The Surprise that Heals Trauma

It started as an upset whisper that turned into a rant that’s become a roar during the last decade or so. You can hear it in professional circles of traditionally trained psychotherapists who have opted to practice spiritual and mind/body therapies. It goes something like this: Traditional talk therapy doesn’t work! Telling your story over and over, unchallenged, actually makes you worse because it reinforces your distorted beliefs, furthering, rather than changing, your destructive patterns. To change, you must deal with (depending on who’s ranting) energy/the body/your spiritual nature.

This is not a new message. Pioneers such as Wilhelm Reich, M.D., the father of mind/body medicine, and his protégés have been saying it for more than 50 years. In the 1930s Milton H. Erickson, M.D., began practicing what would become modern therapeutic hypnosis, revolutionizing the field of psychotherapy as he helped those who were considered unhelpable by traditional doctors. He inspired legions of “Ericksonians” whose practices include words, tasks, rituals, and compassionate connection. And before Reich and Erickson, there were Zen masters who knew the power of the “thwack” and traditional shamans across the world who often cured through confusion or community ritual or some version of “shaking medicine” (see S&H, May/June 2007) — all of them were literally jolting people out of their problems.

So what’s new? Neuroscientists have recently detailed how just about every aspect of the brain — including structure and function — is plastic (changeable) and affected by what we do, our thoughts, our loves, our constraints, our culture, and more. In his new bestseller, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science (Penguin Books), psychiatrist Norman Doidge, M.D., recounts how people of all ages have rewired themselves in ways that were heretofore believed impossible: People with debilitating brain damage, strokes, and abnormalities have recovered full motor skills; people with so-called incurable learning disabilities have become intellectual giants in their areas of difficulty; and people with severe emotional problems have changed their life patterns and helped others in the process.

Doidge also explains how we get stuck in ruts: “Once the main neuronal connections are laid down, there is a need for stability and hence less plasticity in the system. When BDNF [brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which encourages nerve growth] is released in sufficient quantities, it turns off the nucleus basalis [the part of the brain that allows us to focus our attention] and ends that magical epoch of effortless learning. Henceforth the nucleus can be activated only when something important, surprising, or novel occurs, or if we make the effort to pay close attention.”

Because it’s the surprise factor that often causes trauma, it follows that it might also be another surprise that heals. For some, rewiring the brain toward health may begin with a parachute jump or a swing on a flying trapeze. It may begin with a dose of Ecstasy (see S&H, Jan/Feb 2009, page 29). Or it may start more gently with what were once called fringe therapies, including eye movements, tapping, and visualizations. As their proponents have long argued, these therapies may be just enough to knock you out of your rut.

The Love Response
It’s well known that chronic fear and stress have devastating effects on our health, shutting down our immune systems and making us prone to infection, cancers, tumors, and inflammatory disorders. But love heals, explains Eva M. Selhub, M.D., a senior staff physician at the Benson Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Not in a greeting card, positive psychology kind of away . . . but at a biochemical, physiological level that actually makes your body well again.”

To stop the “fear response,” Selhub says you first need to recognize that it is active — which is not always easy; fear masks itself in any number of negative emotions and is often unconscious. For the sake of simplicity, assume that if you are unhappy, at some level you are fearful. To disrupt fear, Selhub suggests many exercises to activate your “love response” and the concurrent release of hormones and peptides (endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine, vasopressin, and nitric oxide) that influence your ability to love and bond and be healthy. The more you activate love, the more you accumulate the experience of it, and the more your subconscious mind will evoke it in the future. Here is a basic exercise to disrupt the fear response from Selhub’s new book, The Love Response: Your Prescription to Transform Fear, Anger, and Anxiety into Vibrant Health and Well-Being (Ballantine Books, Jan. 2009). For more information about Selhub’s work, go to

Tapping toward Peace
Can tapping a sequence of acupuncture points while focusing on a problem and repeating affirmations really cure fears, pains, mental and emotional obstacles, and other serious problems? In the new DVD Try It On Everything, seven of ten volunteers experience just that. The documentary records a four-day intensive and a six-month follow-up of emotional freedom techniques (EFT) that experts practiced on a Vietnam vet with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an insomniac with breast cancer, and people suffering from fibromyalgia, phobias, and several addictions. The success was particularly striking for those volunteers who committed to practicing EFT after the intensive was over.

EFT, often called “tapping” or “emotional acupuncture,” had a long evolution, but it’s generally agreed that it was invented in its present form by an engineer and personal performance coach named Gary Craig in the late 1980s. Until recently, however, it had not undergone scientific scrutiny.

One of the leading EFT researchers is Dawson Church, Ph.D., executive director of Soul Medicine Institute and the author of The Genie in Your Genes ( Church has been conducting a number of clinical trials of EFT, the most recent of which involves Iraq combat veterans who suffer with PTSD. “The particular study we’re doing is a randomized blind trial of three groups. One gets EFT, one gets psychotherapy sessions, and one gets nothing at all,” says Church. “We measure their cortisol levels before and afterwards, and we’ll determine if their psychological symptoms decrease, if their anxiety and depression levels go down, and if that’s accompanied by a drop in cortisol. We’ve got two batches of data in so far from two groups of subjects, and both of those have shown much larger drops with EFT than with either no treatment or with conventional psychotherapy.”

