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Can Tapping Therapies Be Harmful?

November 3, 2010

Obviously, gentle tapping on various points on the body is not, in and of itself, harmful even though there has yet to be any solid scientific evidence that it is effective. Is this just one of those treatments we should laugh at, dismiss and not worry about? I’m not so sure. This is especially the case when people are using it who have very little knowledge about the various conditions they are using it for. Even though the training manuals for TFT all have a caution that people should only use it within the limits of their profession, there is nothing to ensure that they actually do and there are people out there who are using it on anything and everything and some of these people do not have any formal graduate level mental health training at all. For such people, there is no mechanism to file a complaint with a state licensing board, but even if a person is licensed, filing such complaints can be very difficult. For anything other than sexual misconduct, state boards tend to easily dismiss such complaints and so licensure can all too often be a mere illusion of protection, as some clients who have attempted to file complaints have learned.

One of the most concerning usages of TFT/tapping is people who have the unfounded belief shared by many therapists who have not kept up with the latest research, that buried trauma is at the root of almost all mental health problems and diagnoses (it is not) and use TFT and its accompanying muscle testing techniques as a way to uncover what are believed to be repressed memories of trauma. I have been contacted by a few people who have had it used on them in this way who now feel they are much worse off than when they began therapy. Just as a point of clarification, even when I practiced TFT, I never practiced it that way because I was aware of the scientific literature on memory and trauma and even then was very concerned about this sort of usage, even though expression of my concerns often made me unpopular on certain TFT list servs.

Therapists who use TFT and tapping therapies rarely use only that in their practice. If therapists combine TFT with the more empirically supported approaches such as CBT-based therapies, this could be a good thing, since at least the clients are likely to get some benefit from the CBT. However, some of the therapists who use TFT combine it with some of the more potentially harmful treatments, especially therapists who believe that trauma is at the root of all disorders and go on hunting expeditions for what they believe to be buried trauma.

Again, the take home message here is to be an informed consumer. People promoting TFT and other tapping therapies will often claim it has scientific evidence when actually there is very little and the latest trend is to try to make claims about brain scan changes when a brain scan change means very little. A person’s brain scan can change for all kinds of reasons having nothing to do with the therapy. Even placebo effects show up on brain scans.

There have now been a few randomized controlled trials on tapping therapies but they were very limited to certain conditions and even for those conditions it is questionable because most have been published in substandard journals and do not meet current guidelines for how randomized clinical trials should be reported. They are also by and large, carried out by enthusiastic believers in the methods and even with randomized controlled studies, this can create allegiance effects — in other words, the enthusiasm of the therapist carries over. Particularly studies that compare only to a no treatment control group have this impact. There is no control for placebo effect or for the enthusiasm of the therapists. Even if the therapists train others, that enthusiasm can spill over onto the others they train. The only good way to control for this is to compare “real” TFT to sham TFT — use fake tapping points for the control group and have the treatment carried out by people who do not know which ones are the fake ones. This is something that for some reason TFT proponents have thus far not chosen to do. Another tactic used by associations for TFT that publish lists of studies is to leave off the studies that did not come out favorably for TFT.

Until such studies are carried out and results published in reputable peer reviewed journals (not proprietary “journals” peer reviewed by believers) I would urge people to be cautious and skeptical before accepting the claims being made about TFT and other tapping therapies. This is especially true for children or adults with certain mental disabilities who are legally declared unable to make decisions for themselves. Mentally competent adults, unless they are under a court order for something,  at least have a choice over whether to go to a particular therapist. Children do not and unfortunately have to pay the price for their parents’ lack of critical thinking and failure to check things out.

Google searches on “Thought Field Therapy” reveal mixed results. While there are some decent, critical articles that come up on the first page and for the time being, the Wikipedia article has some good information and references (although this could change if believers chose to edit it and make it into a promotion piece, which they have tried to do in the past and been called out on), promotional TFT websites also come up. This is why knowing what questions to ask the therapists you hire is a vital skill that all mental health consumers need to learn.

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One Comment
  1. Thank you, Monica, for making the very important point about brain scans.

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