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Articles & Ideas


Cognitive Shifts (Belief Changes) That Work

Important Note: This article was written prior to 2010 and is now outdated. Please use my newest advancement, Optimal EFT. It is more efficient, more powerful and clearly explained in my free e-book, The Unseen Therapist™.  Best wishes, Gary

Hi Everyone,

One of the most useful features of EFT is its uncanny ability to generate belief changes. In psycho-speak terms these are often called Cognitive Shifts and happen so infrequently with conventional therapy that they are greeted with "metaphorical handsprings" when they occur. Refreshingly, however, they happen regularly with EFT. Read on as EFT Master Barbara Smith from New Zealand gives her insights and experience with this important phenomenon.

Hugs, Gary

By Barbara Smith, EFT Master

Two of my Level 2 EFT students expressed some confusion as to what we mean by Cognitive Shifts.  One is a counsellor and the other is a care worker in a disability centre.   Before learning EFT, each had often helped people to see their problems in new ways, so that they would gain insight into their problems. Their clients gained new understanding, and were more optimistic, and made changes in their lives. These EFT students had always thought of such changes as being as a result of cognitive shifts. They were also aware of how often such a shift didn’t last, at least under their previous methods.   Indeed these very same clients would come back with the same issue after a week, a month or a year...  

Now, in their EFT studies, the students were hearing again about the importance of cognitive shifts.    They were working effectively with reframing and testing, and getting good results.  They wanted to be more effective still. Their questions to me were

‘Is a ‘cognitive shift’ different in EFT, and if so, what can we do, and how do we know that the client has made a cognitive shift that will last?”

Good questions! I first referred my students to the useful search engine on the EFT website where they found several very informative articles that demonstrate the use of cognitive shifts.   This article is the outcome of their research and our subsequent conversations.  

Cognitive Shifts that last – the difference that makes the difference

When we talk of a cognitive shift many people, like my two students, tend to think of such a shift as a change in thinking.   This is not news.   Most of us, before EFT, have been through some variation of this theme:

“Last year I made a new resolution. I was determined to lose weight; I thought it was really important; I really wanted to do it;  I planned what to do; I knew all about how I came to have this problem and the consequences of not doing it.  I made great progress for three months, but come the first of May, all that had happened was that I was heavier than ever.” 

In making this kind of resolution, we certainly change our thinking and our intention:  we make a conscious decision about the issue, but is this a cognitive shift?  Many people would say yes, but when we talk about a cognitive shift in EFT we are looking for more than that.  

I started to look for an accepted meaning of the expression ‘cognitive shift’.  I found it has been used in psychiatry, mostly it seems, to describe the kind of downward slide in perception and behaviour made by some psychiatric patients when they shift in and out of various types of psychotic states. When I turned to the dictionary I found most definitions of cognition include knowing, perceiving and awareness, as well as thinking, reasoning and understanding.  Inherent in this are the concepts of the conscious mind, the subconscious mind, and unconscious process.

I believe we will make better progress with our clients if we accept that a ‘cognitive shift’ is more than just a change in thinking, or intention,  but one that involves change in all layers of consciousness. 

When we are working with EFT, we engage our everyday knowing, thinking and understanding, and at the same time we access deeper levels of consciousness, usually expressed through the body, as we physically tap into our energy system. 

Using the tapping sequence to access these deeper levels is often the difference that makes a difference.

How do we actually help our clients to work at this deeper level?

When Gary tells his clients on video to ‘just guess’ their SUDS (intensity rating 0 to 10) he is inviting them to trust a hunch (or their unconscious) rather than having to consciously think up an answer.

When Gary asks: “How do you know that your distress level is an 8?’ he is inviting people to look for something deeper than first conscious thought. When we first hear this question, we often don’t know how we know, so we automatically get curious, slow down and notice. We realise that something is going on inside; a body memory or reaction, or maybe an old picture, vision or thought;  or we may see a little image of a distress scale with the pointer on a 10.  

These things arise unbidden - without conscious thought.    At this point we are still aware of our therapist, but more of our attention will be on our inner reactions, feelings and images.  We don’t think these up; they are just there.  At this point we have engaged not only our conscious mind, but also subconscious and unconscious processes as they show themselves in images, sensations, and body reactions. 

The definitions below, from the Oxford Concise Medical Dictionary have helped me understand subconscious and unconscious processes, so that I will target EFT more appropriately.  This has led to even more cognitive shifts that last.  

Subconscious process involves the part of the mind that contains memories, motives and intentions that are currently out of awareness but that can be pulled to mind.

Unconscious process involves the part that holds memories, motives and intentions that cannot be pulled to mind without overcoming resistance.

Now psychotherapists have been working with resistance for years.  Unfortunately, ‘overcoming resistance’ has often taken people years as well.    With EFT we can usually do this quite effortlessly and quickly.   The standard EFT protocol of tapping into our energy system whilst holding the distressing issue in mind seems to be the key to overcoming this resistance, so that our issues are more available for change.   I have found this works very well, even with very early core beliefs that we ‘hunched up’ before we had words.

