“After I was held at gunpoint, EFT helped my PTSD"

Written by Nicola Rayner

After suffering a traumatic incident Nicola Rayner, the author of The Girl Before You, tried a series of therapies to help with her PTSD. Eventually, she found Emotional Freedom Technique, which helped her begin to lead a life largely free of trauma symptoms.

My life was turned upside down 14 years ago. In conversation, I refer to it as “my accident”, but it was, in fact, a violent attack which left me with two broken ankles; a taxi driver in Buenos Aires held me at gunpoint and I escaped out of the moving vehicle through the car window on a motorway. Much worse than the broken bones, though, was the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that followed.

In the months afterwards, the psychological effects of the abduction crept up on me during my physical recovery. At first the flashbacks occurred mostly when I was trying to get to sleep: I would be pulled back to the moment the driver turned around and pushed a gun into my belly, reliving it over and over again. Initially, it was something I tried to subdue with sleeping tablets, but then the panic got worse and began to extend into the daylight hours too.

I started to experience panic attacks regularly, many times a day, often triggered by activities as innocuous as cooking a meal or simply trying to leave the house. It made it very difficult to do anything and, although six months after my accident I was physically stronger and keen to return to work, psychologically I was at my lowest ebb. I was in a state of constant fury and panic. My mood swings were extreme and pins and needles prickled my limbs because I was hyperventilating so much of the time.

PTSD can be very isolating. My mum knew what I was going through and was my biggest source of support, but it wasn’t something I felt I could talk about much, even with my closest friends. Because so many people had told me how brave I was to escape and to survive, I was determined not to be seen as a victim. I was ashamed of my symptoms, and frightened by them too.

It’s as if you enter a different world where everything takes on a new meaning. I wept uncontrollably once because my paper shredder was smoking and I thought it would set the house alight; another time I punched a man at a fancy dress party because I thought he was threatening me.

After a particularly vehement argument with a stranger – someone at Citizens Advice who was actually trying to help me – I realised I needed help. I tried a couple of things, including talking therapies and massage, but my real breakthrough came when I went to see an acupuncturist who had previously treated me to when I wanted to give up smoking.

It was purely by chance, but, in addition to acupuncture, another therapy he practised was Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). You don’t hear about it much in the media but it shares similarities with Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR), a therapy used to treat the symptoms of trauma, which Jameela Jamil praised recently on World Mental Health Day.

The actor tweeted: “This month, 6 years ago, I tried to take my own life. I’m so lucky that I survived, and went on to use EMDR to treat my severe PTSD. I urge you to hang on just a bit longer and ask for help if you need it. Because things can turn around. I promise.”

I feel similarly grateful to EFT, which removed the worst of my flashbacks almost instantaneously. The evening after the treatment, it was as if a huge weight had been lifted off me and I began to feel like myself again. I stopped hyperventilating, the pins and needles disappeared and my panic was vastly reduced. I realise there’s no guarantee that it will be the same for everyone.

Explaining how exactly EFT works is difficult. The therapist tapped acupuncture points on my face, torso and hands, and said affirmations. What seemed even weirder at the time was he asked me to move my eyes in certain ways – left then right and so on – hum Happy Birthday, count up to five, and hum Happy Birthday again.

Practitioners compare trauma to an indigestible meal – something that your system is struggling to process and that can be retriggered. EFT allows us to tune into the “disturbance” by remembering the event and to release the blocked energy, through acupressure or tapping meridian points on the body – like acupuncture with tapping.

What I found to be the most enigmatic part of the therapy is what EFT practitioners call the “9 gamut procedure” – a 10-second process in which nine actions are performed, including the eye movements and humming, while you tap continuously on one of the body’s energy points – the gamut point. The way I’ve had it explained to me is that our eye movements are linked to the way we remember things, which is why we look up when we’re being asked to retrieve a memory.

“Neuroscientists don’t know exactly why this association between traumatic memories and eye movements occurs,” explains health writer Dawson Church. “It may be linked to the ability of the brain to process a disturbing event.”

Certainly for me, the discovery of EFT was life-changing. Unlike EMDR, it’s not yet recommended by the NHS as one of three psychological therapies for PTSD (the other two are cognitive behavioural therapy and group therapy), but a study comparing EFT and EDMR recorded that both treatments produced significant therapeutic gains for sufferers of PTSD.

A slightly higher proportion of patients in the EDMR group showed improvements, but, conversely, the beauty of EFT is that you can learn how to tap and say the affirmations yourself. The process that once seemed like implausible magic to me is now an old friend in times of stress. While I’m not sure you ever fully and neatly recover from trauma – I still occasionally have panic attacks and anxiety – EFT offered the first step out of the darkness.

The Girl Before You by Nicola Rayner is out now in paperback, e-book and audiobook (Avon Books, £7.99). 

Image: Joseph Paxton

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