Psychologist Roger Callahan tells a fascinating anecdote about a patient he calls Mary. Around 1980, they were working together on her intense, life-long phobia of water. He’d been working with her for about a year and had tried every conventional therapy he could think of. She’d gotten a little better, but not much. One day, as they were working in sight of a swimming pool, she complained of nausea and upset stomach. Callahan had been studying Chinese medicine and had learned that one of the end points of the stomach meridian is at the bone just underneath each eye. With some desperation, he suggested she tap on these points to see if that would quiet the stomach upset. After about two minutes, she exclaimed that it was gone. It turned out that she meant not only the stomach upset but the entire phobia as well. She was immediately able to dabble her hands in the pool and splash water on her face with no difficulty. Later that night, she went to the beach and waded out waist-deep into the ocean. Even more astonishing, as of the writing of Callahan’s book in 2000, her phobia had never returned.

The Field of Energy Psychology

That incident marked the beginning of the modern field of energy psychology. Energy psychology is closely allied to the concepts of mind-body medicine. The mind-body approach has become increasingly popular in recent years, but for centuries before that, traditional Western medicine preferred to act as if the mind and the body were completely separate entities and could successfully be treated without reference to each other. “Physical” ailments were the province of internists, surgeons, and other medical specialists, while “mental” illnesses were treated by psychiatrists, psychologists and psychotherapists.

If you stop to think about it, though, you’ll see how absurd this distinction is. We’re all aware of ways in which our mental and emotional processes affect our physical being. The fact is that every mental event (thought, feeling, perception, etc.) that you experience is registered in the form of physical (biochemical and electrical) changes in your brain. These changes in the brain in turn may trigger a whole sequence of changes in the rest of the body. For example, most people have at one time or another experienced the distinctive feeling of an adrenaline “rush” after being suddenly frightened. Anxiety may bring on the sensation of “butterflies” in the stomach. Sadness can cause tears and a lump in the throat. All of these are simple examples of mental/emotional events having physical consequences.

Another example of this sort of thing is biofeedback. No one knows exactly how biofeedback works, but it’s clear that it does. An average person with no special expertise can sit down in front of a machine and, with the help of the feedback it provides, can learn to use mental imagery to lower his heart rate or blood pressure—processes that were once thought to be completely outside the range of conscious control.

The interaction between mental and physical changes happens the other way around as well. Many women experience “the blues” on the first day of their menstrual cycle. It’s not that there’s anything more wrong that day than there was the day before—it’s purely the result of the change in hormone levels. Conversely, we know that when people take medication to increase the level of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, they often feel less depressed, even before they make any changes to their behavior or their circumstances. Psychiatrist Peter Kramer stirred up quite a controversy in his book Listening to Prozac when he noted that some people undergo a significant personality change while on this kind of medication, becoming more self-confident, outgoing and assertive. Many illegal drugs, and legal substances used inappropriately, cause euphoria. Excessive alcohol consumption affects the centers in the brain that have to do with good judgment and behavioral control, so that people do and say things that they otherwise wouldn’t. These are all examples of physical factors that create changes in people’s mental and emotional experience.

Mind-body medicine is exploring ways in which mental/emotional interventions can foster physical health and vice versa. We’re learning more and more ways in which we can intervene from either direction to increase a person’s overall health.

Energy psychology adds a third element to the mind-body paradigm: the energy field. It’s been known for a long time by conventional science that every living being has a measurable energy field around it. Just as our physical being and our emotional being are intertwined and constantly interacting with each other, energy psychology suggests that our energy field is intertwined and interacting with our physical/emotional self. So, just as traditional medicine is learning that it’s possible to affect the physical level by treating the emotional level and vice versa, energy therapies seek to alleviate problems at the physical and emotional levels by effecting changes in the energy field.

Types of Energy Psychology Approaches

Based on what Callahan had learned from Chinese medicine and had observed from Mary, he went on to develop a method he called Thought Field Therapy, or TFT. Since then, many other techniques and therapies have been developed that also fall under the heading of energy psychology. There are three basic types of approaches in this new field: those that primarily use the meridians, those that focus on the chakras, and those that treat the biofield as a whole.

Callahan’s TFT is an example of a meridian-based method. Another example of a meridian-based method is Gary Craig’s Emotional Freedom Techniques, or EFT. There is also a variation on EFT called Choices, which was developed by psychologist Patricia Carrington. What makes the Choices method different from some of the others in this category is that it not only seeks to clear a negative emotion or belief but to instill a healthy, positive alternative, all within the same procedure.

