The Latest Insta-Cure: Examining the Controversy over Energy Psychology

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The Latest Insta-Cure?

Examining the controversy over energy psychology

By David Feinstein

When James Reston, a New York Times reporter accompanying Henry Kissinger on a visit to Communist China in July 1971, had an acute appendicitis attack, Chinese physicians performed an emergency appendectomy. Rather than use medication as the anesthetic, they used acupuncture. The publicity surrounding Reston's successful surgery is credited with opening Western minds to the practice of acupuncture. Today, the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture has more than 1,600 physician members, and the World Health Organization lists more than 50 conditions for which acupuncture is believed to be effective.

Since the early 1980s, Western mental health practitioners have been developing protocols for applying the principles of acupuncture to psychological issues, patterned initially on the work of California psychologist Roger Callahan and Australian psychiatrist John Diamond. Acupuncture points can be stimulated for therapeutic effect through the use of needles or heat, but less invasive procedures--such as tapping or massaging points on the surface of the skin--have also been found to produce therapeutic outcomes. This allows clients to self-administer the treatments at home, in conjunction with the therapy.

Because the stimulation of acupuncture points produces physical change by altering the body's electrical activity, the various mental health protocols that utilize acupuncture points (such as Thought Field Therapy, emotional freedom techniques, and energy diagnostic and treatment methods) are collectively known as "energy psychology." Energy psychology protocols generally combine the stimulation of particular electromagnetically responsive areas on the surface of the skin with methods from cognitive-behavioral therapy, including the use of imagery, self-statements, and subjective distress ratings.

Few treatment approaches have engendered more skepticism in the therapeutic community than those proffered by energy psychology. Claims of near-instant, lasting cures with recalcitrant problems using interventions that look patently absurd and seem inexplicable have triggered skepticism in virtually every clinician who first encounters them. At the same time, growing numbers of therapists representing a wide range of theoretical backgrounds have been trained in these methods (the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology, for instance, has more than 600 professional members) and have found that, however mysterious the mechanism of change, the approach can yield surprisingly powerful results with certain problems.

Why Does It Work?

In fact, the mechanisms by which the basic procedure--tapping specific points on the skin while mentally activating a dysfunctional emotional response--may not be as incomprehensible as it first appears. Energy psychology may work by producing neurological shifts in brain function in much the same way as neurofeedback training, a treatment that's increasingly being used for problems ranging from learning disabilities to anxiety disorders, depression, and addictions. Unlike psychiatric medication, which catalyzes changes through its effects on the brain's biochemistry, both energy psychology techniques and neurofeedback training have been shown to bring about changes in brain-wave patterns, and these changes correspond with a reduction of symptoms.

A difference between the two approaches that perhaps makes neurofeedback training more palatable to the professional community is that neurofeedback relies on scientific instrumentation, while energy psychology doesn't. In addition, the explanations used in energy psychology for the reported treatment outcomes fall outside our familiar paradigms. They make no sense if we try to understand them in terms of conventional explanatory mechanisms, such as insight, cognitive restructuring, reward and punishment, or the curative power of the therapeutic relationship. …