I went in not knowing what to expect – and came out not knowing what to think.
When I was offered the chance to try out a new treatment that’s touted to reduce the symptoms of anxiety by 85 percent and the severity of depression symptoms by 83 percent, I couldn’t pull up my calendar fast enough – I booked my spot immediately. (The World Health Organization estimates that 450 million people worldwide live with mental illness of some sort; who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity for relief, right?)
My anxiety has been steamrolling me lately, with its good friend depression riding shotgun. It makes writing feel like a slog, has put a strain on my relationships, and just plain makes life hard. There’s pretty much no treatment I wouldn’t sign up for at this point, I’m so desperate to feel better. Want to cover me in the blood of a freshly slaughtered ram and tie me up with its intestines? Okay, sure. Sounds good. This, however, promised to be a much more pleasant experience, given that it was scheduled to take place in a spa in midtown Manhattan on a Tuesday morning.
The Access Bars is billed as “a gentle ‘subtle energy’ modality that releases built-up stress in your body and mind.” It was developed 25 years ago by “personal development” guru Gary Douglas, and involves an Access Bars facilitator lightly touching different points on your head while you lie back and relax. The treatment takes about an hour, and is supposed to release energy and stimulate positive change in the brain.
“Basically, the practice deletes the files on your computer bank and releases the thoughts, feelings, emotions, considerations and attitudes you have stored in your brain. It allows you to create change in any way you want in life,” Douglas explains. Patients have reported results including increased motivation, greater mental clarity, relief from anxiety, depression, insomnia, migraines, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and a “significant increase in joy and happiness.”
Granted, those are pretty lofty claims. The idea that someone touching my head (or any other part of my body) could do all that is, to put it mildly, a little far-fetched. But no one has ever accused me of being a skeptic. Case in point: I’m a devout believer in both God and astrology. Ready for my life to change, I was willing to believe that the Access Bars could do exactly what it claims to, and eagerly looked forward to my appointment.
Ready for my life to change
On the morning of my scheduled Access Bars session, I woke up from a nightmare, dripping with sweat. As I got out of the shower, my period came (with a vengeance). By the time I got to the train platform, I was so tense I felt like I might spontaneously combust. Perfect.
I had no idea, really, what I was in for – I kept picturing Pinhead, that guy from the Hellraiser movies, when I read about the 32 points on my head that would be stimulated in order to release energy and cure my depression and anxiety. (Okay, so they never exactly promised to cure my depression and anxiety, but a scientific study published in the Journal of Energy Psychology said the results of one 90-minute Access Bars session showed an 80-plus percent reduction in depression and anxiety – and I’m nothing if not an optimist.)
At the Floating Lotus spa, I was greeted by Jackee Shu, an acupuncturist and Access Bars facilitator with a warm smile and calm energy that immediately put me at ease. She explained that all I had to do was lie back and relax – there was no right or wrong thing to do while she was “running my bars” (in the vernacular used by Access Bars enthusiasts). I could talk, ask questions, meditate, or even go to sleep. In fact, she said many people report getting the best sleep they’ve ever had during an Access Bars session. The only thing to avoid was putting my hands together, because, she said, it would disrupt the flow of energy.
I kicked off my shoes and got settled on a massage table. Jackee covered me with a blanket, and I prepared to feel amazing.
The first thing Jackee did was to lightly touch the bottoms of my feet – to release energy, she said. Then she moved up to my head and began to touch those 32 points (although I confess, I lost count after the first three).
The information I’d read beforehand said an Access Bars treatment would feel like a gentle head massage, but Jackee’s touch was so light, it didn’t feel like much of a massage. She placed her hands on different places on my head and held them there, barely touching me. At one point she picked up my hands, and toward the end of the session, she held my feet again. By that time, I felt like I was floating. There was a gentle buzzing throughout my entire body, and my hands and feet were tingling. But that’s skipping ahead a bit…
How does it get better than this?
As Jackee “ran my bars,” I nervously babbled to her about my hectic morning. She’d told me I should feel free to talk about anything I wanted, so before long, I found myself opening up as if I were on my therapist’s couch, saying whatever came to mind. I confided in her about my kids, my relationship, my career, my finances, my difficult living situation – all the stuff that means the most to me, and stresses me out the most. Maybe it was the energy shifting inside me, opening me up – or maybe I’m just a born oversharer, with very few qualms about airing my dirty laundry.
Whenever I paused my monologue to take a breath, Jackee would gently ask me a question. Her favorite query was, “How does it get better than this?”, which I didn’t quite know how to answer. How does it get better? I guess I could get a book deal (which would first require actually finishing my proposal and finding an agent – things I haven’t bothered to prioritize), or I could win the lottery (which is obviously highly unlikely and would also require buying a ticket – something my religious upbringing and moral compass will never allow me to do). Or maybe my boyfriend and children could develop the capacity to read minds in order to always do and say exactly what I’d like them to do and say (obviously not going to happen, and even if it did, it would almost certainly be creepy, and probably extremely boring as well).
