Controversial training program comes to Canada
April 18, 2008
By Zoe Cormier
A new alternative remedy that proponents say can cure a wide spectrum of emotional conditions — and a few physical ones as well — is going to be offered in Canada for the first time this spring, starting in the first week of May in Montreal, later moving to Toronto and Vancouver.
Called the Phil Parker Lightning Process, because it is intended to cure in just three days, it was designed in the United Kingdom by British psychotherapist Phil Parker for conditions such as anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and addiction.
Some people say it is the silver bullet that finally cured them. But detractors point out that the Lightning Process is scientifically unproven, have criticized its practitioners for making what they consider extravagant claims, and on occasion labeled the organization as fraudulent.
"I designed it for people who were stuck — everything I had tried that worked on everybody else didn't work for them," Parker said in an interview. "I had run out of tools."
Parker says this led him to design a technique combining a number of elements from other alternative therapies, such as neurolinguistic programming and hypnotherapy.
The aim is to help patients break out of negative patterns of thinking and behaviour by having them do specific mental exercises in the vein of positive thinking. It is not a treatment or therapy in the traditional sense, but a "training program," its practitioners say.
"We teach clients to be their own life coach," says practitioner Maxine Henk-Bryce, a British psychotherapist and hypnotherapist who has trained more than 1,200 people in the process since 2002. She will be offering training sessions in Canada starting in Montreal in the first week of May, in Toronto and Vancouver in July, and later throughout Canada (mostly in Vancouver, where she will be based). Sessions take up to 10 people at a time.
Sunny Sanghera, who lives in England, was trained in the Lightning Process in October 2007 by Henk-Bryce for low self-esteem. She says that not only is she more confident now, but that her entire life has changed.
"It isn't just counselling, it's so much more complex than just telling yourself to calm down," she says. "It changes the way you think about everything. Even that evening, listening to a Prince CD I had played for years, all of a sudden I could hear things in the music I hadn't heard before."
People have trained in the process for a slew of emotional and mental conditions, from stage fright to procrastination to long-term guilt. And Parker says it can also help people with physical conditions like back pain and fibromyalgia (chronic muscle pain).
But the Lightning Process is generating the most attention — and controversy — over its use for chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). About 80 per cent of people who sign up for the Lightning Process suffer from CFS, or myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) as it is more commonly known in the U.K.
CFS is a debilitating, persistent illness that affects 1.3 per cent of Canadians, according to Statistics Canada. Afflicted individuals experience aches and pains, severe mental impairment and perpetual exhaustion. They frequently remain ill for many years, even decades, and often must scale back their education and employment considerably.
Physicians have no real cure for CFS. Prescription drugs can only help people deal with symptoms, such as insomnia or pain. Doctors say the best sufferers can do is manage their illness with careful rationing of energy and activity — neither too much nor too little — and slowly improve. Alternative health practitioners offer a plethora of herbal and physical therapies, but none have been proven to work.
One reason for the lack of effective treatments is because research was hampered for many decades by a lack of interest in the syndrome. It was long dismissed as psychosomatic, primarily because patients present no visible symptoms.
Dr. William Reeves, head of chronic fatigue syndrome research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta (pictured in this 2006 file photo), calls CFS a, "complex, brain-body illness." (John Bazemore/Associated Press)
"CFS is a real illness, it is not just a bunch of hooey in people's heads," says Dr. William Reeves, the principal investigator of the syndrome at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Ga. The CDC has a public awareness campaign designed to dispel the psychosomatic stigma that has tainted CFS since the 1980s, when it was widely derided as "yuppie flu."
Scientific studies have shown that there are clear biological markers in CFS patients, such as altered nervous system activity, lower levels of adrenaline, and specific genetic differences. And it appears that CFS may actually turn out to be an umbrella term for a suite of similar illnesses, with different genetic vulnerabilities set off by different triggers.
Although medical science has yet to complete the puzzle, it appears that the illness generally starts with a viral infection of some kind (mononucleosis is one common trigger that has been studied), followed by natural responses of the immune and nervous systems that, for some reason, fail to "turn off" as they normally would.
