A Skeptic’s Take On Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT)

Is EFT tapping placebo or proven methodology?

Photo by Simon Rae on Unsplash

I enjoy exploring new practice and techniques that can help with emotional health, clarity of thought, and overall well-being. This is an exploration of my experience with Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) or sometimes referred to as EFT tapping.

I. A Brief Overview of EFT

EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) is “a brief intervention combining elements of exposure, cognitive therapy, and somatic stimulation of acupressure points on the face and body.”¹

It is often simply referred to as “tapping” because it involves a process of physically tapping on specified points on the body associated with the body’s meridian points. The claim is that tapping on these points while cognitively processing certain limiting beliefs can release one’s attachment to those beliefs and lead to an improved state of emotional freedom.

A 2017 clinical study summarizes it this way:

Participants typically identify a concern or issue they wish to address with the technique and rate their level of distress . . . Participants then state their concern in a “Setup Statement,” which assists in turning them into their level of distress. This is typically stated in this format “Even though I have this problem (eg, anger), I deeply and completely accept myself.” The first half of the setup statement emphasizes exposure, while the second half frames the traumatizing event in the context of self-acceptance. The participant then engages in the somatic tapping process on acupoints on the body while they repeat a shortened phrase to stay engaged (eg, feel angry). This is called the “Reminder Phrase.” The tapping sequence uses 8 acupoints on the face and upper body and is normally repeated until the SUDS [Subjective Unit of Distress] rating is very low (1 or 0).¹

It is a unique combination of cognitive therapy, physical tapping, and an underlying belief that the body’s meridian network can be influenced to aid in emotional well-being.

II. Why I Am Skeptical

I feel like a bit of an outlier when it comes to alternative therapies and treatment. I definitely lean more natural, traditional, and holistic in terms of my approach to healing and wellness. At the same time, I’m equally aware that we are prone to deception, confirmation bias, and placebo effects.

So while I’m very open to alternative approaches to health and wellness, that doesn’t mean that I’m an immediate convert to just any alternative therapies either. I’m generally skeptical of anyone with big claims that promise healing and treatment unless there is very a very good track record and verifiable evidence to substantiate those claims.

I recently read Karl Dawson’s book Matrix Reimprinting using EFT: Rewrite Your Past, Transform Your Future and very little time is spent explaining the physical science behind how EFT works. The claim is that tapping on certain meridian points releases the body’s energy attachment to certain patterns of thought. For instance:

In essence, with tapping, we verbally and energetically tune in to an issue — emotional, physical, mental or spiritual — and tap on several different acupoints on the body whilst repeating a reminder phrase about the issue. This then reduces the fight or flight signal from the brain and results in emotional and cognitive shifts. In this way, EFT brings together the ancient wisdom of the East about the energy of the body and modern psychology and neurology. Hence the umbrella term ‘Energy Psychology’.

Almost no time is spent explaining how or why this works. We are told that that tapping on these specified points interrupts the body’s fight or flight system, but there is little information to back up how exactly this works. The majority of the book mostly explores various ways to apply to the techniques to different emotional situations.

I wanted to understand more about how tapping allegedly interrupts the body’s fight or flight signal from the brain. Why does tapping result in emotional and cognitive shifts? If we can influence the body’s fight or flight response system by tapping, why does it only work in the positive? Can we make ourselves feel worse by tapping? What if you aren’t very precise in your tapping, does it still work? Does tapping harder or softer affect results at all? If you are physically incapable of tapping some of the points (say if you only have one arm) does it still work? If so, how important was that tapping point in the first place?

These just feel like lofty claims to make without a robust exploration of the underlying mechanisms at play. The book was more oriented toward instructing practitioners so perhaps it assumes that people reading it already understand the mechanisms behind it. Regardless, I found it lacking in that regard.

