Energy Psychology and the Resolution of Trauma
Presented at the 5th International Congress for System Constellations, May 4, 2005 at Köln, Germany
I am excited to speak with you today at this 5th International Congress for System Constellations and I’m also most happy to meet Mr. Bert Hellinger here. Knowing that Mr. Hellinger will turn 80 on December 16th, I would like to wish him an early happy 80th birthday. Also I want to thank the chairman of the IAG, Mr. Heinrich Breuer, for inviting me to this wonderful event.
Although I shall discuss some history, theory and methods of energy psychology, first I want to talk about something of great importance to individuals, families and the whole world. Of course, I’m referring to traumatic events and trauma, which is far too prevalent on our planet.
While I usually begin talks with a joke or humorous metaphor, it is difficult to find anything hilarious or even slightly humorous about trauma. Trauma is the antithesis of humor and consists of distress and agony. However, I can say with authority that while they are related, the traumatic event, the memory and the trauma are distinct. After a trauma has been resolved, meaning the distress is removed, actually the trauma is gone and all that remains is a memory. While it would be surreal and demonic to look back on most traumatic events with a grin from ear-to-ear, to experience relief, serenity and a degree of interest about the event after the traumatic stress has been eliminated, is not uncommon. Also, for those of us who have gone through trauma, an experience like this can often lead to deeper understanding and positive transformation.
I am no stranger to trauma and I am sure that all of you are well acquainted with it. For me, trauma began at a young age. While I do not remember the proverbial birth trauma, I do recall many painful medical treatments and some well-deserved spankings. However, when I was eleven my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she died of lymphoma at forty-three; I was twelve. The cancer spread throughout her body. I watched as the mother that I loved and knew to be passionate and vibrant, wither away. She suffered immensely and I suffered with her. You see, in those days, cancer patients mostly remained at home with insufficient pain medication to the end, which meant intense pain. I saw and heard her suffering. My father confided in me that she was going to die a year before she did and he told me to keep it a secret. I recall the strong electrical charge—the bolt of lightening—surge through my body when he told me she was going to die.
Although she wasn’t supposed to know, I’m sure that she did. But she kept the secret too; we didn’t talk about it. As a child, I frequently cried myself to sleep and prayed that she would be cured or at least wouldn’t suffer so much. As a good Catholic boy, I even tried to relieve her pain by placing a holy scapular at various locations of her pain. She told me that it helped, but the pain traveled throughout her body. There was no keeping up with it. I felt dejected, helpless and hopeless, and I was convinced that my effort was not helping, even though in some ways it was. I believe that she found some solace in my attempts and even some pain relief. Of course, my three brothers and my sister were tormented by her death and dying also. Our father’s heartbreak was the greatest of all, although we couldn’t understand that at the time.
For me, my mother’s illness and death were both agonizing and numbing. And these traumas interfered with my relationships for some time. I had complex grief and I tried to cope by not thinking about it and sometimes by emotional reliving, but ultimately none of this helped. Really I don’t think it occurred to me that my grief could be eliminated by anything other than the passage of time. Yet time was not healing these wounds and I had to wait three decades for relief through other means. Amazingly, each resolution took only but a few minutes and in some ways it was instantaneous. During this talk, I intend to discuss how trauma sufferers can be helped quickly, and in the workshop that follows we shall go into greater detail about this approach that I call energy psychology.
PHYSICAL INJURY TRAUMA
Another significant trauma occurred when I was twenty-one. I just graduated from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh , Pennsylvania , where I majored in the three P’s: philosophy, psychology and parties. The day after graduation, I had an automobile accident that nearly claimed my life. It was early June 1968, and I was driving my red Volkswagen Bug to the university’s student union to meet friends when a car much larger than mine—I believe it was a Chevy—ripped off my driver’s door. It sent me flying through the air, in what seemed to be slow motion, into some wooden steps that my body broke, bounced over a banister, slid along a side walk and rolled over before I came to an abrupt stop. Immediately, I tried to get up, and at that moment I could feel that I was bleeding inside. I rolled over and looked up at the sky, terrified that I was going to die. I shouted, “No! I’m not going to die! I refuse! I’m not ready.” I believe that affirmation and determination was a key to my survival.
