Emotional Freedom Techniques: A Skeptic’s Review

It sometimes seems like every week there’s a new miracle cure, usually with somebody aiming to make money from it, and occasionally with some Hollywood actor clambering onto the bandwagon. Medical marijuana, ozonated water, multiple mutually exclusive diets, some weird mushroom from the Andes: with all these fads overrunning the media, information about truly helpful alternative therapies, starting with good nutrition and exercise, seems to get lost in the noise.


One way to tell the good from the fad is to rely on controlled clinical studies, but this approach has a few drawbacks. The most important of these is that medical research is expensive – the scientists involved somehow have to pay off their study loans, the laboratory tests required are not cheap, and a large pool of volunteers is required to produce any sort of meaningful result. Someone has to fund this research, which usually means someone who stands to make a profit at some point. Patentable drugs that need to be taken for a long time to be effective happen to meet this criterion, while carrot juice and relaxation techniques do not.


Another way of tackling the problem is to try to assess anecdotal evidence. This is certainly not amenable to statistical analysis, but may yield valuable information of another kind. For instance, clinical tests of an anti-anxiety drug might tell us that it’s somewhat effective, for most people, some of the time; which is of little practical use when deciding on a treatment option. Reading about the experiences of people who’ve tried biofeedback techniques, on the other hand, might reveal that this course was very effective for some but less so for others, which allows a much more rational choice to be made.


With traditional talk therapy often taking years to resolve a psychic problem, and chemical approaches usually implying unwanted or unacceptable side effects, it’s certainly worth looking twice at psychological treatments that promise rapid effects. One of these is called emotional freedom techniques, usually abbreviated to EFT.


What Are EFT?

If we oversimplify things somewhat, EFT means combining traditional psychotherapy and acupuncture techniques to overcome what are termed “emotional blocks”, or persistent negative feelings. The typical cynic might have already lost interest at the thought of better health through perforation, but scientific examination has, in fact, shown acupuncture to be an effective therapeutic tool in some cases. In any case, EFT works by prodding or pressing on certain points of the skin while encouraging the patient to think about the source of their distressing emotions, with no sharp objects involved.


Calling acupuncture an “ancient art” may be an effective marketing gimmick, but has absolutely no bearing on its effectiveness. For one thing, the way it is practised seems to have undergone significant changes over the past few decades; for another, forecasting the weather by staring at goat entrails also happens to be an ancient art. From the standpoint of empirical science, acupuncture is difficult to study because the mechanism by which it operates is completely unknown, leaving aside concepts like ying, yang and qi. The needles go in; afterwards there’s a measurable change in endorphin levels and nerve activity, but what on Earth happens in between these two events?

How Effective is EFT?

In terms of published, credible research, the answer is: not very. Most licensed psychologists would not even consider recommending it to their patients. However, evaluating the success of psychological treatments using quantified metrics is notoriously difficult. A patient may experience great benefits over the short term, which fail to hold up over longer periods. If someone is asked to rate his state of mind for a questionnaire, his response will probably depend mostly on how he feels at that particular moment, not his average disposition over the past week. Finally, since the whole body of work behind EFT is a little “out there,” there’s no reliable way to distinguish between good and bad practitioners, even if the fundamental principles are valuable.

On the other hand, a number of people who’ve had little success with other forms of treatment claim that emotional freedom techniques “cured” them within a relatively short period of time, even of physical ailments (a core principle of EFT states that emotional and physical health are very closely coupled). 

For those considering this form of treatment, the upshot of the information available on EFT seems to be that you might as well try it. A session is relatively inexpensive, won’t result in side effects, and can easily be combined with more conventional routes to mental health. If the results claimed for EFT are no more than the placebo effect at work, so be it, as long as the effects are in fact real.

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