How Energy Psychology Works

By David Feinstein

When James Reston, a New York Times reporter accompanying Henry Kissinger on a visit to Communist China in July 1971, had an acute appendicitis attack, Chinese physicians performed an emergency appendectomy. Rather than use medication as the anesthetic, they used acupuncture. The publicity surrounding Reston’s successful surgery is credited with opening Western minds to the practice of acupuncture. Today, the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture has more than 1,600 physician members, and the World Health Organization lists more than 50 conditions for which acupuncture is believed to be effective.

Since the early 1980s, Western mental health practitioners have been developing protocols for applying the principles of acupuncture to psychological issues, patterned initially on the work of California psychologist Roger Callahan and Australian psychiatrist John Diamond. Because the stimulation of acupuncture points produces physical change by altering the body’s electrical activity, the various mental health protocols that utilize acupuncture points (such as Thought Field Therapy) are collectively known as “energy psychology.” Energy psychology protocols generally combine the stimulation of particular electromagnetically responsive areas on the surface of the skin with methods from cognitive-behavioral therapy, including the use of imagery, self-statements, and subjective distress ratings.

Why Does It Work?
In fact, the mechanisms by which the basic procedure—tapping specific points on the skin while mentally activating a dysfunctional emotional response—may not be as incomprehensible as it first appears. Energy psychology may work by producing neurological shifts in brain function in much the same way as neurofeedback training, a treatment that’s increasingly being used for problems ranging from learning disabilities to anxiety disorders, depression, and addictions. Unlike psychiatric medication, which catalyzes changes through its effects on the brain’s biochemistry, both energy psychology techniques and neurofeedback training have been shown to bring about changes in brain-wave patterns, and these changes correspond with a reduction of symptoms.

But if we examine the electrochemical shifts in the brain that are brought about by stimulating electrically inductive points on the skin, a coherent picture begins to emerge.

Research studies have shown that acupuncture points are more electrically responsive than other areas of the skin (which have 20 to 30 times the electrical resistance). Studies have also indicated that acupuncture points have a higher concentration of receptors sensitive to mechanical stimulation. In energy psychology, a subset of acupuncture points is stimulated, usually by tapping the points while a client mentally activates a dysfunctional emotional response. Tapping specific acupuncture points appears to send signals to the brain that are similar to those produced by the more traditional use of needles. Various studies have demonstrated that the stimulation of selected acupuncture points modulates the activities of the limbic system and other brain structures that are involved in the experiences of fear and pain.

The most promising current hypothesis of the neurological mechanism by which energy psychology achieves its effects is that it combines this direct electrical route into the limbic system (through acupuncture-point stimulation) with the activation of a disturbing memory. As Joseph LeDoux’s research program at the Center for Neural Science at New York University has demonstrated, any time a fearful memory is brought to mind, the neural connections between the fearful image and the emotional response may be increased or decreased. The memory becomes labile when reactivated, and thus susceptible to being neurologically consolidated in a new way—its emotional power either reinforced or dissipated in the process. In energy psychology treatments, it may be that the established ability of acupuncture to deactivate areas of the brain that are involved in the experiences of fear and pain takes hold during this moment of “neural plasticity.”

What about issues other than phobias? Between 1988 and 2002, a team of 36 therapists from 11 allied treatment centers in Uruguay and Argentina tracked more than 29,000 psychiatric patients who were being treated with a protocol that used acupoint stimulation ( Besides an estimated 70 percent overall improvement rate and various informal substudies suggesting that the energy psychology treatments yielded markedly stronger outcomes than conventional treatments with a range of disorders, systematic interviews with the therapists identified the conditions for which energy psychology treatments seemed more or less effective. Overall these clinicians indicated that energy psychology interventions were most effective with anxiety disorders, reactive depression, and many of the emotional difficulties of everyday life—from unwarranted fears and anger to excessive feelings of guilt, shame, grief, jealousy, or rejection. They didn’t appear to be as effective with disorders that were more biologically entrenched, such as endogenous depression, bipolar disorders, personality disorders, delirium, and dementia. For anxiety disorders, the therapists’ uniform impression was that no other treatment modality at their disposal (including cognitive-behavioral therapy combined with medication as needed) was as rapid, potent, and lasting.

adapted from: Psychotherapy Networker Magazine

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Dr. Gnap

Dr. Gnap is a family practice physician and behavioral medicine specialist in suburban Chicago.  Dr. Gnap developed the Inner Control™ Program in 1970 and has worked with thousands of people to improve and correct medical, emotional, behavioral and learning problems including performance.  He started the Inner Control program because so many patients asked, “what more can be done along with traditional treatment methods?”

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