I had many injuries, including a ruptured spleen. I underwent surgery, received 6 pints of blood (that’s 2.84 liters), and my life hung in the balance for several days. I was in the Intensive Care Unit for the first four days and in the hospital for ten days altogether. Over the next two months, I recovered at home. During that time, I also had surgery for thyroid cancer. Even though my physical condition improved quickly after the surgeries, I continued to experience psychological trauma for many years: fear when I was driving, anxiety, flashbacks and frequent episodes of panic with the feeling that I was going to die. [Do you get a sense that family loyalty might have been involved?]
I resolved that trauma over a period of time by learning to relax my hold on the steering wheel while driving and by riding out a severe panic attack one evening about ten years after the accident. Back then, I had many panic attacks and I became especially disgusted with this one, since it continued for over two hours. For some highly rational and defiant reason, I tried to intensify it. I closed my eyes and tried to go into the panic—into the abyss so to speak. With defiance, I spoke to the panic, “Come on and get me!”
The curious result was the opposite; the panic instantly vanished. I had come face-to-face with my fear, stared it straight in the eye, did not waver, and the panic fled. I think I might have scared it away. About a week later, another panic attack started and again I tried to go into it. And again, it disappeared. I searched for any inkling of it in my body, but it was gone. I’m pretty sure that I scared that one away too. The satisfaction I felt about this serendipitous discovery! From then on, I no longer lived in dread of panic. If a twinge of anxiety occurred, I faced it, observed it, and it would vanish. I also knew that I could not use this approach to outwit panic, since the panic would surely know. I had to truly want to immerse myself in it, no matter what. I had to be for real. With this, my confidence grew and I came to understand the sources of my panic. Partly it was about a blind spot in my consciousness—something that I concluded while I was flying out of my car in June 1968. I had forgotten this. As I hit the sidewalk, I had the rather detached thought, “Am I going to die now or after I stop sliding?” It was not a matter of IF I was going to die; dying was assumed. It was just a matter of how soon. When I stopped sliding along the sidewalk, my demise was inevitable at any moment. The panic always carried with it the sense that I was going to die now and I had to fight to stay alive. While it was good to decide not to die at the time of the accident, somehow I took this out of context. In a sense the accident and dying were ever present, or nearly so. Traumatic stress is created the moment we say “no” to the present moment and the flow of life energy is blocked. The ancient Chinese called it stagnant chi. Eventually I understood that panic—that strong electrical charge—was also connected to my mother’s death and dying. [Again, do you get a sense that family loyalty might have been involved?] To some, resolution of a trauma can be a long drawn out process, but when an effective method is applied, very little time is needed. We shall discuss more about effective methods, but first some reflections on the phenomenon of trauma.
WHAT IS TRAUMA?
Trauma is so prevalent that we might revise Buddha’s dictum about life being suffering and say that life is suffering because of trauma. Trauma, however, is not only about awful events, but about the attachment in the aftermath of the events. It is attachment at many levels that accounts for trauma.
While there is a conscious attachment to the memory and its meaning, trauma is also an unconscious attachment so that what fuels trauma is not so much what we remember as what we have misplaced in consciousness. In this view, trauma is about being blind to information and not coming to terms with it. Another way of understanding “coming to terms with” is to thoroughly process the event—recover the lost information and understand it from a wider perspective, a higher level of consciousness about it. Given this understanding, one approach involves an archeological expedition to uncover the lost data so that the unfinished business can be finished. As powerful as such an approach may be, many become people traumatized during the attempt to uncover and review. So trauma can build on trauma. This emotional upset has been described as abreaction in some circles, which is distinct from the original term. However, I have come to learn that reprocessing is not always sufficient and not always necessary if we address the fundamental cause of trauma. While reprocessing can often lead us to the fundamental cause, going directly to the fundamental cause is frequently more efficient. Nonetheless, there is value in many methods and as a psychologist who also practices couples therapy; I would recommend a wedding rather than a divorce.
