EFT and The Power of Belief

Though I grew up in a culturally Jewish household I don’t think that we ever went to a Synagogue while I was growing up, except for a single Bar Mitzvah.  We didn’t really discuss much about the ins and outs of religious holidays or rituals, but we did have the big book of Jewish Humor and the Woody Allen collection of short novels, and my dad cursed in yiddish sometimes.   In college,without intending to, I ended up majoring in Religious Studies because I was interested in the ideas, impulses, and cultural history that connect different religions. My studies didn’t make me an expert, but they did give me a foundation for thinking both critically and openly about the connection between science and religion. Most importantly, I came to understand that there are many things we will never fully understand, and further, that when we think we’ve understood them completely, we’re usually wrong.

Ronald Reagan famously said, “Trust but verify”.  It’s a good idea in principle, but sometimes we also need to trust our intuition, and find ways to believe in things that we can’t “prove” because they are simply too complex to fully understand.  I recently saw a tweet by Deepak Chopra that said, “As long as there is no scientific proof for the biological basis of consciousness militant atheism seems an irrational position”.  This struck a chord with me.  The skepticism behind atheism is understandable, but any kind of militant, or orthodox belief makes me suspect.  As such, I have the same problem with militant Sciencism as I do with radical Islamism.  The burst of belief and connectivity that form the core of powerful ideas often gets imprisoned by structures of rules and orthodoxy that grow up around them, obscuring their fluid nature.

When people are extremely aligned with a set of beliefs they look at everything through the superstructure of that system.  Ideas that exist outside of these realms are subject to extreme skepticism even if their central ideas make clear common sense.  Dr. Sarno’s simple realization that the repression of emotions had more to do with his patient’s pain than the structural “abnormalities” that they were being attributed to was powerfully rejected by almost all of his colleagues.  30 years later his colleagues still don’t embrace his simple idea, but the rest of the world is becoming aware of this inherent truth; that our emotional state has a powerful effect on our physical state.  As we have moved forward on our documentary about his work, my background in religious studies has given me the foundation to explore the relationship between belief, understanding, and health.  When Dr. Sarno began to explore these same connections his main pathway to understanding was the Freudian idea of the unconscious.  As such this is the structure that he uses to frame and understand this simple truth that the repression of our emotions can be a causative factor in pain syndromes.

Dr Sarno has always bristled at the idea that he practices “alternative medicine”.  When he was in medical school Freud’s ideas had not been fully rejected by the medical community, so his foundational understanding of the practice of medicine involved an understanding of the relationship between mind and body. However, by the early 50’s, mechanistic medicine was on the rise and emotions began to be relegated to the background.  When Dr. Sarno began working in rehabilitative medicine at NYU in the early 60’s he practiced the standard care that he had been taught.  In short he viewed the back, neck, and knee problems that patients presented through a structural lens.  However, he found that he wasn’t able to help his patients in meaningful ways.  Further, the structural diagnosis that many of his patients had been given simply didn’t make sense.  In his frustration, he went back and he studied their charts.  It quickly became apparent that the vast majority of his patients (over 80%) had a history of two or more ailments that were thought to have a psychosomatic, or emotional, connection.  Once he realized this he was able to incorporate an understanding of his patients emotional state in his treatment of their physical situation.  His success in treating patients rapidly improved.

While other doctors who work with the mind body connection, like Dr. Andrew Weil, have been embraced by those seeking alternatives to standard care, Dr. Sarno has kept his distance from this world largely because he did not feel that what he was doing was alternative in any way.  He wanted his colleagues to accept his realization about the connection between mind and body in regards to pain based on the evidence that supported it and that which undermined the basis for the structural diagnoses they head been given.  Unfortunately the vast majority of his colleagues rejected him and his work outright.  However, his ideas spread rapidly by word of mouth when he published his first book.  At the same time Dr. Sarno became more rigorous in his approach to the problem.  He cut out physical therapy because he found that focusing on the physical problems made it harder for people to fully embrace the emotional aspect of the problem.  In large part he rejected all physical approaches to a cure because he felt that they obscured the underlying cause of his patients problems.

