When I was deep in the trenches of bulimia and anxiety, my mother begged me to try tapping.
While “tapping” may draw up images of Gregory Hines for some people, I knew that it was another name for Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). I knew that it involved tapping on your face and saying things like “I completely love and accept myself”. I knew it helped veterans recover from PTSD. I knew these things because my mom is an EFT practitioner. I also knew there was no way in hell I was doing it.
Despite being in the trenches, I wasn’t willing to do this hippie dippy weirdo shit. I’d rather stew in my own self loathing and desperation than try something as silly as this.
But eventually my mom wore me down. Or maybe my own issues wore me down and I dropped my guard a bit. She referred me out to a colleague and I went to see her, skeptical at best.
I was in her office for a couple of hours. The tears flowed, as did the words. My hands danced across my face while saying things out loud that I’d never said to anyone before. Things that I didn’t even know were in me until they came out of my mouth.
When I left, my anxiety was gone and I felt a sense of peace that I hadn't experienced in a long time. I didn’t understand it, but I didn’t have to. I just knew it worked and I was glad I had given it a shot.
Fast forward 10 years. I’m a yogi and I love the hippie dippy weirdo shit. I am also a nutritionist with my education steeped in science - I need to understand the whys behind things. So I became a functional nutrition student to learn how science backs up the woo woo. The bridge between the two is my most favorite thing of all.
Today I’m going to attempt to explain EFT - or tapping - from a couple different angles. I can’t pretend to understand all the physiology behind how EFT works (this article does a great job), but I can explain certain aspects that pertain to my life & my health, and why I feel it can be an integral part of any type of healing.
The Woo Woo: Feel the Feelings
I went to a therapist for mild depression when I was 16. When she asked how I felt about certain things, the best I could give her was “good” or “bad”. She told me we wouldn’t be able to work together unless I could give her more, but I truly wasn’t able to articulate my feelings beyond those two words.
Now, 17 years later, I can recognize my feelings. And I feel compelled to speak about them. All of them. Even the big and heavy and scary ones. Yet I’m still wrong.
I learned quickly after becoming a mom that when asked about new motherhood, it’s best to respond with “I just love it, it’s so wonderful. I love my baby. I am complete now. SOOO HAPPY.” The dark, weedy, gritty truth disarms people. They avert their eyes and break conversation.
People don’t really want to be exposed to raw emotion, they don’t know what to do with it. It’s foreign to them since they’re not allowed to experience it for themselves. Turns out my closed-off 16 year old self was better suited to society’s standards of emotion. We’re allowed - and expected - to feel the good feelings, but not the icky ones.
When a baby cries, we do everything to hush it.
When a child cries, we tell them to stop.
When a woman cries, we hide it.
When a man cries, well…boys don’t cry.
You know what’s worse than feeling a crummy emotion? Feeling like you’re doing something wrong by experiencing that emotion. So we turn it off and desensitize and eat or drink or snort or screw or shop it away.
We run away from the discomfort, when instead we should be running right toward it. The only way through an emotion is through it. The healing doesn’t come from avoidance and detachment. We can’t ignore painful feelings, experiences and memories if we want to change and grow.
EFT pushes you right into the pain, it forces you to acknowledge the feelings.
(The yoga does this, too.)
Google images of “meditation” or “yoga”. What comes up? Peaceful, blissful, calm, serene photos.
Lies, I say! Lies!
My meditation and yoga is fucking chaotic. There’s often anger and tears and rage and snot. This is the time when ALL THE FEELINGS bubble up to the surface. This is the place where I allow them to. I welcome them, because this is the way out.
Just like yoga, EFT can be kind of a shitshow. Expect that and embrace it. Trust that the calm will come.
Here’s what’s different and great about EFT:
You have someone guiding you through what you’re feeling.
As trapped emotions/experiences/memories/trauma come up - especially for the first time - it can be terrifying and confusing. It’s not comfortable. You might feel bad or wrong for having these feelings.
(Psssst: You might cry during EFT. Did you know you can release catecholamines - stress hormones - through your tears? LET THOSE TEARS FLOW, LET THAT SHIT GO. #science)
The Science: Stress is Real.
In my nutrition practice and Fueled+Fit program, I talk a lot about stress. Stress impacts the nutrients you receive from food, stress can turn genes on and off, stress can determine whether your body experiences vitality or disease.
