By Sherrie Rice Smith, RN (Ret), Certified EFT Trainer 1-2
Our invaluable fight-or-flight system is regulated by the HPA axis, which refers to the brain structure called the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands. This is our body’s way of coping with stress. The pituitary gland and the hypothalamus are located within the limbic brain, and the adrenal glands sit atop the kidneys. When the amygdala (located in the old, reptilian brain, i.e., our fear/alarm center) perceives an immediate threat, rather than sending the signal along to the neofrontal cortex (our conscious brain) for logical processing, the HPA axis signals the release of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream. These chemicals induce quick energy, raise our heart rate, direct blood away from digestion and other less essential bodily functions, and reroute blood to our extremities and muscles so we’re physically equipped to fight or run.
The advantages offered by the rapid response of the HPA axis are clear. We often don’t have time to think our way out of a dangerous situation; we instead need to act immediately and our primitive brain does just that for us before we have time to consider and process all the variables or implications involved.
In times of danger, this chemical mix is necessary to help us fight or run. We can get locked into a state of chronic stress, however, when the adrenal glands don’t receive a signal to stop producing these hormones that are designed solely for limited application. Unlike acute stress, which serves a positive purpose in getting us out of danger quickly, chronic stress is very destructive to our health. Long-term exposure to stress has truly horrific consequences for our bodies.
Among other things, chronic stress increases the damaging effects of free radicals in the neurons of the hippocampus, causing damage to the mitochondria (which produce energy for cells). The hippocampi neurons themselves die from the damage, making creative learning nearly impossible. The mind/brain is now out of balance, causing us to feel paralyzed. We cannot think or feel appropriately, nor can we conjure up solutions to get us out of the rut in which we now feel trapped. Our adrenal glands become exhausted, causing us to feel drained and worn out.
This overuse of stress hormones keeps us stuck where we are, as we simply cannot learn from old experiences and move ourselves forward into new ones when caught in this cycle. The repetitive nature of this stress wiring instead leaves us stranded right where we are, going nowhere, and mired in the past.
This is where Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT, tapping) can play a vital role.
In order to protect ourselves from long-term, chronic stress damage to our bodies, we must reset the hippocampal rhythm. For decades, scientists wondered what actually controlled the cortisol output in the adrenal glands during stress. Most researchers were surprised when they determined the hippocampus was the adrenal glands master controller, and also its own hangman, as it turns out that high levels of cortisol actually damage the hippocampus, yet the hippocampus controls the amount of cortisol released by the adrenal glands during stressful periods!
When infants and children are traumatized in early life, the hippocampus becomes sensitized to increased cortisol. In fact, cortisol levels are often programmed into children in their very early years. As children become more and more stressed as they grow older, more and more cortisol is pumped out of their adrenal glands to deal with this ever-elevating levels of stress. As the cortisol levels rise, the hippocampal mitrochondrial neurons die off due to free radical damage, leaving the child with less cortisol control, less memory, less reserve to deal with future stress, and little to no creativity as to how they might proactively address distressing situations and resolve the problems they’re facing.
So…how can we learn to lower these hippocampal set points?
Using a stress-relieving modality like EFT is a step in the right direction. EFT lowers cortisol levels. One study alone has shown that 1 hour of tapping drops cortisol levels 24% (Church, Yount, & Brooks, 2012). That’s huge in contending with the chronic stress loop that results in our minds and bodies being awash in cortisol.
EFT can reset these cortisol or “circadian” rhythms within approximately 3-6 months of establishing regular, routine tapping. Our bodies will reregulate themselves–if we give them some help.
As we tap, EFT counteracts the hippocampus and amygdala triggers. Tapping sends the signal to these brain structures that we are safe. When we tap and recall the negative events or memories in our life, we lower the cortisol around the event, thus informing our subconscious that the witnessed or felt event is no longer happening in the present tense, nor does the event any longer have control over us. We simply neutralize the sensory information that was previously driving our unwanted behaviors and stress.
I invite you to give EFT a try. Attending EFT Level 1 & 2 classes is a wonderful way to immerse yourself in understanding how EFT actually works and will provide you with a bevy of tapping practicum along with a solid basis of how to tap for yourself and for those you wish to help.