What is EFT and how does it work? Part 1

EFT stands for “Emotional Freedom Techniques”. This is an evidence-supported set of techniques that help diminish and release unpleasant or unwanted emotional reactions that we might have in response to any given memory, current situation/trigger, or imagined/anticipated situation that might take place in the future.

Basically, EFT involves using your fingertips to gently tap on certain “acupoints” in your face

and torso while focusing your mind on something that evokes an unpleasant emotional and/or physiological reaction. After a few minutes, this reaction tends to diminish or disappear altogether. 

These “acupoints”, located in the face, hands and torso, are some of the points that are used in acupuncture or Traditional Chinese Medicine, and they are believed to be along certain pathways known as “meridians”, which are connected to different parts of the body and the brain. 

Gary Craig, the founder of EFT, believed that “the cause of all negative emotions is a disruption in the body’s energy system”. Therefore, when we stimulate those “acupoints” by tapping on them with our fingertips while we are focusing on a “negative” or unpleasant emotion, the energy blockage or disruption is quickly dissolved and we then feel better, and are better able to calmly assess the situation. 

Now, whether we agree with that idea or not, there’s also another way to look at it, from a neuroscience perspective. 

A different perspective

From a neuroscience perspective, we could say that our mind is composed of our “thinking brain” (the cortex) and our “survival brain” (the limbic system, the brainstem and the cerebellum). These two can sometimes be at odds with each other. 

The reason being that, below our conscious level of awareness, our nervous system is constantly assessing whether we are safe or not. This is the task of the “survival brain”. This process is known as “neuroception” which is a combination of “neuro” and “perception”. Neuroception involves constantly assessing stimuli coming from the environment around us (including other people), which is known as “exteroception”, and also those that come from within our bodies, which is known as “interoception”.

Here’s an example of exteroception: someone running towards us with an angry facial expression will probably be considered “not safe” by most of us, and trigger the nervous system into getting into “survival mode”.

And here’s an example of interoception: a sudden painful sensation, tightness or constriction in any one of our organs or body parts might also trigger our nervous system into feeling unsafe and getting into “survival mode”.

Now, in those moments when our “survival brain” considers that we are safe, our nervous system is in a “regulated” state, where we can access our “social engagement system”. In this state we feel stable, calm, relaxed and safe to socially interact with others. This state is also where our bodies can rest/rejuvenate/heal and regenerate. And it’s where, for example, our digestion and immune system can function at its best.

If, on the other hand, our nervous system assesses at any given moment that we are unsafe, it will become “dysregulated” and will enter “survival mode”. This can be either via what is known as “sympathetic nervous system activation”, “hyperarousal” or “fight or flight”; or in more severe cases, it can be via “hypoarousal” or “freeze”, which involves the more primitive “dorsal vagus nerve branch of the parasympathetic nervous system”.

There’s nothing wrong with either one of these two survival states if we are facing an actual threat. They were evolutionarily designed to help us survive. They create physiological changes in our bodies to help us either fight or run away from the situation, or if we cannot do that, to freeze, shut down and become numb from an inescapable dangerous situation. But they were also designed to be short-lived and for us to be able to return back to that “regulated social engagement state” once the threat is over. Because when we are in “survival mode”, nothing else matters to our body and nervous system, not our health, not our digestion, not our happiness and success, and not our relationships with others. Our “survival brain” is focused only on helping us survive, but in a way that we might not consider very helpful or adaptive to our current circumstances.

The problem is that these survival responses can often be triggered by chronic stress or trauma. The “survival brain”, specifically the amygdala and the hippocampus, learn to associate certain people, places, situations, sensations, etcetera, to previous experiences where we might have been in those “dysregulated survival states”, and activate those same reactions again every time we encounter anything that resembles them. And so our body and nervous system don’t get the chance to fully discharge those fight, flight or freeze reactions and get back to that calm, regulated “social engagement” state. Therefore, we start spending less and less time in that state. In that way, our “neuroception” becomes inaccurate and this “survival brain” thinks we are unsafe even when we are not.