In my opinion, stress mitigation is the MOST important thing we can do for ourselves. Yet it’s the one most overlooked. Ours is a Do More - Go Harder - Keep Up culture and we wear stress and busyness like a badge of honor. We tell ourselves that one day we’ll “work on our stress” but it always takes a backseat to all the other things on our to-do list…because deep down we feel like we should be able to handle the stress.
Your body disagrees. Sorry, but it’s physiology. To quote Method Man’s character in the 1998 movie Belly:
What’s the science, baby?
The autonomic nervous system is divided into two branches: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system is our fight-or-flight mode. When the amygdala in our brain registers stress, it triggers a hormonal cascade that prioritizes immediate survival. Normal daily physiological functions take a back seat so your body can work to keep you alive. This is obviously incredibly important for real threats (like if you had to fight off a bear), but not so great for perceived threats.
…And perceived threats are everywhere in modern life: traffic, social media, work emails, jam-packed schedules, lack of sunlight, chronic dieting, processed foods, physical trauma, emotional trauma, keeping up with the Joneses, lack of movement, overtraining, toxic chemical exposure, lack of rest. These are all things our brains - and bodies - sense as stressors.
When it comes to stress, perception is reality. So an email from your disgruntled boss triggers the same response that being chased by a bear would. Your body knows no difference.
Modern life imbalances keep us stuck in overdrive.
With sympathetic nervous system hyper-activation (overdrive), we can experience fatigue, anxiety, depression, brain fog, inability to focus, GI distress and immune issues. Chronic stress activation leads to chronic inflammation which is a precursor to all disease.
So what’s a modern gal or guy to do? Fortunately, we can learn to manipulate our relaxation response. One way to do this is to stimulate our vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the largest nerve in the body that runs from the brain to the abdomen, and is the major channel of the parasympathetic nervous system. Our parasympathetic nervous system is that other branch I mentioned - it’s also called “rest-and-digest” mode and it’s where we restore ourselves. It’s where we should be the majority of the time.
When the vagus nerve is activated and parasympathetic mode is turned on, it promotes relaxation, slows the heart rate, calms the body, reduces anxiety, lowers inflammation and improves concentration.
How do we stimulate the vagus nerve? Yoga. Meditation. EFT. Just sayin’.
Woo Woo and Science Collide:
When the music hits, you feel no pain.
As mentioned earlier, when science backs up hippie dippy, I get giddy. To me, there’s nothing cooler. I’ve seen this time and again in my life and my practice, but the most recent - and most profound - experience was when I learned about pain science.
Our pain receptors reside in our brain. That means it’s up to our brain to tell our bodies we’re in pain. In those with chronic pain, we may feel pain even when there is no acute injury, even after tissues have healed. We’re often told by doctors that nothing is wrong…and we’re left feeling a little cray cray.
The pain is not “all in your head” - but it does start there. Because neurons that fire together, wire together. (Say what?)
Our brain cells communicate with one another in a process called neuron firing. The more they communicate - or fire - the stronger and faster their connection and transmission grows. With enough repetition, they become automatic - they are wired together. This is known as a conditioned response.
When I got sick with an autoimmune disease, it was a super stressful time. I had a one year old, I wasn’t sleeping, I couldn’t work much, I was terrified for my health, and on top of all that, I was in pain. Slowly over time, and without realizing it, I began to associate stress with pain. Even though there was no acute injury, anytime I was under stress, I would then start to experience joint pain.
It wasn’t until my physical therapist explained pain science to me that I was able to understand this. I had to break my pain associations, I had to rewire my neural pathways. Since my thoughts controlled a physical manifestation in my body, I literally had to think my way out of pain.
Not in pain? No matter. The same principles apply to thoughts.
The more we think a thought, the more embedded it becomes in the neural networks of the brain. Negative thoughts often loop, playing over and over in your head. Thoughts that lead to anxiety, depression, obsessions and compulsions are challenging to combat unless we break the loop.
(Sometimes these overlap: thoughts, memories and experience can stir up emotional AND physical reactions in the body. Chronic pain is common in people with emotional abuse or post traumatic stress.)
We must consciously choose to do something to stop the thoughts, to break the loop and counter the response. EFT can help by offering your brain another option, literally another neural pathway to rewire the brain.
Commit to your health, commit to your self.
Emotional health and physical health are intimately connected. If you’re under a lot of stress, if you’re in pain, if you’re having a hard time sticking with goals, if you’ve been through trauma, if you’re struggling with addiction (food or otherwise)…I highly suggest checking out EFT.