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Phil Parker Lightning ProcessTM

The Phil Parker Lightning Process (LP) is a training program that claims to help people recover from chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple sclerosis, "resolve depression, anxiety, panic attacks, overeating, low self-esteem, guilt, OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and other areas of stuckness [sic]," and "enhance ... performance in business and sports." He says his program also helps people with bad backs, migraines, "or anything people want to get better at."* The first thing that should come to mind when hearing these amazing things is: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

If one views Phil Parker's video explanation of what the LP process is, one might not get a clear picture of how grandiose his claims actually are. In the video, Parker regurgitates the common quack mantra about the mind being able to control the body so that the body can heal itself. When he gets to the part about proof that LP works, the screen shows a "censored" message and there is a voiceover lamenting the fact that he's cut out the original scene because it didn't pass scientific muster with those censors who require actual scientific studies. Anyway, it would be nice if, say, I could control my cancer by controlling messages my brain is sending to my pancreas and liver, but this quack's promise is little more than a common delusion of the so-called alternative health community. I believe the evidence is overwhelming that a cancer patient would be infinitely better off trying scientific medicine (immunotherapy, targeted therapy, or chemotherapy, for example) rather than trying to use the brain to create thoughts that will kill cancer cells. Parker doesn't claim his LP can cure cancer, as far as I know, but he does claim that his method of teaching you to use your brain to control your body can relieve you of chronic fatigue syndrome, migraines, back pain, as well as depression and OCD. So, he's not the worst of quacks. He doesn't claim you have cancer because of your thoughts or that you can get rid of cancer by using your mind to control your body. Still, Parker makes some grandiose claims about LP and there seems precious little to support those claims.

To be fair, though, we shouldn't dismiss LP without examining the scientific studies that demonstrate its effectiveness. Unfortunately, there aren't any studies worth examining. (Parker might disagree. I invite you to review his "research" page.) There have been two studies. One study involved a non-random sample of 9 people with no control group. Before the study took place, two British charities issued a joint statement criticizing the proposed study, which was aimed at young people with chronic fatigue syndrome or myalgic encephalomyelitis. Among other things the joint statement said: "A survey of 4,217 people carried out by the ME Association on the management of ME/CFS found that over a fifth of those who had tried the Lightning Process were made worse (7.9% slightly worse,12.9% much worse)." Esther Crawley et al. in a feasibility study of 56 children recruited from 156 eligible children concluded that an LP study was feasible and safe, although 64% of parents with eligible children wouldn’t even let their kids participate.

Crawley has begun a study comparing specialist medical care with specialist medical care plus the Lightning Process® for chronic fatigue syndrome or myalgic encephalomyelitis. Daniel Clark, who has expressed concerns about Crawley's work before, has some concerns about this study:

....the Lightning Process RCT being carried out by Esther Crawley changed it's primary outcome measure from school attendance to scores on a self-report questionnaire. Given that LP involves making claims to patients about their own ability to control symptoms in exactly the sort of way likely to lead to response bias, it seems very likely that this trial will now find LP to be 'effective'. One of the problems with EBM is that it is often difficult to reliably measure the outcomes that are important to patients and account for the biases that occur in non-blinded trials, allowing for exaggerated claims of efficacy to be made to patients. (personal correspondence)

In short, we haven't much to examine in the way of scientific studies, but we can examine what LP's creator, Phil Parker, has to say about his program. Granted, he may be a bit biased, but let's examine what he has to say anyway.

Phil ParkerFirst, Phil tells us that he is a graduate of a school of osteopathy in Britain and that he has been trained in at least two pseudosciences: cranial osteopathy and applied kinesiology. He's also studied hypnotherapy and neurolinguistic programming (NLP). None of these fields are proper preparation for treating chronic fatigue, depression, OCD, or the like. But perhaps Parker is a genius who just stumbled upon a program that can treat physical and psychological disorders, and can also enhance business and sports performances. What are the odds? In any case, he claims to have about 115 people who are practicing LP trainers in eleven countries.

