Cancer. The word—once whispered, now spoken aloud—still comes as a shock. Hearing that we or a loved one has cancer is a blow and can be a terrifying moment. It leaves even the strongest among us stunned. Shock, fear, anger and numbness are all expected, but sometimes these reactions intensify so tremendously that they begin to interfere not only with our ability to function, but to heal.
Many leading cancer institutes are now paying attention to the emotional and psychological effects of a cancer diagnosis and treatment; they are recognizing that both can be so traumatic as to cause symptoms of PTS (post-traumatic stress) or PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), which can stand in the way of battling the disease. Dr. Fremonta Meyer, part of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Department of Psychosocial Oncology and Palliative Care, acknowledges that it is common for cancer patients—even if they don’t have full-blown PTSD—to have some symptoms of it.
“Cancer patients experiencing PTSD may skip appointments or procedures to avoid triggers that remind them of their trauma, which could cause health problems if they miss surveillance scans or other follow-up,” Meyer says. “Seeking psychological help during and immediately following cancer treatment can help patients process their emotions and heal mentally and emotionally. If you don’t pay attention to processing a trauma, you might be more vulnerable to PTSD later on.”
Tapping, an Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), can help. It is a form of emotional acupuncture without needles that is used to process traumas large and small by clearing any disruption in the body’s energy system. By finger tapping on the body’s energy meridian points while simultaneously focusing on a specific problem, tapping can relieve a variety of physical and physiological problems, including the PTS and PTSD symptoms that can result from a cancer diagnosis and/or treatment.
Gary Craig, a Stanford University engineer and the founder of EFT/Tapping more than 30 years ago, believed that our negative emotions are caused by a disruption in the body’s energy system; this is a situation that can be simply reversed by tapping. According to recent research at Harvard Medical College, the most effective treatments for trauma can be found in the energy psychologies like EFT/tapping. Brain scans show that stimulating meridian points on the body sends a calming signal to the amygdale; saliva tests reveal significant reduction in cortisol levels. In the words of Dr. Eric Leskowitz from the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, “EFT is the treatment of choice for rapid intervention in traumatic situations…its use can prevent the future development of full-blown PTSD.”
How people react to traumatic news is based on what Dr. Richard Scaer, a physician and traumatologist, describes as “The Trauma Capsule.” This is the place in the brain where all the traumas of our lives are stored.
Each time we experience a traumatic event, a complicated series of switches turns on in the limbic system of the brain. Although there are many parts to the limbic system, let’s focus on the three key areas responsible for processing trauma: the amygdala, or alarm system; the hippocampus, or memory system; and the orbital frontal cortex, or information/assessment system.
Information stored in the limbic system falls into our trauma capsule after each traumatic event. For example, the development of the orbital frontal cortex is critical to the mother-infant bond established in infancy. People who suffered traumas—such as adoption, separation due to illness or abandonment—during this stage of development exhibit less efficient orbital frontal cortex in brain scans. If this is a piece of our trauma capsule, we may be more prone to trauma and emotional distress.
The amygdala fires the alarm when we perceive ourselves to be in a life-threatening situation. The brain “freezes in fear.” That can explain why most of us are asked to bring a caregiver when the doctor is going to give us bad news. We often have trouble recalling information when the brain is in this stage of trauma. The hippocampus can’t do its job if the amygdala keeps firing the alarm. If the “freeze” of the traumatic event is not “discharged”, or completed at the time of trauma, the body is hardwired through the procedural memory to react or repeat every nuance of that event whenever a memory resembling the event triggers us.
We know that animals in the wild shake violently after killing prey to somatically discharge the trauma completing the art of escape. Indigenous people continue to engage in ritualistic behaviors that involve “shaking”. Interestingly, domestic animals do not go through this process because they live in cages; also humans no longer “discharge” trauma because we live in cultural “cages”, where it is seen as abnormal. This may be why we are more easily traumatized than our ancestors. It also explains why the more untreated trauma we suffer—particularly in early childhood—the less resilient we are to new traumas. This may give insight as to why there is a wide range of individual reactions to a cancer diagnosis; some people are able to handle it better than others.
Over the course of his life’s work Scaer came to believe that untreated trauma was the cause of all chronic pain and disease. He describes this physiological circuit in his book, The Body Bears The Burden.
Knowing that trauma once established is self-perpetuating and responsive to outside triggers, we can better understand how and why EFT/Tapping can help. Clinical research has shown that it can interrupt these psychological and physiological circuits by actually intercepting the signal to the amygdale; this stops the act of self-perpetuation and triggers a new and different response in the brain, allowing us to be in the present moment and energetically freeing our system from the past. Once healed, the overwhelming symptoms of worry and anxiety become manageable, sleep returns and pain is less. We can live in the present moment instead of trapped in the traumas of the past or worries of the future.
“Trauma is a neurological state that may manifest as chronic stress, body pains, headaches, trouble sleeping and a whole host of other symptoms. If it isn’t properly treated, trauma self-perpetuates. EFT/Tapping is a powerful tool because it re-regulates the brain dysfunction that trauma causes and allows the person to achieve a strong state of resilience,” said Dr. Lori Leyden, an internationally-respected trauma specialist and EFT/tapping trainer with AAMET International.
Looking at cancer through the lens of trauma and using the power of EFT/tapping to heal the broader emotional and psychological effects of a diagnosis can help with its many challenges. This includes not only understanding and reacting to a diagnosis but also treatment or recurrence.
A skilled practitioner can guide us through the specific details of our trauma capsule. During the tapping sessions, these details can remain completely private to us; somatic release and healing occurs regardless of revelation of the facts to the practitioner.
If we have had many traumas in our lives, we probably have many triggers in our capsule that do not make sense to us. These triggers are likely attached to specific, forgotten memories and need to be healed to be cleared. Once the trauma is healed and the triggers disappear, we will come to know a sense of well-being that gives us renewed strength to meet the current challenges we face.
Skilled tapping practitioners use specialized techniques to help us travel back gently, tracing our pain and emotional distress to a point of origin. They use the power of our heart combined with their knowledge of the body’s energy meridians and honed EFT/tapping skills to give us the courage and strength to heal our deepest wounds. The beauty of tapping is also that the practitioner can provide us with some tools for self-help; this enables us to use some simple self-help technique in addition to working with the practitioner in-person.
Dr. Patricia Carrington, a leading psychologist and a pioneer in the burgeoning field of energy psychology, was asked by a woman diagnosed with cancer how EFT/tapping could help. She replied, “You need to follow only one rule when doing this: do not water down and try to minimize any emotion that you are feeling. It is dealing with the raw emotion, recognizing and accepting it, that is going to heal you of the painful inner feelings, and which may perhaps ultimately heal you…certainly it will greatly improve your prognosis if the negative emotions around this illness are removed.”