I first encountered him and his work in the 80’s when my father, who had almost died from an ulcer, read his book and got over years of chronic pain problems.  A decade later my brother went to see Dr. Sarno after he was told he had to have surgery to carve away part of his collar bone to relieve the pain in his hands.  He quickly healed which inspired me to read Dr. Sarno’s book.  At the time my back would “go out” a couple of times a year for short periods.  I understood the ideas in the book and banished my own pain for a decade.  When it came roaring back in 2003 I got slammed to the floor and made my own trip to his office.  Seeing him helped me to accept the idea that I had no structural problems.  I improved a great deal, but even after a year I still had trouble standing for too long, and I had great deal of stiffness and continuing pain.  A few years later a musician friend was visiting from Spain and wanted to go get acupuncture because he was having a lot of pain when he played the drums.  Even though Dr. Sarno advises against physical treatment, I decided to join him. To my great surprise I had a somewhat miraculous recovery.  For the first time in years I was able to get in my car without any pain.  I went back for 3 more sessions over a couple of days and I was ecstatic to find continued improvement.  At the time I felt a bit like I was cheating on Dr. Sarno, but in retrospect I can see that in some ways I was cheating on myself.  I made a short post on a forum devoted to discussion about Dr. Sarno and his work and people responded very critically.  I still believe, and believed then, that acupuncture can be a useful and powerful healing tool.  However, when the pain returned with a vengeance in 2011 I began to see how much I had resisted the real emotional work that I needed to do in order to truly heal.  The acupuncture had clearly helped with my symptoms but it had not been curative in regards to the deeper issues that caused the pain in the first place.   I also resolved to finally make the film about Dr. Sarno and his work that we began in 2004. As part of that process I began to look more closely at other treatment methods that involved both mind and body.

I also resolved to focus more intensely on finding ways to change my life and the emotional patterns that led to my situation in the first place. This has been a long slow process.  Both attention issues and skepticisn kept me from fully embracing useful practices like yoga and meditation.  I have been swimming a lot but I still have not found the wherewithal to embrace yoga.  However, I have been working very hard on meditating.  I have been practicing in my own way for about a year and it finally becoming more regular for me.  I also recently began experimenting with  EFT (Emotion Free Therapy). This is a practice which involves tapping along meridians while also repeating affirmations.  It sounds like the epitome of untested unscientific nonsense.  However on closer inspection it certainly it also makes a lot of sense in relation to activation of belief.  It is difficult to figure out how one might run a study to find out if it works.  For example how can we measure people’s level of belief?  How might we differentiate between people who think they believe something and those who truly believe it?

I first heard about EFT about 5 years ago when a friend of mine suggested that I try it out.   When I first read about it is seemed a bit silly and bombastic.  The way it was talked about made my skeptic radar go off, especially when people discussed the intricacies of the tapping and the affirmations in ways that smacked of orthodox practice.  Even if I wanted to believe it my inherent resistance to organized thought made it almost impossible for me to fully embrace the practice.

However, a year before hearing about EFT we had had an interesting experience with tapping when a friend had found a young woman who was training in Handle technique help out her son, He had some extreme attention issues and her intervention facilitated noticeable improvement. Our daughter was having some anxiety and attention issues as well. So we had her come over and check her out. When she tested her she found some issues in relation to vestibular balance (which had to do with how the ears regulate balance), and the way her eyes worked together, and gave us some exercises to do with her. These involved things like keeping a ball in the air by blowing through a straw, and gently being rocked back and forth. My wife also did some tapping exercises with her. Her condition improved a great deal in a short time. We all believed that the exercises and tapping helped. The exercises made sense.  For example, one of the tests showed that she had difficulty getting her eyes to gang together, so what she saw with one eye often competed with her other eye.  This caused her to have trouble focusing both physically and mentally.  The practice of keeping a ball balanced by her breathing through a pipe strengthened her ability to use both her eyes at once cooperatively. When we first tried the technique we called the burrito (which was used to help with vestibular balance) where we wrapped her in a blanket and gently moved her from side to side her ears would get bright red. As she became calmer and more used to the movements her ears stopped doing this. The movement had clearly been triggering some kind of fear/anxiety response, but as her body got used to the movements this response lessened. Another test had revealed that her eyes did not gang well when she was focusing on objects up close.

EFT felt a bit less anchored in reason and sounded more like ritual than science. At the time I liked to study ritual from an intellectual perspective, and viewed the practice with a skepticism born from a lack of belief in religion.  I was a bit more in the science camp when I tried it five years ago. I did the practice for a few days, and there is no doubt that I felt calmer and more centered as I did it. However, I quickly lost interest and focus because I didn’t really believe it could help me. Frankly, it felt silly to me and I was embarrassed by the idea of it because to me it felt like believing in organized religion.

However, as I have ramped up work on our documentary about Dr. Sarno, I have once again looked for patterns and ideas that connect different healing practices. For almost a year now I have been trying to meditate daily, and recently I have incorporated doing the EFT tapping and affirmations at the start of my practice. One of the connective tissues, or ideas, that keeps popping up as I study the work of Dr. Sanro, and others who practice with an understanding of mind body medicine, is the idea of belief. When we talk about the placebo affect we are referring to healing that takes place when we believe that we have been given medicine. In some sense then, a placebo is the use of belief to activate the body’s own ability to heal.

