Does EFT work by distraction?

When I have demonstrated EFT to a new client or a group of trainees and they have softened a memory or neutralised a bad feeling, they start to look around for an explanation, something to account for the way their feelings changed abruptly.

Many times they will say something like: ‘Of course I don’t feel so bad the tapping distracted me’.

But does EFT work by distraction?

Noun: A thing that prevents someone from giving full attention to something else.

A distraction is a temporary shift of attention away from one thing and on to another. The temporary nature of a distraction is important. When the distraction has finished attention can always return to where it was before to find the problem unchanged.

In standard EFT we invite the client to pay close attention to what they are experiencing while they tap, and to continue paying close attention to it until the feelings diminish or disappear.

If that is done correctly then the client won’t be able to return to the original problem and get back the old feelings about it.

So when someone says that EFT is ‘just’ distraction they are completely wrong.

It would be much more accurate for the client or trainee to say: I don’t feel so bad because I paid attention to the problem while tapping.

It’s understandable that people think it’s distraction. Superficially, it makes more sense than believing that tapping on your face and body dissolves negative emotion.

Distraction is a common approach to soothing emotional pain. Many people work hard avoiding being present to what is troublesome to them. This isn’t surprising because it seems to be the best way to get away from all that suffering. Though common, it is a flawed way of handling difficult emotions or feelings.

Distraction or ‘experiential avoidance’ which is are attempts to avoid thoughts, feelings, memories, physical sensations, and other internal experiences, can be a problem in its own right because:

  • distress is part of life, you can’t avoid it forever.
  • avoidance treats the situation being avoided as ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ rather than just a difficult part of life.
  • avoidance takes a lot of energy – it’s very hard to hide from yourself.
  • if you weren’t so busy avoiding it you could attend to what is actually going on in life.

Many new therapeutic approaches like ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) encourage people to deliberately approach their unpleasant experience with mindfulness which, paradoxically, makes those experiences easier to handle.

Good EFT practitioners help to reduce experiential avoidance because the person doing the tapping is being encouraged to stay present to what is going on for the tapping to work on it (that’s the purpose of the reminder phrase). Engaging fully with what is present is essential for the EFT to work well.

So when you are present with your experience and tapping you are getting two therapeutic benefits, the encouragement to engage with your feelings and the relief from the tapping on those feelings. Two benefits for the price of one.

The closer we can get to being fully present with our experience the better the results will be for ourselves and our clients.

However, some experiences are very difficult to approach and provoke powerfully unpleasant feelings and responses.

Fortunately EFT gives us ways to sneak up on those feelings using the Tearless Trauma Technique or other methods. Using these gentle processes we can still approach and take care of very unpleasant experiences a bit at a time.

Even with these techniques attending to our experiences take great courage and persistence from client and therapist.

But being present to your experience is much more beneficial than trying to distract yourself from it.

Which is why EFT is not about distraction.

 Image courtesy of underminingme

5 thoughts on “Does EFT work by distraction?”

  1. Another lovely article Andy – yes “I must have been distracted” is such a common comment from the sceptical newbies, and indeed the opposite is true!
    On the other hand, in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation & Reprocessing) there is a concept of “dual attention” as, somewhat similarly to EFT, the client is paying attention to BOTH his/her internal experience AND the eye movements (or, alternatively, bilateral taps or sounds) – and in my understanding and experience this appears to be one of the possible mechanisms of efficacy of both EFT and EMDR – the client being able to stay with the experience, simultaneously with some kind of physical stimulation. (It is debatable whether ANY type of physical stimulation may produce good results – but as the acupressure points are more sensitive than adjacent areas of skin, it makes sense that the signal from these would be stronger). I believe that tapping, eye movements etc produce a grounding effect which help the client stay present whilst processing the painful material – and to me, being with one foot firmly in the present and one foot in the internal representation of difficult past experiences or their echos is a pre-requisite for any effective therapy.

    • Thanks Masha, I think I draw the distinction between attention, the faculty of directing awareness towards something, and awareness the overall field in which attention is directed like a spotlight.

      In my opinion attention is directed to the issue and the tapping (or whatever is in awareness) works on what is attention. I don’t know if I could attend to the issue and the tapping simultaneously, that would be a stretch for me. I think the stimulation enters awareness while attention is directed and does it’s thing.

      In truth I think there is a lot to find out about how this stuff works in terms of attention, awareness, stimulation and all the rest of it.

      Fascinating stuff.

      • Thanks Andy, that’s a really helpful distinction between attention and awareness – I haven’t quite been able to formulate it myself, this is a great explanation and helps me clarify things in my head!

    • Thanks Gary.

      I think the whole attention / awareness / technique question is quite fascinating. I think you could characterise almost any therapeutic technique as: “doing things while directing someone’s attention”.


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