Though it is not psychosomatic, these responses are centred in the brain in much the same way that Parkinson's, a physical ailment, is centred in the brain.
"This is a complex, brain-body illness," says Reeves, noting that the response by the body to emotional, physical and mental stress appears to be the key. "The brain is central to the body's response to stress, which is manifested through the nervous system."
This, says Henk-Bryce, is how a verbal technique like the Lightning Process can be used to treat CFS.
"It teaches you how the brain works, and to train your brain and body to work together to influence your health," she says. "We look at how the mind influences the body and how the body influences the mind."
It may sound implausible, but thousands of CFS patients — desperate to recover, and with no real cure available — have decided to try it.
Stephanie Dotto, a 21-year-old from Montreal, is one of them. She was diagnosed with CFS three years ago.
"It's incredible how tired you are," she says. "I felt like I had the body of an 80-year-old."
At her worst, she was spending 15 hours in bed a day, was seeing her doctors at least three times a week, and was taking 26 different supplements and pills every single day. And she wasn't getting better.
She had heard about the Lightning Process from other CFS sufferers, so she decided to fly to England in November 2007 to try it.
"I was trying to be as open-minded as possible, but it's hard not to wonder how something like that could physically heal you," she says.
But Dotto says she made a full recovery and has gone off all her medication. "I'm not sure how it worked. All I know is that it worked, so I am thankful. I feel like they gave me my life back."
Thousands of other people who were once crippled by CFS also say the Lightning Process has cured them.
But as anecdotal reports have fuelled hope in some, the Lightning Process has also generated controversy. It is scientifically unproven, and not endorsed by any medical authority. And to some CFS support groups, the claim that a verbal method could cure a physical ailment seems to imply that CFS is a psychological manifestation after all, a notion they find offensive.
John Greensmith, a CFS sufferer and campaigner with the British advocacy group ME Free For All, also questions the fact that people who train in the process frequently go on to become practitioners themselves.
"That seems to me like a pyramid scheme," he says, noting that at a cost of around $1,200, the training program doesn't come cheap.
"We think their claims are extravagant," Greensmith adds, pointing out that Lightning Process practitioners assert that the training program should work in all cases so long as patients properly follow instructions.
"If you use it properly you will get the results each and every time," asserts Henk-Bryce.
Greensmith isn't sold. "So if patients get better, they claim the success of the treatment — but if they don't, they say the patient is responsible."
Isobel Bennett, 49 years old from London, says it didn't work for her when she tried it last year. In fact, she says it made her worse.
"It encouraged me to push myself beyond my natural limits, and afterwards I crashed badly, becoming housebound. I'm just gradually beginning to pick up now," she says.
Others recount similar stories of relapses after going through the process.
"I think it is potentially a useful technique," says Bennett. "But I am bitter that they are not very open to recognizing that it doesn't work for some people. It needs to be tailored more to individual cases rather than just a 'one size fits all, so if it doesn't work for you then tough' attitude. CFS is so little understood — it's not the same illness in everybody. For some people, it potentially could be dangerous."
"We are dealing with a number of disorders, and we are still not able to divide the subgroups carefully enough — we're looking at apples and oranges and plums," agrees Dr. Leslie Findley, an expert in Parkinson's disease and a clinical neuroscientist in Essex, England.
He is conducting a pilot study with CFS patients and the Lightning Process — the first independent study of its kind — and he says so far, his research indicates it benefits about two-thirds of patients. For the other third, there is no change in their illness, and in a small number of cases there can be bad relapses.
While the findings are not as high as the 100-per-cent success rate some practitioners of the Lightning Process claim, it does imply that the training program can help some people, and that a verbal technique can be used as a treatment for this physical illness.
"Do I believe that CFS is psychosomatic? The answer is an emphatic no. It is a disorder of the brain," Findley says.
But, he adds, he doesn't think the Lightning Process is going to be the definitive treatment for CFS. "Most patients, if properly managed, will recover on their own. I just see this as another way of helping patients that haven't responded to much simpler approaches."
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