I did find the cognitive exercises to be sensible and well constructed, but I was constantly confused by what tapping on various parts of my body had to do with anything. This was especially confusing to me considering the physical science (not necessarily effectiveness) behind acupuncture related methodologies is relatively weak to begin with. To quote one study:

Given the long history of channel theory, which predates modern scientific development, and the theory’s intermingling with philosophy and ancient metaphysical ideas, rigorous scientific and clinical studies are needed to tease out their true, physical nature. Acupuncture is an ancient aspect of TCM [Traditional Chinese Medicine] with demonstrated therapeutic effects. Although scientific interest in the validity of meridians and acupoints has been growing in the last decade, the basis of the nature and material of acupuncture points and meridians has not been resolved.²

So I would expect any alternative form of therapy based on meridian points and acupuncture methodologies to go out of their way to attempt to explain why and how it works, but I have not found that to be the case. To be fair, maybe no one really knows. Perhaps it is just practiced because it works despite not understanding the physical science behind it.

Most EFT tapping resources cite studies that demonstrate it is effective. And this is a true claim. I’ve dug up a number of studies that demonstrate positive results from EFT (see examples here, here, and here). These studies validate the effectiveness of EFT, but don’t seem to provide any detailed explanation of the physical science behind why the tapping works.

Maybe my skepticism is just rooted in the way my brain works. It is hard for me to accept certain things at face value. I’m always suspicious that there is a hidden placebo at play. I’m always curious about how and why things work the way they do.

What is it about tapping that positively manipulates the body's electrical signals? Why are there so many different tapping points and what effect does each one have? (see tapping points here) What is the connection between cognitive exposure therapy and these meridian points? Why do the tapping points interrupt the body’s fight or flight response?

So many unanswered questions alongside such major claims leave me feeling skeptical.

III. Why I Think It Works Nevertheless

As I’ve been exploring EFT I’ve been practicing the techniques on myself. Despite my skepticism, I will say that I’ve found EFT to be very relaxing, centering, and have noticed subtle changes in my emotional state.

My current thinking on the subject is that EFT works primarily due to the cognitive exercises and the bodily awareness the tapping cultivates. For example, one of the simplest forms of EFT is to say simply say something like, “Even though I feel [insert any negative feeling or limiting belief] right now, I love and accept myself.” You continue to repeat that statement while tapping approximately seven times on each of the bodily tapping points. You repeat the process until you feel a positive change in your emotional state of being.

However, if you were to repeat such a phrase as part of a simple meditation exercise, I think it would be fairly effective in of itself. By combing the cognitive affirmation with physical movements, I think it creates a stronger mind-body connection like you might experience with Tai Chi, meditative walking, or yoga.

I’m just not convinced that the specific tapping points have anything to do with it. I feel like any methodical and intentional movements alongside the cognitive therapies would do the same thing. You could do the cognitive affirmations while exercising, balancing on one leg, or doing the movements from The OA.

You’ve probably heard that balancing a spoon on your nose is a method to get rid of hiccups? There isn’t anything magical about the spoon or its placement on your nose; it is the slowed breathing, the concentration, and the calmness that ultimately helps the hiccups go away. The spoon is just a focused means of cultivating that mind-body state of relaxation.

I think that is what is going on here. This is purely anecdotal, but I’ve tried just tapping on random non-meridian points on my body while reciting the exposure affirmation and I get the same sense of peace and calmness as I did when I used the specified meridian points. (This is specifically addressed and countered in one of the studies noted in the next section.)

There’s no question I feel a change in my mind and body, but I feel like it is simply due to the cognitive exercises combined with any methodical movements — not necessarily the energy of specific meridian access points.

IV. How the Research Indicates Otherwise

It would be remiss of me to give more weight to my subjective experience than to well-constructed scientific studies. While I still have a lot of questions about how EFT works along with my own theories about why it works, the studies done on EFT are very consistent and promising. For example, a 2019 study on the effectiveness of EFT and psychological markers of health provided the following summary:

This study adds to the evidence base for EFT as an effective mental health intervention, as has been demonstrated in many previous studies. It also suggests that EFT simultaneously improves a broad range of health markers across multiple physiological systems. As hypothesized, participants experienced significant decreases in pain, anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Physiological indicators of health such as RHR, BP, and cortisol also significantly decreased, indicating improvement. Happiness levels increased as did immune system function.¹

