Originally published on NBC News Better April 22, 2019, 4:53 PM ET
Dependent on candy to soothe her anxiety, this working mom decided to give this quick, no-cost mindfulness tactic a shot.
By Sarah Watts
After a long day of writing, when the kids have been fed and bathed, when the dishes are clean and the laundry is folded, one of my favorite after-dinner rituals is this: I hole up in my room under an electric blanket with my laptop and eat a king-sized Butterfinger bar slowly while I browse Facebook. For a few brief minutes, I am completely at peace.
For a long time, I embarked on this ritual with a little bit of defensiveness (it’s not like I’m smoking a pack of cigarettes every night!) and a whole lot of rationalization (I worked hard today. I deserve a treat!). And although those things were true — I do work hard, and I don’t smoke cigarettes — eventually I started to realize I had a problem. When I didn’t get my nightly candy fix, I noticed I was unusually snippy; I felt sluggish and unmotivated. On the nights I had candy, I’d feel a rush of relief and pure elation — at least until the candy was gone. The research is mixed on whether sugar can be called chemically addictive, but whatever the exact term, I couldn’t seem to stop eating it.
In a fit of frustration one night, I searched online for information on sugar dependency and found a blog written by Gabrielle Berenstein, author of “The Universe Has Your Back” and “Spirit Junkie.” In it, Berenstein shared that she had used a technique called “tapping,” formally known as the Emotional Freedom Technique or EFT, to kick her sugar habit. With EFT, a person taps lightly on accupressure points on their body (some refer to these as “energy meridians”) while repeating emotionally-charged statements. By tapping these energy meridians, practitioners can apparently release energy blockages in the body that give way to physical and psychological problems such as fear, addiction, anger, anxiety and more.
Normally, I would not take anything called “energy meridians” seriously. But EFT caught my attention, because I had heard about it before. In the past five years or so, tapping has gone from a virtually unknown fringe practice to being studied in major medical journals. In 2013, the Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases published a study that showed veterans who used tapping to treat their Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) had “significantly reduced” their psychological distress as opposed to veterans in the control group. In 2017, a meta-analysis from the same journal found that EFT decreased symptoms for a number of anxiety disorders, not just PTSD. And tapping is catching on globally as well: All over the world, people use this technique to manage their chronic pain, food cravings, emotional upsets and more. Research on its effectiveness is limited, but some medical professionals see the benefits.
“There is still resistance [to EFT] in the psychological community,” said Dr. Larry Burk, a radiologist at Duke University who co-founded Duke Integrative Medicine in 1998. Burk began looking into self-hypnosis early in his radiology career in order to help patients that became clausterphobic in the MRI machine and were averse to taking sedatives. When he was introduced to EFT in 2002, Burk was floored by how effective it was for anxiety, both for patients in his practice and throughout medical literature. “Now research is showing that [EFT] works just as well for food cravings,” he said. Currently, in addition to practicing radiology, Burk leads workshops at Duke to spread the word about EFT.
How, though, does tapping on your body help you recover from crippling anxiety, or from food cravings, for that matter? Burk used an extended computer metaphor to explain: “When you have a trauma, or something that makes you anxious, it’s as if your system downloads a malware program. It gets downloaded into your nervous system and uploaded into your brain in the amydgala and hippocampus,” Burk said. “In that area, there’s a file for every bad thing that happens, including a picture of what happened, a story and a program that runs every time you think about it, which is the physiological response in your body.”
Tapping, said Burk, is like finding the malware program and uninstalling it. “A memory is only as old as when you last looked at it. If you are tapping and creating pleasant feelings while you’re thinking of that old memory, that file, then you’ve changed that program,” said Burk. “You might still have a picture of that story in your head, but if your body doesn’t respond, that’s the definition of emotional freedom.”
I wasn’t exactly sold, though. While EFT has clearly been shown to reduce anxiety, researchers are torn on how that happens. Some say that tapping releases blocked energy, trapped in our body due to trauma. Some say it’s a placebo effect; others say that tapping on the body in any way can be therapeutic.
“When patients are triggered, they often have that automatic response of anger or resistance. Maybe you hear the same thing your mother used to say, and you have this automatic reaction because your trauma has been triggered,” says Dr. Barbara Nosal, Chief Clinical Officer at Newport Academy, who uses EFT frequently in her clinical practice with families and teenagers. “But [tapping] gives them an opportunity to self-soothe and regulate their emotions before they respond. When these energy points are stimulated, it reduces heart rate and shuts off the fight or flight response, and they’re able to respond in a more appropriate way.”
It seemed silly to compare my sugar cravings with serious anxiety, but Burk insisted that EFT helps heal both. “With food cravings, there’s a program running that says when bad things happen, I just need to get a candy bar or some junk food. That program tells you it’s a quick fix, and you’ll feel better briefly. What you do is access the feeling of anxiety that’s causing cravings, tap on it, and remove the trigger of anxiety for that personal craving.”
Bingo. That rush of relief I felt when I got my hands on a Butterfinger? That was relief from anxiety, which built up after a long day of writing and errands and working mom chaos. I had become dependent on candy to soothe my anxiety — but I didn’t want to be any longer. Since it was quick, no-cost and apparently effective, I decided I’d give EFT a shot and hope for the best.
With the direction of Gabrielle Berenstein, I started tapping on the feeling of anxiety that was causing my sugar cravings. Thumping gently on my forehead, temple, hand, collarbone and various other “energy meridian points” on my body, I vented my anxieties into existence: I feel so trapped by my sugar addiction. I’m frustrated with myself. I feel sad and angry and stuck.
Normally, feeling this anxiety would make me run immediately out the door and buy a Butterfinger bar. But the tapping grounded me. You can sit here and feel this, I told myself. Just stay in your discomfort for a moment — you’ll survive. That night, when I had my usual sugar cravings, I tapped again: I really want sugar. I really want sugar. I really want sugar. As I tapped, I hummed with anxiety, but for some reason, saying them out loud made me feel much more at ease.
I didn’t eat any sugar that night. Or the night after. I lasted an entire two months without sugar — an unfathomable accomplishment for me that I still think about with pride. After two months, I stopped tapping, having proven to myself that I could do it. Whether it was because of unblocked energy flowing through my body or simply because cognitive behavioral therapy-based interventions (of which EFT is a subset) have been shown to improve anxiety, the end result was the same: I beat my sugar addiction. Since then, I’ve fallen back gradually into eating sugar on the regular. But happily, I’m not eating anywhere near as much as I was, and I’m much more mindful of why I’m doing it. A slice of cake at my child’s birthday party? Sure. Three king-sized Butterfingers to help stave off tension and stress? Not anymore. I feel like I have some control again — and to me, that’s what emotional freedom is all about.