The Utilization of Energy Psychology in Primary Care

doi: 10.9769/EPJ.2011.3.1.DC

Dawson Church, PhD


My goal for the past decade has been to see energy medicine in general, and energy psychology in particular, become part of primary care.

Why, when you go to visit your physician as a patient, or check into hospital for a procedure, should you expect energy psychology to be part of the visit?

The answer is simple: emotional heath is a huge component of physical health. Robust emotional health contributes to freedom from disease.

In the early 1990s, a pioneering team led by Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda started a groundbreaking study to investigate the link between unresolved emotional trauma and disease. Felliti and Anda looked at adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs.

ACEs are early life experiences involving parental dysfunction such as incarceration, mental illness, and divorce. The researchers gave each adverse experience a numerical score; a childhood with more ACEs translated into a higher ACE score. They found that high ACE scores were correlated with high rates of disease in affected adults.

ACEs were associated with cancer, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, hepatitis, obesity, smoking, suicide attempts, and many of the other common adult ailments. The higher the ACE score an individual had inherited from childhood, the greater the risk that person had as an adult of one of these deadly diseases.

The study used an enormous sample: 17,421 participants. It was performed by Kaiser Permanente, a large HMO that currently has over 11 million members, and the Centers for Disease Control. One of the shocking features of the study was the mean age of the participants: 57.

The adverse experiences had occurred about 50 years before the study data was collected, yet the results were now just showing up as disease, half a century after the emotionally devastating events.

Time was not, as Shakespeare believed “the great healer.”

The ACE study presented a wake-up call to medicine. It showed that the roots of disease were planted in childhood, and that many were emotional rather than physical. Medical research usually examines cancer and other diseases as though they are purely biological disorders, looking for genes that are more highly expressed, molecules that are atypical, and drugs capable of interacting with those molecules.

It treats the human body as a biological machine, proudly extolling the “biomedical model,” and ignoring the emotional aspects of human experience. Anda and Felliti became quite passionate about the error of this approach, comparing physicians to firefighters directing their hoses toward the smoke above a blaze, while the fire that causes the smoke rages unchecked.

The ACE study has been reinforced by a great deal of other research showing that adult and childhood emotional trauma affects gene expression, brain development, and predisposition to a variety of specific diseases.

Unfortunately, when confronted with the wake-up call presented by the ACE studies, medicine hit the Snooze button. In the two decades since the ACE study began, the biomedical model has become even more firmly entrenched, and the emotional contribution to disease more resolutely ignored.

The fire rages on, while more and more elaborate approaches to dissipating the smoke consume massive amounts of funding and research time.

Psychology and psychiatry, which might have taken up positions at the front line of firefighting, have instead been intoxicated by a drug-induced haze of smoke. In the provocative book Anatomy of an Epidemic (reviewed in this issue), award-winning science journalist Robert Whitaker examines the astonishing rise in mental illness in the Western world in the past half-century. He gathers reams of evidence from concerned psychiatrists and points to an unlikely culprit: psychotropic drugs.

By producing abnormal brain function, Whitaker makes a compelling case that the very medications that are being prescribed for mental illness are actually causing most of it. We’re taking adults who’ve been affected by ACEs as children, and worsening their conditions by producing enduring alterations in their brain chemistry.

The costs of aiming our medical resources at the smoke are becoming unsustainable. These costs show up as financial loss to economies, as personal suffering to individuals, as tragedy to families, and of lost productivity to society. Collectively, we need to start aiming our hoses at the fire, before it rages completely out of control.

Since research has demonstrated compellingly that unresolved emotional trauma is indeed the source of so much physical disease, an urgent need exists to find ways of alleviating it. Here’s where energy psychology can play a central role in primary healthcare. Energy psychology studies have shown that methods such as EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) are can dramatically reduce the intensity of traumatic memories.

Study participants typically begin a treatment session by being asked to recall an ACE, and report high levels of emotional distress. After just a few minutes of EFT, their self-reported distress decreases. They are then usually able to describe even the most disturbing of ACEs without a rise in emotional intensity.

As their subjective distress wanes, their scores on research questionnaires which assess anxiety, depression, phobias, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), decline precipitously. When their progress is followed up, months or years later, they’ve maintain much of the gain they made in treatment. Courses of treatment are typically brief, from one to six sessions.

Basic EFT can be learned by patients in less than an hour, and safely self-applied thereafter. Medicine now has these tools that can take the emotional disturbances that contribute to disease, and reduce or eliminate their intensity. EFT is thus highly effective at fighting the fire itself, not just the smoke. When used in conjunction with the array of drug, surgical, and other Western treatments, and the ancient wisdom of Oriental medicine, we have the best of all worlds.

There are more than 20 randomized controlled trials of EFT that have been published in peer-reviewed journals, or that are currently in progress; a similar number of uncontrolled open trials have been performed.

The American Psychological Association’s (APA) Clinical Psychology division convened a Task Force which published standards by which to determine if a therapeutic method could be considered an “empirically validated treatment.” The evidence base for EFT is now sufficiently robust to meet the APA standards for an “efficacious” treatment for several mental health conditions.

As EFT has qualified as an evidence-based treatment, leading-edge institutions have begun to incorporate EFT and other techniques from energy psychology and energy medicine into primary care. There are Veterans Administration (VA) hospitals in which patients suffering from PTSD can received EFT treatments.

It’s available to PTSD-positive veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) who have been found resistant to other treatments. There are nurses and doctors at Kaiser Permanente hospitals who report success with EFT for a variety of conditions. At M. D. Anderson cancer clinic in Orlando, Florida, one of several M. D. Anderson campuses, an Energy Medicine Department offers treatments to both staff and patients.

These initiatives represent a promising start at fire-fighting.

I expect large-scale clinical trials of energy medicine methods in the coming years, and increasing implementation in primary care settings. These techniques are simply too effective to ignore. Just as the fire of healthcare costs threatens to burn down the whole economy, we’ve discovered a giant fire hose.

Imagine yourself as a patient entering a consulting room, and the first person you interact with, perhaps a physician’s assistant, enquires about any emotional problems you’ve encountered lately. He or she then offers you a quick EFT session, after which your anxiety dissipates and you feel more peaceful. You receive a sheet of paper with instructions on how to use it yourself, and a web site to visit for more information.

Imagine yourself as a doctor or nurse, examining a patient. Before they arrived in your consulting room, their immediate emotional needs were addressed, and they received information for ongoing self-care.

You begin your time with them minus the anxiety and emotional strain that they might otherwise have been carrying. You can focus on their organic problems, assured that the emotional dimensions of their issues have been addressed. Such a paradigm of treatment fights the fire that the ACE study pointed to, and shows our society a way out of the human suffering, and health care cost spiral, in which we’re currently enmeshed.