Advanced Integrative Therapy is an example of a chakra-based method. Developed by psychotherapist Asha Clinton, AIT integrates transpersonal, body-centered and psychodynamic perspectives. It’s used to treat traumatic experiences and their aftereffects, including negative feelings and beliefs, destructive desires and fantasies, obsessions, compulsions, and physical symptoms. And because people often experience repeated traumas that share a common theme—such as abandonment, humiliation or betrayal—AIT is designed to treat not only individual traumas, but whole traumatic patterns or themes.

One example of a biofield method is Reiki, developed by Mikao Usui. Reiki practitioners are thought to channel healing energy to wherever the patient needs it by putting their hands on or near the patient’s body. Other methods in this category include Therapeutic Touch and Healing Touch. These two methods are most widely known among nurses and other health professionals, especially in hospital settings, where they’ve often been used to relieve pain and anxiety, to increase relaxation, and to promote healing.

The Promise of Energy Psychology

Modern methods of energy psychology have been used by thousands of practitioners with tens of thousands of clients and patients over the past 30 years. There’s a massive amount of clinical data at this point indicating that—in the hands of well-trained, ethical therapists—these methods are safe and often amazingly effective. Callahan was laughed at—and worse—for what he called his “five minute phobia cure,” but it really is possible in many cases to reduce or eliminate a simple phobia in as little as 20 or 30 minutes.

Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is currently considered the gold standard in psychotherapy. I practiced CBT for many years—and still do. Energy psychology doesn’t replace traditional therapy but adds another whole dimension to it. In my experience, CBT by itself has a major fallacy: the idea that if a person learns to identify and correct his “thinking errors,” his negative emotions will be corrected as well. What CBT really seems to do is to teach the person how to manage his negative thoughts and feelings so that they don’t control his every waking moment. That’s an improvement, but it’s not a cure. Psychologists are taught never to talk in terms of cures.

Merely talking about a trauma rarely changes or heals it. When we talk about a painful event, it’s as if we rip ourselves open and spread our guts out on the table. Then, if there’s no healing or transformation that follows, we wind up stuffing it all back in. But now, we not only still have the original trauma, we also have a secondary layer of retraumatization. The more times we try to open the memory, the more layers of trauma we may develop around it. In fact, I think that much of patients’ resistance to opening up in psychotherapy often comes from just this kind of experience, and we’ve all felt it at one time or another.

Energy psychology methods, when added to more traditional approaches, can be used effectively to treat both feelings and beliefs arising from past or present events. Experientially, when a painful memory is “cleared,” what it feels like is that the emotional charge is completely removed. The person can still remember what happened, but the event has no more hurt or fear or anger connected with it. Furthermore, as Callahan‘s example of Mary demonstrates, our experience over the past 35 years is that, once a memory is cleared of its emotional charge using energy psychology methods, it stays cleared.

At least some clearing can be obtained by using the traditional method of systematic desensitization. However, processing memories with our older, conventional tools can be a very long and tedious business. In my experience, energy methods are almost always considerably faster. Using desensitization to clear even a single-incident trauma, such as a car accident, could take as many as six to ten sessions to thoroughly clear all of the elements of the event. With energy methods, it may be possible to clear a single-incident trauma in as little as one or two sessions. I’ve also found energy methods to have a much lower chance of flooding—i.e., triggering the whole memory to come flooding back in all at once and at full intensity—and retraumatization.

There is a growing research base demonstrating the effectiveness and safety of these techniques. There have been over 80 studies published to date in peer-reviewed journals, 98% of which showed significant positive results. Of those studies, 43 were randomized controlled trials (RCTs), the gold standard of research. TFT is now listed as an evidence-based method for treating trauma.
With the continuing development of these new tools, and in the hands of careful and competent practitioners, the future of trauma treatment looks promising indeed.

Author's Bio: 

Lynn Karjala, Ph.D., DCEP, is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Roswell, Georgia, USA. In addition to her general practice, she specializes in the treatment of trauma, including dissociative identity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. Her approach to treatment interweaves the best of both traditional and innovative techniques, including energy psychology. She is the director of the certification program in Comprehensive Energy Psychology for the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology, as well as a national trainer and consultant for that program. She is also trained in hypnosis, EFT, TAT, and Advanced Integrative Therapy. Before going into clinical practice, she was a tenured faculty member at a university in Missouri, where she taught graduate and undergraduate courses on child, adolescent, and life-span development and the psychology of death and dying.