I wanted to share my experience of the Lightning Process, which is a controversial training programme that claims to have helped people recover from ME/CFS. It has a number of celebrity endorsements and overnight recovery stories. I know people who have recovered from it, people who found it made them worse, and people who found it helpful but not the answer, so I would like to emphasise that this is solely my experience and opinion of it.
What is Lightning Process?
If you look around the room for all of the things that are blue, suddenly all you can see are blue things. This is because the mind edits information and we find what we are expecting to see, so if we are only looking for the negatives in life, that is all we will find, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We each create our own reality, and our beliefs can have a powerful effect on the body, due to the mind/body connection. The well-documented existence of the placebo effect shows this.
The Lightning Process views ME/CFS as the body stuck in fight or flight mode, which perpetuates the physical symptoms, and that we can shut this down and actually re-wire our brains to stop telling us we’re ill, based upon the theory of neuroplasticity. They use the word “dû” to highlight the unconscious choices we make in how we experience our lives, when we say things like “I’m having a bad day”. So they teach people to say “I’m dûing a bad day”, “I’m dûing angry” or even, “I’m dûing tired”. Controversial stuff, given the history of people with ME/CFS being told it’s all in their heads. When I crashed in May 2017 I was really, really desperate and scared, and there was literally no treatment available on the NHS for recovery. I instinctively didn’t like the quite commercial, secretive feel of their website, but I could see the mind/body connection was important from doing the Gupta Programme (similar but also very different!) and my GP actually recommended it, so I went for it.
Naturally, I threw myself into it 100%. They claimed the more you believed it, the more likely it was to work, so I listened to all their podcasts, watched the recovery stories, and believed that if I did it right, I could recover pretty quickly.
I found myself in Victoria in a room of 8 people, 5 with ME/CFS, 2 with fibromyalgia and one with social anxiety, for 3 days of training. I slightly wondered how my life had come to this point, as I stood in front of them having a conversation with myself about how energetic I wanted to feel, and then struggling to remember ever feeling well, when I felt so deeply tired! But if it worked then who cares?! I would have happily declared myself insane if it were the price to pay for recovery. The technique is based on methods from NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming), CBT, life coaching, osteopathy and hypnotherapy.
There is a lot of misinformation about the LP; that they’re mean, that it’s “quackery” or a scam, that they tell you ME/CFS is all in your head. This isn’t true. I found my coach to be highly compassionate, kind and with a clear desire to help people using the technique that had rapidly transformed her from being wheelchair-bound to fully recovered.
I didn’t get an overnight recovery. I felt frustrated when I went home and tried the technique, and still needed to nap before dinner. But we were told to be kind to ourselves and encouraged to only record “positive changes”, and I do remember one time after the course when I’d felt exhausted, sad and upset about being ill, and I managed to use it to be able to go out for dinner and feel OK. Before the training, I had already improved enough to start a phased return to work, so when my energy would start to slide, though I couldn’t always quite conjure the feeling of energy, I was at least able to change my state and not worry about it. However, as Alex Howard says, “what goes up in a way which is unsupported, must come down again”.
It was a combination of factors that brought me down again, some out of my control, but one of them was the Lightning Process, which took me so far out of touch with my body and emotions that in some ways I had no idea how tired I really was. I can see now that I was often running on adrenaline, and visualising myself doing something energetic, when I felt exhausted, only perpetuated that state. It suppressed my body’s urgent signals to me. At one point, when I spoke about how difficult it was to explain to others what was happening to me, my coach advised me to just tell people I had the flu because I would be recovering soon, so they didn’t really need to know (luckily I didn’t do that!)
The Lightning Process teaches you to say “I don’t have CFS anymore!” which, as liberating as that sounds, clearly wasn’t the case. When deciding whether or not to do something I was taught to ask, “is it reasonable to say a healthy person could do that?”, rather than “can my body really do that?”
I think there is a time and place for positive thinking, particularly in the later stages of recovery, where your body has mostly healed and anxiety might actually hold you back from gently increasing activity. But I hadn’t had the chance to truly accept how ill I was – I had gone in a matter of weeks from a diagnosis of Post Viral Fatigue and a suspicion that it was a long-standing issue, to no CFS, positive thinking only and a permission slip to “live the life you love” today. It was about 7 months later, after a huge crash and a lot of work to undo what I had learned, when I could finally say to myself “I am really, seriously ill” and accept where I actually was. From here I could start treating my body like an invalid that needed care and love, rather than something that had deeply let me down. I learned that sometimes you need to actually do less, in order to do more.
ME/CFS is a jigsaw of problems that are different for everyone affected (the Optimum Health Clinic describes it as an “overloaded boat”, where a combination of underlying physical and psychological factors, as well as a genetic predisposition, build up and cause your boat to sink). The stress that comes with having ME/CFS is unlike many illnesses. It is devastating to feel so ill and to know there is something very wrong, but have no answers from the doctor; many people aren’t believed by even their own families, or are told they will never recover. The physical impact this can have on a sufferer’s health, whose body is already incredibly weak from the illness, adds another layer to their already overloaded boat. So for some, a large piece of the jigsaw, or even the only piece, can be resolving stress and anxiety, which stops the body from healing itself. I believe getting the body into a calm, “healing state” through whatever means are right for that person, is essential, and I’m sure it can help with any illness. But for those that find it isn’t the answer, particularly those who are prone to doing more than they are able to, it grossly oversimplifies and leads to an implicit blame upon the individual for not doing it right. When someone doesn’t get the results they expected, they explain it as simply the brain learning new skills, or past trauma, rather than exploring any physical factors. For some, it creates a false recovery that proves ultimately unsustainable.
As it is such a complex illness, and people have recovered in so many different ways, there is a tendency for health practitioners to fall into the trap of seeing things only through the lens of their own training. i.e. a Gastroenterologist will see gut issues, an osteopath will see structural defects, a psychotherapist may see unresolved childhood trauma…and this is validated, because patients tend to gravitate towards whoever they sense is most likely to help them (and the Lightning Process actually screens people beforehand to ensure they believe in it first). So when they see a high success rate, they assume their method is the answer for everyone.
Whilst I no longer use the LP, I do use a lot of the techniques it is based on for my recovery, and I personally think they are tools that, used in the right way, can really help people to make profound changes in their confidence, wellbeing and health. I find the idea that we all have the power to create our own reality and can consciously choose our response to situations, incredibly empowering. But as with everything, this can also have a darker side. A side that is rigid and denies reality, encourages pushing, achieving and constant striving to be better. A side that can lead to a dangerous prioritisation of psychological over biomedical research into ME/CFS, to ignoring important symptoms, and, for some, to devastating relapses. In its purist interpretation of everything, from thoughts to symptoms to feelings, as being a choice, it taught me to ignore my emotions and to avoid pain. It made taking responsibility for one’s health into a crushing weight of sole responsibility.
I recently received some test results showing me how little energy the mitochondria in my cells are producing, and that they are being inhibited by certain chemicals in my system, which my functional medicine practitioner is helping me to clear, on top of the underlying gut/adrenal/toxin issues we are working to resolve. Seeing it makes me cringe to think of what I put my body through, based on the belief that I could heal myself rapidly, if only I truly wanted to. But at the time it was the only option I had, and my coach gave me much needed support and hope, when I had been more or less abandoned by the NHS. It’s been over a year since I took the course, and when I think of how far I’ve come and how much I’ve learned since then, I have no regrets.