Dr. Sarno is clear when he talks about the importance of understanding, and believing, that one’s pain is not caused by a structural problem. As long as a person thinks that their pain is related to a herniated disc rather than repressed emotions, that person will not be able to move past the pain, or truly listen to it. In fact, Dr. Sarno cut out all physical therapy for his patients when he realized that those who focused their energy on healing physically took much longer to get better than those who focused on the emotional basis for their pain. He went so far as to interview patients in advance of treatment. If they stated that they simply couldn’t believe that their emotions were a causative factor in their pain syndrome he would suggest that they go elsewhere to seek treatment. If they didn’t believe him, he felt that he wouldn’t be able to help them.

Given this context I have come to understand the importance of the ritual affirmation aspect of EFT. Despite my deep skepticism in relation to organized religion, my study of the impulses behind, and the connections between, different religions, gave me a foundation to appreciate the role of ritual in terms of the activation of belief. This time around I made a particular effort to be very present as I worked through the affirmation aspect of EFT, and I also made an effort to do it daily.  I have found that it really helps me prepare to mediate, and when I do EFT at the beginning I find it much easier to practice mediation.  I also believe that the affirmations help me to refocus my thinking about whatever issues I am having, be them pain, anxiety, or stress.  I have no dobut that practicing EFT has been beneficial to me and I don’t know how one might actually do a study to prove this.

The Wikipedia page is extremely skeptical about the benefits of doing EFT, as are other posts. However, science is extremely skeptical about the possible benefits of any religious practice as well.  Last week I was waiting for an observant catholic friend to go swimming with me.  She was in the process of repeating some form of ritual, and it struck me that this process was powerful and important to her.  It grounded her.  If one thinks about EFT as one might think about any other ritual activity its possible to see how the practice might work, especially if that ritual is tailored to and by the person who is doing it.  If that ritual involves an invocation to love oneself without judgement, it makes sense that it would make a person feel more settled.

When we are too inside a situation, be it a religious group, a field of academia, or a field of medicine, its often very difficult for us to grasp ideas that challenge the main tenets of that group which we are a part of.  As a very recent example, white people tend to have difficulty in seeing how powerfully pervasive racism towards African Americans is.  However, when we look at history, we can see that the most challenging ideas often become accepted and embraced over time. However, those who first put them forth are often ostracized in their own time. I am most interested in that sweet spot, when a new idea begins to become accepted, but it has not yet become systematized. It is clear that we need systems, and order, in order to avoid stress. However, when we have too much order we create a limiting effect that creates different types of stress. That sweet spot exists in balance between anarchy and totalitarianism.

Balance is one of the main themes that has emerged as we work on our film about Dr. Sarno, and his focus on mind body medicine. When things get out of balance, with too much power invested in one mode of thinking, then many things become unthinkable.  On one hand, if we believe without questioning things then we are weak and can be easily taken advantage of. However, if we are too skeptical we often close doors that lead to solutions.  One of the problems of the scientific method is that it tends to limit variables in order to create repeatable and meaningful data. However, the world is not as simple as a lab test, and this truth often renders data less meaningful than might me useful. However, those who believe in data above all else are often deeply swayed by data despite the problematic nature of how it’s collected and implemented.

If we argue that an idea isn’t true because it hasn’t been proven by science then we shut down pathways towards belief. For those who believe that everything must be proven in a lab, the world is a very limiting space. For those who frame things in relation to strict religious edicts, belief relies on belief itself. Dr. Sarno’s work exists in the space between these two poles. He explicitly believes in the scientific method. In fact the problem that he has with “medical” treatments is that they are put forth as based on science but do not have any data to back them up. Further as he often observes in his patients, simple tests often illustrate that the proscribed cause (a herniated disc for example) couldn’t, and shouldn’t, be seen as causative.

I recently read a very critical, and skeptical, response to Dr. Sarno’s book, “The Divided Mind”. In it, the author, ridicules Dr. Sarno for failing to do studies to back up his treatment methods. He derisively quotes the doctor from his book

“If unconscious emotions can be identified and measured objectively, we would have so-called hard data to support our clinical observations. The world of the unconscious mind, like the history of life, cannot be studied exclusively by hard science. How can one objectively identify and quantify the personality traits and emotions that reside, so to speak, in the unconscious?”

He writes, “In case you hadn’t noticed, that’s a cop-out. The very fact that Dr. Sarno claims to know from experience that his method works means that evidence CAN (in principle) be generated to support his theory. After all, what is his experience based on? Observation. The good thing about science is that it tries to make those observations systematic and objective. Dr. Sarno shrugs off objectivity and seems happy to pick and choose the observations as he sees fit. That’s not science.”


Dr. Sarno may not have done batteries of tests to prove that his methods work, but 850 amazon reviews don’t lie.  It might not be science but it is astute observation.

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