CHARACTERISTICS OF TRAUMA
Surely, memory is involved with trauma, although it is implicate rather than explicate memory that matters most. There are many aspects to consider when we examine trauma. Let’s take a brief excursion.
Trauma has many highly visible features. We can paint its landscape with a fine brush or a broad one. With a fine brush, we can talk about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), dissociative disorders and many other diagnoses described in ICD-10 and DSM IV. PTSD is trauma in its most obvious form. There’s the traumatic event, the fear, and the helplessness. The event, itself, is bad enough; although the aftermath, what we rightly call traumatic stress, is what torments. That torment includes any number of symptoms such as intrusive recollections, distressing dreams, flashbacks, avoidance, emotional numbing, splitting, and much more.
These are the conditions and the symptoms of obvious trauma and it can be singular or complex. However, when we use a broad brush, there are less obvious traumas that can have a major impact. Most psychological, societal and even physical problems are rooted in trauma. Also, the individual’s resources and perception are essential to the impact of the event. Some obvious traumatic events are tolerated well by some people and other seemingly inconsequential events are highly damaging to others.
THEORIES AND TREATMENT OF TRAUMA
There are many theories about trauma, each looking at a different slice. To the cognitive therapist, trauma is attachment to distressing memories and thoughts. The goal is to reframe one’s thoughts in a more rational direction or at least to become aware of one’s ability to dismiss thought. Consistent with this is the knowledge that you are the thinker.
To the behaviorist, trauma is conditioning attachment and extinction is the goal. Treatments have involved exposure, either flooding or gradual exposure. Frequently, this process itself can be traumatizing if the therapist or client is uncomfortable with strong emotion.
This brings us to the systemic aspects of trauma and treatment. Trauma is often intertwined with relationships that cause, perpetuate or enable the person to remain a trauma victim. The solution becomes one of shifting the relationship in a healthy direction, away from an unhealthy attachment or entanglement. Of course, the therapist’s interaction with the client is imperative also.
The neuroscientist sees trauma as attachment involving sympathetic nervous system activation, including hypervigilance of the amygdala in the limbic system. And there is also the disabling of the hippocampus, the brain structure implicated in our knowing that an event is past. Thus, trauma becomes ever present, not completed in time. The goal is to calm the amygdala and allow the hippocampus to record the event as finished.
To the chemist, trauma is chemical attachment and traumatic stress correlates with elevated levels of cortisol, glutamate, adrenalin; lower levels of GABA and serotonin. The goal is chemical balance, maybe via medication.
To the body worker, trauma may be attached to the muscles, and the goal becomes one of awareness and release through massage and movement.
Trauma is also an ego attachment that interferes with one’s spiritual connection and true Self.
The shaman says that the soul leaves the body during a traumatic event and soul retrieval is needed. The shaman reportedly travels to under or upper worlds to escort the soul back to the body.
ENERGY AND BIOENERGY
And consistent with all of this, trauma it is an energetic attachment—an energetic block or imbalance, a disturbed and perturbed vibration of energy, a resonating energy field that goes on and on within the traumatized person and resonated outward to others.
If we consider Albert Einstein’s formula E=mc², we find that matter and energy are interconvertible—that matter is fundamentally frozen energy. Quantum physics has suggested that energy and consciousness are interrelated and that energy behaves in ways that are consistent with choice. Also, taking measurements of subatomic particles—observing them that is—affects what we can measure, such that subject and object cease to be valid distinctions. Several experimental tests of Bell ’s Theorem have compellingly demonstrated that related photons traveling away from each other are able to communicate in an instant, regardless of distance. They remain non-locally connected. Since photons travel at great speed, this finding is astronomical. It has been estimated that two related photons could be separated by half the distance of the universe, and still communication would be instantaneous. Connection and communication exceed the limits imposed by speed, distance and time. While the cosmos is local, it is also imbued with a heavy dose of nonlocality. Since everything was compressed into the cosmic fireball big bang, everything remains connected.