This deeper form of ‘cognitive shift’ may manifest itself as a sense of lightness, a burden dropped off the shoulders, or a profound feeling of being safe at last.  We may still remember something painful, but it just doesn’t matter any more.   These kinds of experiences go beyond thinking, or even understanding, indeed, they can be so profound that we have no words to describe them.   We just are different. 

This is not any sort of scientific explanation but just what I have observed from many years of psychotherapy practice, now transformed by seven years of EFT. 

How to make Cognitive Shifts happen

There are many great articles and tutorials contributed by gifted EFTers, showing us how to achieve cognitive shifts that last.   New ideas blended with basic techniques make our task easier and more effective than ever before. I urge you to try them all. They make this work such a joy and a delight that I want to share with you some of the specific theory, techniques and tools that I use to make this process even better than ever before.

Creating opportunities for cognitive shifts that work 

Effective questioning identifies the client’s issues.

Since cognitive shifts come as a result of tapping for a specific problem, issue or memory, I ask people to tell me the problem.    When I hear his spoken words, I may notice that while my client speaks apparently openly, his tight body turned away, and his folded arms are sending a different message. A message he may be quite unaware of.   Here is both his conscious and unconscious story showing itself in living colour!    I’ve learned the hard way what happens when I jump in and cleverly point out things that he is not yet aware of.   So I respect the obvious body message that says ‘back off’.  I will hold this as important information that will eventually help me recognise a deep cognitive shift – I will see it his changed posture.  It is one of those specific little bits of information to note when later testing deep change.

As I listen to his story, I want this to be more than just a thinking process, so I may catch a significant phrase and say

“What happens inside you when you say that?” 

Another way of doing that is to draw attention to small shifts in the body.

  • I notice when you say that, your shoulders drop.  What if you say the words again and notice what your shoulders might be telling you.
  • Something happened when you said that.   It is as if your body kind of tensed up, did you notice that

Since the client is identifying the issues on which to tap, the more we can help him be on target with his deeper problems, the more effective is the result.  If we can help him get curious about what is happening in his emotions, body sensations and impulses, as well as thinking, he will learn more about how an issue affects him.  If he doesn’t, then I know it will work best to frame up future questions in language that make (cognitive) sense to him.

In my experience if a cognitive shift is to last it will be obvious both in a body change and in reported thinking and feeling shifts.  That doesn’t mean that the client is necessarily aware of all this.    As he starts tapping on his issues, and working through the various steps of the process, I’ll be watching his body for indications of changes in thinking.  I expect to see some bodily change that matches his words.  This may take the form of shifts in his breathing pattern or skin tone, or signs of him coming to rest in his body that are congruent with what he tells me.    This unconscious shift in his body confirms that something significant has taken place.   

Consolidating the shift in consciousness 

We find that when the SUDS scale reduces, some kind of cognitive shift has usually landed. I invite him to notice what has changed.  Then, to ensure that the shift is consolidated, I’ll test by taking the client back to his earlier issue and invite him to test the change. 

Here are some of the different modes I use to frame this test: 

What happens NOW, when you:

Access mind: What happens now when you think of (his first statement?)

Access hearing: What happens now when I say … (his first statement?)

Access the body sense:  What do you notice in your body that makes you know this has changed?

Access emotions:  What do you feel when you remember that?

Ask open questions:  How do you know that this has changed?  And, realising that, how does it make a difference?

Make tentative guesses:  It seems like your whole body went “Aha!” did you notice that…..

Go for meaning:  How does it make a difference as you recognise that. What does that mean to you now when you think about (the issue). 

The final test is to imagine the future. 

“If you can’t imagine yourself doing it, it is not likely to happen” counselling lore: 1975

I use the testing process, both to ensure that the original issues are completely resolved, and to help the client to make cognitive sense of what has changed for him.  I might do this by asking him to verbalise the change by making a new self statement.    Sometimes we will consolidate by tapping the new statement alternately with his old one.  Sometimes he writes it out on a card to take home, or we set up the tapping protocol in the format of a choice.  (See Patricia Carrington’s work on Choices). 

The frosting on the cake, however, is to enable the client to get as full a sense as possible of how this change might manifest itself in the future.   Notice, in the following process, how I might engage him in a variety of ways that will expand and deepen his experience. 

“Think of a time in the future when this issue might crop up. 

Make a little movie. 

Listen to the sound track.

Be in your movie and notice what happens now…” 

When he returns on the following session, with a light in his eyes, his body is open and upright, a spring in his step, and there is awe in his words as he says  

“It was no problem!    I can’t ever remember feeling this good…”  

 That is what I call a Cognitive Shift that worked.

Barbara Smith  

EFT Master, New Zealand


Explore our newest advancement, Optimal EFT™, by reading my free e-book, The Unseen Therapist™. More efficient. More powerful.