What Is Tapping For Anxiety Disorders?

Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Erban, LMFT, IMH-E
Updated April 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Anxiety disorders are the most common category of mental health disorders. The American Psychiatric Association estimates that anxiety will affect almost 30% of adults at some point in their lives. Tapping is one simple technique that some people may find helpful in decreasing anxiety symptoms in the moment. Read on to learn more about what tapping is, how it can help with symptoms, and how to practice it.

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What is anxiety?

Virtually everyone feels nervous or on edge from time to time, such as before a big work presentation or during conflict with a friend or partner. However, having a clinical, diagnosable anxiety disorder is different from just having a case of nerves. These disorders are characterized by “excessive worry or fear” that’s generally out of proportion to the situation and is so pervasive and persistent that it can negatively impact daily functioning, relationships, and overall well-being. In addition to the mental symptoms, it may also manifest as physical pain for some people in the form of stomach aches, headaches, and muscle aches. It can also have other physical symptoms, like sleep disturbances or increased heart rate.

There are various subtypes of disorders that an individual may present with, including:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) 

  • Phobias

  • Social anxiety disorder

  • Panic disorder

  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

  • Body-dysmorphic disorder (BDD)

Treating disorders with tapping

Although anxiety disorders can have a negative effect on a person’s life, they are considered highly treatable. Psychotherapy, sometimes in tandem with medication, is a commonly suggested course of treatment for this stress disorder. Part of that process typically involves learning healthy coping mechanisms that the individual can practice on their own. Some of these techniques may lead to a significant decrease in related symptoms. Tapping is one such technique that may help an individual stave off or relieve mild to moderate symptoms in real time.

What is tapping?

Tapping, which is sometimes referred to as psychological acupuncture, is associated with a methodology for mental health management known as the emotional freedom technique (EFT). It was originally connected to a concept called thought field therapy (TFT), which was introduced in the 1980s by psychologist Dr. Robert Callahan. Like EFT today, TFT consists of physically tapping on specific points in the body to promote the potential alleviation of symptoms. The emotional freedom technique version that some people choose to practice now is a more simplified version of this approach, which was later popularized by engineer Gary Craig, who worked alongside Dr. Callahan.

The simplified version of tapping has two key components. The first is gently making physical contact with specific EFT tapping points of the body (known as meridian points or meridian lines), which are commonly used in therapeutic acupuncture. These areas vary in their location, with the starting point usually being the Karate Chop Point located on the outside of either hand. It's important to note that while many of these areas will be the same as traditional acupuncture points, no needles will be used when making contact.

The second component involves practicing strategies borrowed from the cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) methodology to help the individual become aware of the source of the anxiety they’re currently experiencing. The physical tapping component of this technique can help ground an individual in the present moment and help them find calm, while the cognitive therapy elements can help them manage their present emotions in a healthy way. Both elements are meant to work in tandem to create a balance in the body’s energy systems and assist with pain or emotional distress.

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Is tapping effective?

Anecdotally, many have found that EFT tapping works as an effective method for helping them manage their mental health. In terms of clinical EFT viability, there’s some debate. Tapping has been explored in a variety of scientific journals and meta-analyses, though results are often inconclusive or were obtained from small sample sizes. Research from 2019 suggests that tapping may be able to reduce anxiety symptoms after only one session by improving an individual’s ability to emotionally control. A 2022 study that examined its efficacy among children in a classroom setting, however, found that although “student anxiety dissipated over two stages of intervention,” tapping is “not always effective”. In addition, a randomized controlled trial conducted in 2013 showed EFT treatment led to significant psychological trauma symptom improvement in veterans when compared to the control group.

Note that tapping is not intended to be a replacement for treatment from a licensed professional for mental health conditions, especially in more severe cases. It may not work on its own as a method to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, GAD, or other disorders related to trauma.

There have been certain proposed clinical guidelines for using EFT to treat specific conditions like PTSD; these guidelines recommend a stepped-care model and multiple treatment sessions depending on what disorder is being treated. It's possible that the EFT treatment you receive may not follow these clinical guidelines. 

That said, since the barriers to entry and the potential drawbacks of giving this technique a try are quite low, it may be worth experimenting with.

How to practice tapping

Although you can learn to practice tapping on your own or from sources like the Tapping Solution Foundation, working with a clinician or therapist who is trained in EFT treatment techniques may help you maximize its potential benefits. You may also benefit from using an EFT application (like the Tapping Solution app). If you’d like to try tapping yourself, you can follow the steps below.

Step 1: Name the thought

Tapping sessions usually begin with a technique taken from the CBT methodology, which involves identifying the specific thought pattern or negative emotion that’s causing you anxiety at a given moment. It might be a fear, a worry, or a rumination about a past event, a present circumstance, or something that could occur in the future. Start by identifying this thought either by saying it out loud to yourself or keeping it in your mind as you begin your tapping session.

Step 2: Evaluate your current level of anxiety for intensity

Next, you can identify the level of anxiety that you’re currently feeling by giving it a number between one and 10, with 10 being the most extreme. That way, you can evaluate whether the technique has helped restore balance to your emotions by the time you’ve completed it.

Step 3: Choose an affirmation phrase

The following step is to establish a positive affirmation phrase, which can help you focus your attention as you engage in the exercise. There are many variations of phrases you might use during EFT sessions. You can select a different one each time according to your needs in the given moment, or you can choose one, grounding phrase to come back to each time. Examples of positive reminder phrases include “I show myself compassion for how I’m feeling right now”, or “Even though I feel X, I am committed to self-acceptance and positivity”.

Step 4: Begin your tapping sequence

After you’ve chosen an affirmation to keep in mind or repeat during the practice, you or any EFT practitioners you are working with can begin the actual tapping. When it comes to where on your body to tap, the list of recommended areas according to EFT International includes, in order:

  • The top of your head

  • The broadest part of your eyebrow

  • The exterior corner of your eye(s)

  • Under your eye

  • Under your nose

  • Mid-chin

  • The midpoint of your collarbone

  • Your underarm

  • The lateral side of your hand, beneath your pinky finger

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The tapping movement can be done gently with two or more fingertips tapping lightly up to five times on each point in ascending order, from the top of your head on down. As you go, you may choose to recite your reminder phrase to maintain mental focus. You can do this sequence just once, or repeat it multiple times in a single session. When you’ve finished, you can rate the level of anxiety you now feel on a scale of one to 10 so you can see if this technique has helped you feel calmer. If the technique works right, it may be able to help you find a healthier stress response to the thought or feeling that caused your feelings in the first place.

Online therapy

As mentioned previously, psychotherapy is the most common, clinically backed treatment method for anxiety, sometimes recommended in tandem with medication. If you’re interested in meeting with a therapist to address symptoms, there are options available. Those who would prefer to speak with a provider in person can search for one in their local area who offers in-office visits. Those who would prefer to seek treatment from the comfort of home might consider online therapy.

With a virtual counseling platform like BetterHelp, for instance, you can get matched with a licensed provider who you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging to address the challenges you may be facing. Research suggests that online therapy can be effective in treating anxiety disorders, making this format a viable option for those who are looking for a more cost-effective method for receiving care.

Takeaway

While psychotherapy is the most commonly recommended treatment for anxiety disorders, emotional freedom techniques may be a helpful way to manage moments of anxiety in real-time. See above for how to get started with this method, and how to connect with a therapist for professional anxiety treatment and support.
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