Matter and energy are not so different; they are only different forms of the same reality. Thus, the unconscious, conscious cognitions, chemistry, brain, muscles, etc. are energy in distinct forms. Superstring theory holds that even quarks, the fundamental particles that constitute electrons and protons, are really vibrating strings of energy. And I believe that consciousness and spirit are intimately involved with energy.
Of course, even our bodies are composed of vibrating little strings of energy. Fritz-Albert Popp found that cells emit photons and that there is a difference between the frequencies of healthy and unhealthy cells. Perhaps this is the biological equivalent of a fiber optic communication network carrying subtle energies and information throughout our cells and outward to others. Will humans eventually learn to communicate great distances without having to pay Internet servers and telephone companies? And what will be the economic implications?
Once an energetic configuration or field is established, it has a proclivity to replicate itself. This is essentially about memory and form. In this respect, Carl Jung discussed archetypes, which are informational and influential fields not limited by space and time. In similar and distinct ways, Rupert Sheldrake discusses formative causation, morphic resonance and morphogenetic fields, this accounting for the forms of the inanimate, animate and even behavior. In the 1970’s, Harold Saxon Burr discussed Life fields (L-Fields), which he detected around rocks, trees, salamanders and humans. Life fields account for form. And this is perhaps why our bodies maintain their forms even though all of the atoms are recycled every four to seven years. It is suggested here that what holds the material body together is an energy field. Of course, as the years go on gravity does take its toll.
These findings have a 7,000-year history that goes back to India, where it was believed or discovered that the body has a life force, prana, and this energy is evident in chakras and auras. Five thousand years ago in China , a meridians system of chi (equivalent to prana) was described and acupuncture was developed as a way of regulating chi and thus health. Incidentally, chi can be translated as energy, influence, power, mind and spirit. Also in the 1970’s, research by Robert O. Becker and Maria Reichmanis revealed a lower electrical resistance at many acupoints, suggesting that meridians and acupoints are electrical. And in the 1980’s, researchers Pierre de Vernejoul and Jacques Darras injected radioactive technetium in specific kidney meridian acupoints on 330 patients and observed how the isotopes traveled the meridian. This and other research offers support for a bodily energy system that has electromagnetic qualities, including light, sound and subtle electrical current. Concerning the value of such a finding, the world’s largest study on acupuncture (GerAc), which is being conducted here in Germany, found that acupuncture at acupoints and acupoint locations was superior to standard medical treatment for certain pain conditions.
Trauma involves traumatic events, perception, neurology, chemistry, information, energy, consciousness, and spirit. If the structure of the trauma energy field can be substantially altered or collapsed, the trauma can be eliminated. And this appears to be exactly what we do when applying energy psychology.
Energy psychology’s more recent history dates back to the early 1960s, when Dr. George Goodheart, a chiropractor from Detroit , Michigan founded applied kinesiology. This approach employs manual muscle testing and holistic concepts to address physical problems. Goodheart pioneered therapy loca liz ation, which involves touching specific bodily locations (reflexes and such) while applying manual muscle testing. To the satisfaction of him and his patients, this approach provides the needed information to correct some otherwise intractable problems. Goodheart has explored a variety of therapeutic options including spinal and cranial adjustments, encouraging lymphatic flow, nutrition, herbs, homeopathy, flower essences, stimulating acupoints, and more.
Following Goodheart, others explored applied kinesiology to treat psychological problems. Goodheart discovered a connection among specific muscles, reflexes, and meridians; while, psychiatrist John Diamond and others found correlations with emotions. Along these lines psychologist Roger J. Callahan developed a treatment method, which involves attuning psychological problems such as phobias and traumas and then physically tapping on specific acupoints. Besides many psychotherapeutic approaches, I had the opportunity to study the work of Goodheart, John Thie (founder of Touch for Health), Callahan, Diamond, and others. Like many of you, I explored many approaches to find better ways to help myself and others. In time I developed an integrative energy psychology approach, which I call energy diagnostic and treatment methods (EDxTM).
