The Stress Response and How EFT Interrupts It – A Brain Science Perspective

In the last few years a lot more has been learnt scientifically about how and why EFT works. Tapping interrupts the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response and reprograms the brain and body to act differently.

The ‘Fight, Flight or Freeze’ Stress Response

When a stressful situation occurs, we experience negative feelings like fear, anger, anxiety and distress. Our brain signals our body to go ‘on alert’ to danger to help us fight off the threat or flee to safety. This is a very ancient survival mechanism enabling humans (and other mammals) to react quickly to life-threatening situations. This mechanism hasn’t changed from the days when our ancestors ran away to escape woolly mammoths!

Unfortunately, in today’s world, there are many non-life threatening situations that can cause a flood of stress hormones. Being stuck in a traffic jam when we’re late for work, worrying about meeting a work or study deadline, or an angry look or word from someone can be enough to trigger a cascade of reactions.

How The Brain and Body React To Stress

The stress response begins in the amygdala – an almond-shaped mass of neurons in the mid-brain – which is constantly on the look out for threats to our safety. If it perceives a danger or a threat, it sends impulses to the autonomic nervous system that cause the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response.

Adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are released into the bloodstream causing blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar to rise to provide the energy needed to ‘fight’ or ‘flee’ so the heart starts to pound and the muscles to tense. Energy is directed away from digestion and the immune system. Primitive areas of the brain, designed to respond to threat, shape perception and thought, and the rational mind shuts down.

The physical sensations of the response are experienced as angerlike feelings (fight), fearlike feelings (flight) or an inability to take action (freeze).

The Role of The Amygdala

The amygdala and the hippocampus – related parts of the brain’s limbic system – are involved in the stress response. The amygdala alerts the hypothalamus via neural impulses to initiate the fight-or-flight response.

The amygdala  processes emotions such as fear, anger and anxiety, and plays a major role in storing and retrieving emotionally distressing memories. So, for example, when a person experiences an event that causes them anxiety, the amygdala directs the storage and association of that memory with anxiety.

It is on the look out for possible physical or emotional threats to our safety based on its coding of traumatic memories. Emotionally charged memories are stored to help us avoid similar threatening situations in the future. But, if the amygdala identifies a similarity to a previous traumatic memory, our emotional response is instantaneous and outside our conscious thought, and immediately all the sensations and feelings of that earlier situation surge through us.

The threat can be real or imaginary – a similar situation or even thinking about a similar situation – can be enough to cause the fight or flight response. The body does not distinguish between an actual threat and what the amygdala perceives as a threat. Our internal landscape – negative thoughts, memories, beliefs and ‘self-talk’ (our own inner dialogue) – can also trigger this emotional response.

The amygdala is thought to have a key role in the neural circuit underlying fear conditioning which are fears that become subconsciously programmed from distressing life experiences. These tend to underly most anxiety disorders such as phobias, panic attacks and generalised anxiety. And the amygdala can become overstimulated. So, instead, of a memory of a dog barking aggressively, say, making us rightly wary of that type of dog, this may become generalised to a fear of all dogs.

Research has proven the association between abnormalities in the amygdala and the presence of anxiety disorders which include Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anti-social personality disorder and phobias.

It also plays a key role in interpreting facial expressions and body language. Behavioral evidence shows that the amygdala is capable of triggering an anxiety reaction from something as simple as an angry look.

How Our Old Programming is Triggered

An early negative experience, say in childhood, can progam the amydala to raise the alarm when something similar triggers it in the future. Often, it’s something as simple as a tone of voice or an angry look that reminds us of how we were spoken to or looked at in a previously distressing situation.

You may have had to give a talk in front of your classmates at school, or play an instrument or sing, and you may have been filled with dread both before and during your performance. Your fear may have caused your mind-body system to associate speaking, singing or playing an instrument in front of a group of people with danger. After that, similar experiences or even the anticipation of similar experiences – can trigger the amygdala. So the school room incident may generalise into performance anxiety.

A current situation activating an old programmed response at a subconscious level is often at the root of many problems, such as, self-defeating thoughts and choices, anxieties, bouts of depression, and irrational fear, anger, shame, jealousy, and so on.

So How Does EFT Change The Stress Response?

It’s still not known quite why repeated tapping on a series of acupoints turns off the amygdala’s alarm system, simply that it does. Tapping when re-experiencing a little of the stressful state, sends the message to the alerted amygdala to deactivate even though the threatening memory, thought or feeling is still present. As we talk about the distressing experience the associated feelings start to come up, while tapping starts lessening their intensity.

Tapping while bringing up the stressor reprograms the amygdala and the hippocampus, and with repetition the hippocampus refiles the event as not dangerous and the amygdala learns not to set off the alarm. After of a number of repetitions of EFT, the triggering stressor can be experienced directly without the alarm response. Once the connection to the alarm response is broken, it remains so.

After tapping, the memory is still there but there’s no emotion attached to it any more so it doesn’t get recalled or replayed.

Neural Plasticity and Brian ‘Rewiring’

The human brain is composed of approximately 100 billion neurons. All memories of events, words, images, emotions, and so on correspond to the particular activity of certain networks of neurons in the brain that have strengthened connections with one another.

Modern research has demonstrated that the brain continues to create new neural connections and alter existing ones in order to adapt to new experiences, learn new information and create new memories. This ‘neural’ or ‘brain plasticity’ means that the brain can be ‘rewired’.

Neural pathways used repeatedly add capacity like an electrician adding extra wiring the most used circuits in a house. Dr Eric Kandel did research into how quickly well used neural circuits can grow and how quickly unused circuits can be disassembled by the brain. If you think a negative thought repeatedly, you literally rewire your brain; similarly with a positive thought.

EFT seems to take hold as neural plasticity is occurring and may even be an influencing factor. EFT reduces the number of neural connections within the amygdala between the triggering traumatic memory and the alarm response, and can be used to embed new more supportive behaviours, thoughts and beliefs.

In the example of giving a talk, singing or playing an instrument in front or your schoolmates, tapping clears the negative emotions and associations and gives you the chance to reinforce positive ones. Quite often your perception changes and you may now notice other information in the memory such as smiling faces or hearing applause, or you can use your imagination to choose how you would like to have felt. You can replay the memory again with smiling faces, hearing applause and feeling elated with your sense of achievement. Your current performance anxiety will be lessened and may be gone completely.