Second, Phil tells us that his program is quite complicated and takes twelve hours to complete (three four-hour days). In that time, the program will find what's stopping you from having good health, holding up your golf game, or keeping you from being happy or rich. Then, he'll fix it. You can expect 70% improvement after the first day and by the end of the third day 85% are fixed.* (Unfortunately, Phil seems to have pulled these numbers out of his arse.)

What is LP? Phil doesn't say exactly, but he tells us on his website that it is an amazing hodgepodge of "concepts from NLP, Hypnotherapy, Life Coaching and Osteopathy."* That's fine, but what concerns me is that those of us who would like to know more about LP and how it differs, say, from NLP, are not directed to any empirical studies. Instead, Phil recommends that we do three things. First, we should go to his online store and buy his Introduction to the Lightning ProcessTM Book. Next, Phil says, we should watch his videos and read the testimonials of many success stories. Unfortunately, we know that testimonials are no substitute for scientific studies. I could treat people with dog spit and find at least 50 subjects who will swear that I cured their cancer or eliminated their irritable bowel syndrome. What we need to see are well-designed scientific studies that eliminate self-deception and isolate in specific ways what counts as success due to the training methods. Finally, Phil recommends we find the nearest Phil Parker Lightning ProcessTM Practitioners and download their application form.

I don't think so. Phil says he's been doing this stuff for ten or fifteen years. He should have at least one scientific study we can look at. He should have a lot of data to work with. But I suspect that Phil doesn't keep records, except maybe accounting records. I hope he proves me wrong and sends me a copy of his research so I can rewrite this article and recommend that Phil be given the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his amazing discovery of a training program that can help my golf game while relieving me of chronic fatigue, excess weight, and the splitting headache I've acquired while thinking about the people who are so desperate that they'll seriously consider shelling out £780 ($1,330 or €1,004) for the LP program (price as of October 22, 2008) or a licenced LP practitioner for a total of £5844 (price as of September 24, 2015). To become an LP practitioner you must first get a Clinical NLP Practitioner and Life Coach Diploma and become a Master Practioner of NLP.*

I'm not suggesting that all the testimonials are from liars or paid hands. Nor am I suggesting that there are no satisfied LP clients. In fact, I would be willing to bet that some people have been helped by LP. That said, I nevertheless believe that anyone with a serious physical or mental disorder should seek treatment elsewhere. It is likely that many of LP's customers are people who are physically or emotionally miserable or unhappy. They may have been told by several professionals they've consulted that there's nothing wrong with them or that whatever ails them is something that nothing can be done about or that it's all in their head. They don't accept this, maybe with good reason, and then they find that Phil Parker gives them hope. He tells them it's all in their heads and that he knows how to get their heads to work better, get them "unstuck", and control thoughts that will let their bodies heal themselves. He promises to help them and do it quickly. The fee is irrelevant to the desperate client. So is hard evidence. Testimonials from so many nice looking, happy people is enough.

So, who gets helped? Not those with serious or chronic diseases. Those who get helped will be those who need somebody to guide them through life, somebody to get them to think about themselves and their goals. The ones who feel they got their money's worth will be those who needed to get their mind on the right track but had no idea of how to do it. It has been known for thousands of years, at least as far back as Aristotle, that how a person thinks affects how he behaves, and how he behaves affects how he feels and thinks. If you are constantly thinking about your sore toe or how everybody is against you, if you are constantly harboring negative and self-destructive thoughts, you will feel and behave accordingly. You can train yourself to think positively, to set positive and realistic goals, to develop criteria to measure success. You can act as if you are happy and you will be amazed how the way you act will affect the way you think and feel, and vice-versa. When you are miserable, you can do some of the things that you do when you are feeling well. Just doing them will affect how you feel and think. If you are happiest sitting by a stream in the mountains with nobody around, where the only sounds are those of the water trickling over the rocks and the wind rustling through the pines, then go to the mountains or pick up a book of poetry by someone like Wordsworth (as John Stuart Mill did when he was blue) and let your mind take you there.