Another study that specifically explored the treatment of PTSD symptoms with EFT concluded:

Combining acupressure with elements derived from cognitive and exposure therapies, EFT has been validated in more than 100 clinical trials and has demonstrated efficacy for a range of populations and psychological conditions. Treatment effects have equaled or exceeded those obtained from pharmacological interventions and conventional psychotherapy.³

Some of the studies even performed dismantling studies that specifically addresses and debunks my hypothesis that random movements are just as effective as tapping on specific meridian points. For example:

A 2015 study involved 126 school teachers (assessed for burnout risk) and is possibly the best dismantling study to date. A control group tapped on the left forearm, about an inch above the wrist, with the underside of the fingers of the open right hand. This was important because no finger points were used or unintentionally activated (as in the first study discussed). Everything else was identical. Results indicated the EFT group was superior to the sham points group on the 3 indicators of burnout being tracked (Emotional Exhaustion, Depersonalization, and Personal Accomplishment).

Finally, a recent meta-analysis of 6 dismantling or partial dismantling studies indicates that the acupuncture component is an essential ingredient, and not due to placebo, nonspecific effects of any therapeutic method, or non-acupressure components, in the rapid outcomes shown in EFT clinical trials.¹

So while I’m inclined to think the tapping is just a placebo or a physical means of enhancing the cognitive exercises, the research on EFT indicates that there is definitely something behind the specific tapping techniques. It isn’t just a placebo or random association. The tapping appears to engage some specific aspect of the mind-body connection.

I also discovered that I’m not alone in my unanswered questions on the hows and whys behind EFT. Many of the studies I read admit that more research is needed to understand the physiological mechanisms of tapping and what exactly is happening in the body. That doesn’t change the fact that the studies overwhelmingly agree on its effectiveness.

V. Do You Have Experience With EFT?

Despite my initial skepticism of EFT and my lack of understanding of how it works, I’ve been practicing EFT and have found it personally beneficial. I haven’t been doing it long enough or regular enough to say if it has significantly enhanced my life and I’m not attempting to treat any debilitating issue. I am able to notice a positive improvement in my mind and body when I do the EFT exercises.

As I mentioned, there are many studies that demonstrate EFT is effective in reducing the negative symptoms of emotional issues like PTSD, depression, anxiety, and other emotional issues. The overall feedback from EFT seems to be resoundingly optimistic.

You’ll find there are some claims from certain practitioners that claim EFT can help you manifest things in your life by removing limiting beliefs and changing our outlook on life. While it is true that various forms of cognitive therapy can help you move forward in your life, I’d be wary of anyone trying to selling the promise of manifesting your dreams through EFT (or by any means really). There are many tools that can help us experience greater internal freedom and improve our mindsets, but accomplishing things in life ultimately requires hard work, dedication, and the willingness to take responsibility for oneself. There are no magic shortcuts in life, only tools to help us move forward in our journey.

There are a few other books and resources on EFT that I’d like to explore to better understand how it can be used as a practical tool. I’m always interested in simple practices that we can incorporate into our lives to help us experience life more fully. I’m encouraged by how positive and promising the research has been on the effectiveness of EFT so it definitely has captured my attention.

One resource I’d recommend if you are interested in learning more is the EFT Tapping Training Institute (an affiliate link). They have links to many additional studies like the ones I referenced in this piece. They also have a lot of free resources, training materials, podcasts, and video resources. If you are interested in EFT I think it is a good place to start exploring.

Or if you just want a simple 7-minute video overview, check out this video from The Tapping Solution.

If you decide to try EFT, let me know what your experience has been like. Or if you have done work with EFT, please leave a comment with your experience or other resources to check out. I’d personally love to learn more and your comments could be helpful to others as well.

Referenced studies:

¹Clinical EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) Improves Multiple Physiological Markers of Health

²Review of Evidence Suggesting That the Fascia Network Could Be the Anatomical Basis for Acupoints and Meridians in the Human Body

³Guidelines for the Treatment of PTSD Using Clinical EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques)

A fellow observer on the journey through life. Trying to cultivate a deeper way of being in the world.

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