When our fight-or-flight mechanism kicks in — even though there’s no objective threat, as in the case with PTSD — we experience all the physiological symptoms: increased blood pressure and heart rate, shallow respiration, blood flowing to the peripheral muscles away from the frontal lobes of the brain (indicated by a rise in cortisol). Church, whose doctorate is in integrative medicine, and several other experts on various aspects of physiology and psychology believe that when we then do EFT —introducing an “incongruous signal,” tapping — it tells the body to stand down. Says Church, “Now you’re getting mixed signals: the stress signal from the brain and a physiological signal from the tapping,” which you wouldn’t be doing if you were really in trouble. Your stress memory is challenged, and that reconfigures that neural circuit involved in the stress response.

To learn more, check out the Try It On Everything DVD and companion book by Patricia Carrington, Ph.D. (associate clinical professor at UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey), at The book offers a complete history of EFT, case studies, and a comprehensive list of online resources. For a longer form of EFT and a free manual, go to EFT founder Gary Craig’s website,

Healing through Eye Movements
Although it has been around for almost two decades, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) still is not fully understood. Done with a trained EMDR therapist, however, it is a powerful method of processing and changing the cascade of emotions and biological events that constitute a trauma response.

Briefly, EMDR involves working with a therapist in a carefully designed sequence of steps, including giving a full history and rating emotional upset, then remembering and telling a story of upset while doing directed side-to-side eye movements, sometimes accompanied by sounds or physical stimulation that alternate from side to side. EMDR (as well as other modalities described in this article) can trigger associations and memories that may or may not be true because of the nonlocalized nature of brain function and memory. The literal truth of such memories is irrelevant to healing. What’s important is what happens as you experience them.

Often, before you can experience healing, you must ask for help. Alexis Johnson, Ph.D., an expert in EMDR, is fond of telling students in her trauma recovery workshops that she may be the only therapist left who will tell a client, “No, you really can’t make this better . . . alone.” Understanding that one needs others may be the beginning of recovery.

Trauma is not necessarily caused by one event or by a series of experiences that one can remember. Many people don’t even know they’ve been traumatized. They chronically move from a stimulus to a response without realizing what’s happened. “Your thinking mind can’t keep up with your biology,” explains Johnson, “and intense negative emotions such as terror, anger, panic, or shut-down may be elicited by minor, even irrelevant, triggers. In our experience, catharsis is not a good container for trauma victims. They don’t need to ‘let it out.’ Instead, they need to find the pieces, to find the personal meaning.”

And EMDR creates a very strong container for the pieces, allowing people to reintegrate — they literally create connections between the deep brain, which is full of feelings and pictures, and the neocortex, where words and meaning are created. EMDR does not require you to remember something from the past. You may tell the story of a specific trauma, or you may recount a present-day, seemingly benign event that triggered your intense reaction. “The telling of the story will create a rhythm,” says Johnson. It is “the rhythm of falling apart and coming together, falling apart and coming together — the rhythm of life as we know it.”

To learn more about shock — for yourself and for helping others — read Johnson’s article “Helping with Shock Trauma” at To learn more about EMDR or to find a therapist, go to

Betsy Robinson was managing editor of Spirituality & Health for six and a half years. A graduate of a four-year healing school, she often wrote about news and ethics in the world of alternative therapies. She is currently writing a blog called “Enlightenment from a Crusty Spiritual Seeker” at Of the therapies described in “Thwack,” she has most benefited from tapping her brains out with the Emotional Freedom Technique during her transition to freelancer.

An EFT Workout

  1. Measure your stress level on a scale of 1 to 10 (most stressed).
  2. Select an issue to work on: a troubling memory, a fear, a pain, a compulsion — something with at least a level 5 stress rating (but not the most stressful event for your first time doing EFT).
  3. Select a scene that represents this issue (not one that is overwhelming for your first time).
  4. Create a mental movie of the scene.
  5. Rate your stress level.
  6. Title your movie.
  7. Create a setup phrase or “EFT statement.” It should start with “Even though . . .” followed by a problem turned into the affirmation: “I deeply and completely accept myself.” For instance: “Even though I fear heights, I deeply and completely accept myself.” (You do not have to believe this.)
  8. Create a shorthand version of this statement: “Afraid but accepting.” As you go through a progression of taps, the phrase can change. For instance: “Terrified, but I know I’m good”; “Scared but calm and confident”; “Uncomfortable but relaxed and worthy.”
  9. First, with a couple of fingers, repeatedly and quickly tap the “Karate Chop Spot” on the opposite hand or rub the “Sore Spot(s)” (see illustration), repeating your EFT statement three times. You can use either or both hands. Now, repeatedly and quickly tap the points illustrated in the sequence that are numbered, repeating your shorthand statement, modifying it as it seems right.
  10. Notice your stress level after one round of tapping. Do it again until your stress level comes down to a comfortable level.

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