When I first encountered energetic approaches, I was skeptical. The idea of treating a psychological problem by tapping on the body was foreign to me. Of course, I knew about Reichian therapy and Rolfing, since one of my graduate professors used to undergo Rolfing sessions regularly and return to class after the weekend black and blue, rather beaten up. At the time that seemed odd to me. Also, I heard about a group therapy approach in the early 1970’s, which involved tickling group members who were not being honest. That seemed hilariously odd to me too. Also I knew about acupuncture, but I thought that was only relevant to physical problems.
Nonetheless, I decided to give it a try. I used to have fear of heights and I eliminated this problem within a few minutes. The same applied to trauma. All I had to do was physically tap on specific acupoints while recalling the memory or being in a situation that caused emotional distress. Of course, at first I thought this was simply distraction. However, when the fear of heights did not return and when the memories forever ceased to be distressing, the distraction theory was immediately disqualified. A better explanation was needed, and we’ve touched on that somewhat already.
The essential features involve attuning the problem—thinking about it—and then stimulating the body in specific ways, such as by tapping on acupoints. Although I overcame panic by staying present, observing the panic and trying to intensify it, for some odd reason most of my clients were unable or reluctant to do that. But tapping somehow makes it easier and clients usually report that they feel calm and relaxed. Yet the results are not limited to relaxation; there is also a shift in understanding and consciousness. After treating trauma in this way, people often shift out of ego attachment and became more philosophical and spiritual about what happened to them. “It doesn’t bother me any more. Oh, it’s just something that happened. I don’t know why it bothered me for so long. I feel more relaxed now, more at peace. The anger and resentment are gone.” These are the comments we hear regularly from people who were previously tormented by trauma.
ENERGY PSYCHOLOGY TREATMENT FOR TRAUMA
We have treated thousands of trauma suffers successfully with energy psychology. Let me tell you briefly about one patient that I treated in this way. Amanda, a 19-year-old female university student, was referred to me because of PTSD after an automobile accident in 1999. The driver in the other car crossed over the medial strip and struck her vehicle head-on, killing both of his passengers and himself. Amanda was pinned under the dashboard for several hours while a rescue team struggled to cut her out of the crushed car. She had multiple injuries and was in the hospital and then a rehabilitation center for several months. I saw her a year after the accident. She was having frequent nightmares, flashbacks, panic, anxiety, guilt feelings and she was also abusing alcohol.
Initially, we focused on her memory of being pinned under the dashboard. After she thought about it and rated the distress as a 9 on a 0-10 scale, I asked her to dismiss the memory from mind while following the Negative Affect Erasing Method (NAEM), a technique I developed many years ago. NAEM involves physically tapping on four points on the head and chest (related to acupoints and chakras): third eye point, under nose, under bottom lip, and on the upper chest. After about five rounds of tapping, she was able to vividly recall the event without distress. Several times throughout the treatment she laughed and asked me, “How does that work?” Follow-up sessions at one week, two weeks and two months revealed that after the initial session, distress about the event, nightmares and flashbacks no longer occurred.
During the course of treatment, other aspects of the trauma were treated, including feelings of guilt about the people who died. That distress was also resolved in one session by using NAEM and a couple related treatments.
Later in therapy, she reported that a relative molested her from age five to twelve . Using a more specifically focused treatment that includes manual muscle testing, we were able to determine which meridians were involved in order to efficiently eliminate this abuse trauma. After we treated upset connected to various memories, she reported a lingering feeling of worthlessness, including a “dirty and disgusting” feeling in the lower abdomen. We were able to eliminate this sensation and her belief about not being worthwhile as well. A follow-up, several months’ later revealed ongoing relief on all aspects treated. A couple months ago, I contacted her in regards to this talk and she told me to tell you all ‘hello.’ I’m happy to report that she is doing quite well.