When I complained about some aspect of my life, Jackee would ask, “What’s right about it?” or “What else is possible?” Those sound like pretty simple questions, on the face of it. But try to answer them, and you’ll find they’re not so simple. If you’re used to fixating on what’s wrong about a situation – how you’re not getting enough or doing enough, how messed up everything is and how upset you are – then asking yourself what’s right about that particular situation feels completely counterintuitive. And when you’re feeling stuck, it’s hard to imagine what else is possible.
How does it get better than this? She kept asking, and I realized that when I really thought about it, I didn’t know. Whatever problems I had, at that very moment I was lying on a comfy table at a luxurious spa in the city I’d dreamed of living my entire life, being given a free treatment because of my job as a writer and editor – something I feel so lucky to get to do, and that I take for granted way too often. My children were happy and healthy and off doing fun things, and my boyfriend was going to meet me for lunch afterward. It doesn’t really get better than that on a random Tuesday, does it?
A shift in perspective
Access Bars facilitators claim that once you have a session, you’ll continue to release stuck energy forever. “The most dramatic effects tend to be noticed within three to four weeks of the session,” says the literature I was given. It also says that every time you have it done again, the effects will be further reaching. Jackee told me that some people have their bars run every day.
I had to wonder, though. Did Jackee touching my head (and hands and feet) really do anything? Or was it the questions she asked that made the difference? Was I tingling and buzzing at the end of the session because I was having a crazy-heavy period and hadn’t had any breakfast, or was it really because energy in my body was shifting and being released?
Jackee sent me home from my Access Bars session with a book called Being You, Changing the World, by Dr. Dain Heer. Heer was a practicing chiropractor back in 2000, when he met Gary Douglas. The two soon became business partners in Access Consciousness, the company behind the Access Bars, and Heer now travels around the world, speaking and facilitating workshops.
Heer’s book is full of the kind of sentences that sound like they make sense, but upon further reflection, don’t actually make sense at all. Take this, for example, under the heading, Destroy, Uncreate Set Your Reality Free:
“If you look at this book, it looks solid, right? Except science tells us it’s 99.999 percent space. But it does look solid. Isn’t that weird? Yet, it is 99.999 percent space – it’s just that the molecules are arranged in such a way that it looks solid and impenetrable.” He goes on to explain that the limitations in our lives are like the book – they look solid, but they aren’t. “I’d like to invite you – and the energy you are – to go back to the place where you took all those molecules and arranged them as solid instead of space, pliability and changeability, and undo it so it can be the space that it actually is. So you can be the space you truly be.” Wait, what?
Maybe I’m unenlightened, or I need to have my bars run a few more times, or I’m just not that bright (I was never picked for the gifted and talented program in school), but I have no idea what this means. And I’m pretty sure it’s not even grammatically correct. As much as I want to believe – as much as I want to rearrange my molecules to remove the limitations in my life – I just don’t get it.
The science behind the claims
Let’s back away from the book for a minute and look at the science behind the Access Bars – because there is some data showing that it works. Neuroscientist Jeffrey Fannin, PhD, did a study that showed a single Access Bars session had a positive neurological effect similar to those experienced by advanced meditators. The study raised more questions than answers, however.
“We don’t know to what degree a change in the energy flow impacts the brain in the long-term,” writes Fannin. “There are still unanswered questions that came to light in this study. Such as, when changes to a person’s energy field occurs [sic] and a person is identified as being in transition, how long are they in transition before the energy stabilizes? After receiving a Bars session does the session have a cumulative effect as the person continues to receive Bars sessions? Do the positive changes to improve a person’s energy field continue to improve with more Bars sessions? How long do the effects of a Bars session last? We hope to find the answer to these questions in the future.”
Another study, published in the November 2017 issue of the Journal of Energy Psychology: Theory, Research, and Treatment, concluded that Access Bars sessions were “associated with a significant decrease in the severity of symptoms of anxiety and depression and an increase in EEG coherence. These results suggest that Access Bars may be useful as a treatment for anxiety and depression.”
If it works, does anything else matter?
Confession: since I had my Access Bars treatment a month ago, I actually have been feeling better. I feel lighter, less anxious, more open-minded and hopeful. I have more patience, and I’m able to stay in the present moment more often, not worrying about the future. But also, I recently started taking a new anti-anxiety medication, went back to yoga class after many months away from my mat, and have been diligent about getting plenty of sleep and taking time to meditate each day.
Football player Ricky Williams is an advocate of the Access Bars, and as such, has been accused of being “in a cult.” And a Houston Press article called Access Consciousness a “Scientology knockoff,” accusing Gary Douglas of being at best, a charlatan, and at worst, a pedophile (claims he strenuously denies).
Bad press aside, I find myself agreeing with Williams, who told the writer of the piece calling Access Consciousness a cult, “People that are doing things that are different, they [have] detractors…I think for each his own. We’re all at different places in the journey and we all require different kinds of medicine. Be true to yourself, listen to your heart, and you’ll be fine.”
Co-founder Dain Heer admits that Access Consciousness, and the Access Bars, are “weird” and “wacky.” But, he says, it works. “When awareness and the desire for change intersect, everything can shift. Many people simply become the change they were seeking. What else is possible?”
Whether you “have your bars run” or not, that’s certainly a question worth asking.
Featured image via tumblr.com.
Comment: How do you feel about energy healing and other alternative health treatments?