The son of one person who was helped by LP told me that a common explanation for long-term fatigue given by LP folks is something called the “Physical Emergency Response,” which seems to be a repackaging of Hans Selye's General Adaptation Syndrome. Chronic fatigue is the body's reaction to stress. My correspondent describes the theory: "When a stress-causing stimulus produces the “fight or flight” response a number of hormones are released and if these higher than normal hormone levels remain high for extended periods, one can suffer from restlessness, insomnia, fatigue, poor immune response and other symptoms." The LP folks maintain that people who are chronically fatigued are stuck in a physiological Catch-22 that continually puts stress on the body causing their lethargy. Who knows? But it is unlikely that in the short period of time that LP is performed that any continual monitoring of hormones is done. The explanation sounds like backdrop that may or may not be true but is irrelevant to the treatment, which seems to be standard cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). So, the therapy may help many people who will stick to the recommendations of directing one's thoughts in ways that lead to behavioral changes for the better.

My correspondent attended the LP sessions with his mother. Here is his description of the experience:

We were assured that we should not blame ourselves or think we are imagining feelings of fatigue but that something has influenced us into negative thought patterns....After this we were given a lesson on active and passive language. The idea is that we passively say things like “It's a bad day” in our minds and that we have more control over our emotions than we realize. We should reframe a passive statement into an active one such as “I am doing a bad day.” The main idea is for students to catch themselves when they make a negative statement mentally and try to reframe it as something they themselves are causing, or at least have a large hand in.

On the second day we were to write down what things went well or badly from the previous day and to notice any limiting beliefs we had. We were then to try to determine not if these beliefs were necessarily true or false, but if they were useful. If they were not useful, they needed to be changed.

We were also taught a little about body language and posture. We were made to act out different scenarios where we attempt to come off as nervous and then as confident and notice our general body language and posture. We were then encouraged to try and focus on making our posture seem more like that of a confident looking person.

We were finally led on to the Lightning Process itself at the tail-end of the 2nd day and we were asked to practice it at home with the third day devoted to guided practice. For the first part, we were told to make a gesture signifying “stop” when we realized we were thinking of a limiting belief or negative thought that was causing stress or when we found ourselves feeling overwhelmed. This gesture was the kind of gesture a policeman might use to stop a car by holding one's palm facing forward. At the same time as making this gesture we were to say the word “stop” in a strong way.

.... We practiced making this stop gesture a number of times with the aim of eventually producing a Pavlovian response where making this gesture interrupts whatever thought patterns we may be having at that moment in time and allow us to make a change. We were told that this response would increase with practice as would the effectiveness of the other stages.

The second stage was to try to act as if we were a third party giving encouragement by saying things like “you are an incredible person” or “you have the ability to do whatever you want.” We were to say about four or five different encouraging phrases to ourselves while also making a fist pointing upwards and moving it in the way one might do upon seeing their favorite sports team score....

The final part was for us to close our eyes and bring up a memory of when we felt extremely happy, confident, strong or full of energy and try to imagine every detail of the memory; making it brighter, more vibrant, hearing what was going on at the time, and trying to remember the sensations of that moment. When the good feelings reached a peak we were to make an anchor with one of our hands, usually pressing the middle finger against the thumb. After practicing enough the hope is that using this anchor while feeling bad when out and about would help bring about the good feelings from that memory.

That is pretty much it. We were to practice this a few times every day and whenever we felt ourselves getting into a negative state.

There are lots of techniques for getting "unstuck." LP may provide you with a few. Remember, however, that neither Parker nor those he's trained will be posting testimonials from unsatisfied customers. That doesn't mean there aren't any. Many of those unsatisfied customers may be too embarrassed to admit that they've wasted their money. I don't know enough about Parker to say that he uses techniques that blame any failures on the client. But many other "alternative gurus" use these tricks: you're not trying hard enough; you don't have enough faith; you're not letting go of your old habits; you really are better but you just don't want to or can't admit it; or, unfortunately, you're resistant to the treatment. One explanation you will probably never hear, though, is "I was wrong about your problem being due to stress hormones caused by being in a physiological Catch-22."

further reading

Why Bogus Therapies Often Seem to Work by Barry L. Beyerstein, Ph.D.

Social and judgmental biases that make inert treatments seem to work by Barry L. Beyerstein (1999)

Who Gets to Validate Alternative Medicine?

How they do the voodoo that they do so well - Part 1

How they do the voodoo that they do so well - Part 2

Stanford Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) Initiative

Last updated 24-Sep-2015

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