Extensive clinical experience and experimental studies have convinced me and others that energy psychology works. The current research is covered in my 2005 edition of Energy Psychology and at my home page www.energypsych.com.
A 5-year preliminary clinical trial in Uruguay , South America compared energy psychology and cognitive-behavioral therapy plus medication (standard care) with 5,000 patients having various clinical problems. With energy psychology there was a 90% positive clinical response and a 76% complete remission of symptoms. With standard care there was a 63% positive clinical response and a 51% complete remission of symptoms. Furthermore, the average number of sessions with energy psychology was 3; with standard care it was 15.
How can we account for the therapeutic results of stimulating acupoints while attuning a psychological problem, such as trauma? What does the tapping really do?
There are many possible explanations. Placebo effectis one suggested mechanism. However, since acupoint stimulation produces highly consistent results, it would seem that placebo has little to do with it. Around 30 percent of people show improvement after given placebos and the results with energy tapping are significantly higher than that.
Another explanation is that tapping simply distracts the patient. While it is difficult to maintain complete focus on the problem while tapping, this explanation is insufficient since relief continues after the treatment has been completed.
Cognitive restructuring is also an explanation, since changes in thought and perception regularly occur with these treatments. However, it seems that the cognitive shifts occur after the negative emotion has been relieved. While a positive shift in cognition can serve to support healthy psychological functioning, energetic treatments do not directly address cognition as the lever for change.
Since acupoints are used in energy psychology, possibly neurotransmitters and endorphins play a role in the treatment effects, similar to what has been proposed with acupuncture. While it is likely that acupoint stimulation activates the central nervous system to release neurotransmitters and endorphins, this does not preclude the involvement of energetic effects. There appears to be a signaling mechanism associated with the acupuncture meridians that figures into such action.
My preferred explanation is that many aspects are involved in this treatment. While the brain, neurochemistry, unconscious and cognition are implicated in trauma and other psychological problems, these conditions are also energetic. After all, everything in our physical reality is fundamentally energy.
Trauma is energetic information, similar to the electromagnetic information adhering to audiotapes and computer hard drives. I imagine a traumatic event is like throwing stones into a pond and a trauma being the resultant splashing and ripples. Of course ponds are highly proficient at getting over trauma quickly, while humans are proficient at capturing and maintaining trauma. It is as if we are ponds that freeze at the moment of impact and the informational ripples become frozen in time. Our nervous system, cells, and energy system capture and store the trauma information. Since nature constructs complex structures from simple fractals, at the most basic level trauma, like everything else, is a field. By disrupting the field, the system smoothes out and then leaps to a higher order.
This informational field is also called a thought field and it is a physical reality. It is composed of subtle energetic markers or perturbations that are the basic cause of negative emotions. Perturbations are similar to what theoretical physicist David Bohm called active information. When the trauma thought field is attuned, these perturbations are available for treatment. Simultaneously, all of the aspects involved in trauma are activated. This includes brain structures, neurochemistry, unconscious, cognition, behaviors, energy, etc. Through energy psychology it is possible to elicit the thought field, analyze its structure, and collapse the perturbations.
Thought fields, similar to other systems, are maintained within a range of energy balance—too much or too little energy causes a loss of order. A loss of order is a loss of information. Physically tapping on acupoints disrupts the system by overloading the adhesive energetic field. The system looses its order and collapses. The pond with its informational ripples begins to thaw. The traumatic event can now be viewed calmly and the calmness is incorporated into one’s life. The memory is the same; the emotional experience and meaning has changed. You view the event from a higher perspective, with neutrality or deeper positive feelings. Mindfulness prevails. The shaman declares that the soul has returned home.
Thank you for the opportunity of speaking with you today, and especially for your listening. I hope that you will find energy psychology a welcomed addition to what you already know and do. And I look forward to offering many of you additional practical information in the 3-hour workshop that follows.