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Can Tapping Change the Brain?
Even if studies continue to confirm that EP works and works quickly, the fundamental question remains: How does it work? How could tapping on the skin be an ingredient in producing rapid cures for severe psychological disorders? How, in fact, can any intervention reliably overcome PTSD within a few sessions? The emerging understanding of neuroplasticity—particularly the ways that thought and experience can decisively change the brain—suggests that significant therapeutic shifts can happen far more rapidly than we once believed. It's now at least plausible that therapeutic interventions can be developed that quickly alter the neural pathways maintaining emotional and behavioral patterns that were once protective (like trauma-based hyperarousal), but have become dysfunctional.
A series of studies conducted over the past decade as part of the Neuroimaging Acupuncture Effects on Human Brain Activity project at Harvard Medical School provides clues to why acupoint tapping may be such an approach. According to project leader Kathleen Hui, "functional MRI and PET studies on acupuncture at commonly used acupuncture points have demonstrated significant modulatory effects on the limbic system."
How does that apply to EP? It's always been obvious that psychological exposure is an ingredient in EP. Traumatic memories or other cues that trigger unwanted emotional responses are mentally activated during the acupoint tapping. Since exposure is the single therapeutic component present in virtually all studies of effective PTSD treatments, the success of EP has often been attributed simply to its use of that approach. But this doesn't address the fact that clinicians utilizing the technique, and now numerous studies, have found that by adding acupoint tapping, the exposure can be much briefer, requires fewer repetitions, and leads to positive outcomes with a greater proportion of clients. The new understanding provided by the Harvard neuroimaging studies is that stimulating specific acupoints generates signals that instantly reduce arousal in the amygdala.
So rather than relying on repeated or prolonged exposure to extinguish the threat response, EP introduces acupoint tapping during a brief exposure, which immediately counters the threat response. The process appears to work like this:
The client is asked to bring to mind an anxiety-provoking memory, thought, or related cue, activating an alarm response in the amygdala;
The simultaneous stimulation of acupoints sends deactivating signals to
The signals sent by the acupoint stimulation turn off the alarm response, even though the trigger is still present;
With a few repetitions, the trigger no longer evokes fear, and this innocuous experience, which becomes the defining memory about the trigger, is stored in the hippocampus.
The apparent operating principle, although not yet demonstrated by laboratory research, is that when a traumatic memory or other trigger is paired with an intervention that turns off the alarm response, such as the stimulation of selected acupoints, the neural pathways that were keeping the alarm response in place are altered. In When the Past Is Always Present: Emotional Traumatization, Causes, and Cures, trauma researcher Ronald Ruden speculates on how interventions such as acupoint tapping during traumatic recall result in the elimination of conditioned fear pathways in the amygdala. Activating the memory makes the glutamate receptors that maintain long-standing signal transmissions between neurons vulnerable to disruption (this is well-established), and in a clinical one-two punch, the acupoint tapping sends new signals that "depotentiate" the vulnerable receptors. In this way, the conditioned fear is permanently eliminated.
When the maladaptive fears that are at the core of PTSD have been eradicated in this manner, associated symptoms also diminish. A marked decrease of flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, concentration problems, numbing, and even self-defeating thoughts and behaviors has been reported by clinicians, and is now being corroborated by systematic research. So while EP utilizes psychological exposure, the acupoint tapping allows for a kinder intervention, requiring far fewer and much shorter exposures to traumatic material.