Tapping into a new therapy

by Marc Wilson / 04 July, 2013
Can you rid yourself of various ailments by using pressure points, energy pathways and affirmations?
Tapping therapyEver heard of tapping therapy? Neither had I until a week ago. My colleague Jess first mentioned it to me after she had had it mentioned to her. Wanting to know more, I googled it.

According to one popular newspaper article, this is how it works. While tapping on one of nine pressure points, you repeat a phrase about something that is wrong with you, then declare that you accept yourself. Theoretically, these pressure points take advantage of energy pathways in your body, and the therapy aids physical ailments, anxiety and various trauma-related issues.

The general procedure owes its origins to Thought Field Therapy (TFT), initially popularised by clinical psychologist Roger Callahan and presented as a suite of Callahan Techniques. TFT, in turn, gained inspiration from ancient ideas about “meridian energies” common to traditional East Asian medicinal practices such as shiatsu and acupuncture. In TFT, the patient repeats affirmations while gently rubbing areas identified as important sites for holding trauma. The story goes that as the mind and body manifest trauma together, working on the body (through rubbing important acupressure sites) and the mind (through affirmations) during recall can dramatically reduce the negative reaction to the particular memory.

Sounds crazy, right?

Callahan’s website features stories of extraordinary success. He and his therapeutic descendants have appeared on numerous TV shows, collecting numerous celebrity endorsements along the way. Callahan’s website even includes a section headed “Where is the evidence?”, which mentions work by Oxford University researchers as well as an endorsement from a medical doctor.

Sadly, the reference to Oxford University doesn’t relate to a test of TFT (but rather that “anxiety caused by the anticipation or experience of pain makes the perceived level of pain much worse”), and it’s not clear where the doctor works.

Worryingly, his endorsement says, “I don’t need a double-blind controlled study to tell me the value of Callahan Techniques TFT.”

EMDR eye movement desensitization

Given the age and apparent success of Thought Field Therapy, there is surprisingly little research on it. One case study, involving a woman with a history of abuse, reported that TFT in combination with manual muscle testing (muscle tensing associated with recalling something unpleasant) resulted in a significant decrease in self-reported distress, breathing rate, muscle rigidity and flashbacks 18 months after treatment. This study, and others reporting similar findings, should trigger the scientist in you because they have been criticised on fairly simple grounds. Most of the studies don’t have a control condition – they don’t have anything to compare our TFT group with, and this is a problem because we can’t say if it’s (a) a time effect, and/or (b) a placebo effect (people feel better because they believe they’ll feel better).

Indeed, a 2012 US National Academies review of therapies for use with military and veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder concluded TFT hadn’t been shown to be beneficial.

The review describes a study in which civilians were given either tapping or an intervention called eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR). Both groups reported a decrease in symptoms, but the second group did better.

So, what is EMDR? Although it sounds similar to tapping, it involves the person reimagining the unpleasant experience while thinking positive thoughts to replace the negative ones and at the same time tracking the clinician’s finger as he or she moves it back and forth for 20 seconds or so.

Eye movement desensitization reprocessing doesn’t rely on meridian energies, and there’s some reason to think it works. Several randomised control trials (thought by many to be the gold standard for intervention research) suggest EMDR is potentially useful or at least better than nothing.

In short, tapping just sounds far-fetched. Now, how about watching my finger, instead?


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