And sometimes this might not make much sense to our “thinking brain” or conscious mind. We might think that we are just overreacting, “why am I making such a big deal out of this?”, and we might try to apply positive thinking, reframing, or willpower to change these reactions. But we can’t reach our “survival brain” in that way. Because it doesn’t understand language. And so these two brains become at odds with each other, which in turn creates further “dysregulation” in our nervous system.

And how does EFT fit into the picture?

Research has shown that when people think about something that “triggers” them (such as a memory, a perception, a phrase, an image, etcetera), certain parts of their “survival brain” become activated, such as the amygdala that we mentioned earlier, which is part of the limbic system and the “survival brain”. The amygdala is like the “smoke detector” of our nervous system: anytime it detects something it considers threatening, it activates certain reactions in our bodies that put us in that fight or flight or freeze response. And basically, we no longer think, feel and act at our best. We are in “survival mode”. However, what the research shows is that when we stimulate those “acupoints” (such as by tapping on them) while focusing on something upsetting or distressing that has activated that threat response from our amygdala and limbic system, that threat response quickly becomes “deactivated”.

So instead of experiencing those unpleasant reactions, the amygdala and the rest of our body and nervous system no longer “overreact” and that “survival mode” conditioned response (such as “every time someone looks at me disapprovingly I begin to sweat and worry that there’s something wrong with me”) ceases to occur. We don’t experience that unpleasant physical and emotional reaction anymore.

The amygdala does not understand verbal cues, so verbally telling oneself: “Calm down” or “Relax” is ineffective in producing that effect. Tapping, then, is one of the “languages of the amygdala”, allowing an efficient communication to occur that helps the amygdala understand (in a language that it “hears”) that “I am safe” or “There’s no longer a threat here”. [Special thanks to my colleague Sheri Severson, LPC, NCC for coming up with this paragraph].

This allows us to move out from those dysregulated nervous system states of fight-flight (sympathetic nervous system activation) or freeze (dorsal vagal parasympathetic activation) and into the ventral vagal “social engagement system”. When we do this in response to any given trigger, memory or anticipated/imagined situation, we can now think about it in a more clear and empowering way. This is how “cognitive shifts” take place, which is when we suddenly begin to see things from a new more empowering and objective perspective once the unpleasant emotional intensity decreases enough. And it’s also how we can use EFT to change our limiting beliefs.

The more our nervous system can perceive that we are safe, the more resourceful we become, and we then get a wider “window of tolerance”. This means that we can deal with the different challenges and situations of life without getting dysregulated or suffering from unpleasant emotional or physiological reactions. 

Conclusion

To recap, EFT involves using our fingertips to tap on certain “acupoints” while focusing on something that evokes an unpleasant emotional reaction. After a few minutes that reaction tends to diminish or disappear altogether. According to its founder, Gary Craig, EFT works by addressing the underlying block or disruption in the person’s energy system that is causing that unpleasant emotional reaction. From a neuroscience perspective, the tapping is sending signals to the amygdala, which is part of our nervous system’s “survival brain”, to deactivate the “threat response” that it triggered in response to a stimulus that was perceived as unsafe. This allows us the nervous system to feel safe again, and to make the necessary physiological changes in our body so that we stop having that unpleasant reaction.

That’s it for today. I hope this article was helpful to you. My name is Bruno Sade, and I’m a certified EFT practitioner with a mental health background as a clinical psychologist licensed in Argentina. I use EFT as a tool to help people (who speak English or Spanish) change their emotional reactions.

And, I’d love to know: does this explanation/perspective make sense to you? I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments below.

Click on the link below to access part 2 of this article.

What is EFT and how does it work? Part 2: https://brunosade.com/2022/05/19/what-is-eft-and-how-does-it-work-part-2/

P.S.: Here are some useful links on this subject: