to tap

1.Choose your most pressing issue (MPI): the issue, problem or challenge that dominates your mental and emotional space in the present. Some common MPIs include:

o Work. My boss is driving me crazy!

o My body. I've had a terrible backache for days.

o My partner. We got into a fight last night and I can't stop thinking about how upset I am.

2. Rate the intensity of your MPI on the 0 to 10 Subjective Units of Distress Scale (SUDS). Think: what level of distress does it bring up for you in your body? A 10 would be the most distress you can imagine; a 0 rating would mean you don't feel any distress at all.

3. Craft a setup statement. It goes like this:

Even though _________ [fill in the blank with your MPI], I deeply and completely accept myself. So you might say, "Even though I'm angry at my husband for what he said to me last night, I deeply and completely accept myself", or "Even though my back hurts, I deeply and completely accept myself."

Be as specific as you can. Add details that create specificity-particulars that pinpoint an experience such as when it happened, who was involved, what you felt in your body and soon-to draw the focus more clearly to that particular issue. As a result, you'll have a better ability to rewire the brain's response to it.

If you ever get stuck on the exact language, just focus on the feeling. Or visualize a picture of what happened (or is happening) and then describe it.

A broad or global MPI statement might be I have this pain in my shoulder. A more specific statement would be I have this shooting, burning pain in my left shoulder when I lift my arm. Or for an emotional event, instead of I'm angry, your more specific statement would be I feel this anger in my chest at my boss for telling me I'm not doing my job well enough.

Now devise a reminder phrase

4. Tap on the karate chop point while repeating your setup statement three times.

5. Tap through the eight points in the EFT sequence while saying your reminder phrase out loud. Tap five to seven times at each point.

6. Once you have finished tapping the eight points in the sequence, take a deep breath. Feel your body and notice what's happening. Did the issue shift? What thoughts came up?

7. Rate the intensity of your issue using the 0 to 10 scale to check your progress. Go back and think about the thing your husband said last night and see how it feels to you now. You might find that the anger, which was seething before, is now merely simmering. In that case, you can tap a few more rounds using the same language and clear the issue altogether.

Or you might find that as you were tapping about last night, you thought of something else your husband said three weeks ago that made you even angrier. This might be what's really going on. In that case, you can tap on that issue. This is how to 'peel the onion' of an issue to find resolution, freedom, hope and understanding.

8. Repeat until your MPI finds enough relief that you feel really good about it. This may mean getting the SUDS level down to a 2 or 3, or it may mean clearing it altogether so it's at 0. Tap for as long as you need-five rounds, 10 rounds-to release your pain, be it physical, emotional or spiritual. Then, if necessary, move on to the next issue.

Nick Ortner


Killer Cola

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