From a home office in Oro Valley, the counselor treats patients, and waits for the mental health community to recognize what she see as a revolutionary therapy capable of curing nearly any ailment.
"If you haven't experienced this, it's too good to be true," Mary Stafford said.
Part Eastern medicine, part psychotherapy and part self-help method, Stafford has used the treatment called Emotional Freedom Technique on scores of people suffering from a range of emotional health issues.
Now she wants to get the U.S. Veterans Administration to recognize the power of the treatment and offer it to returning combat veterans suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"It's a crime that this country doesn't do better for its veterans," Stafford said.
Working with a nationwide network of EFT therapists at the Iraq Vets Stress Project, Stafford wants to get enough veterans to submit to the method to prove that it works and later write a study for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.
"The goal is to have 100 veterans participate in the research project," Stafford said. So far, about 50 vets have been treated.
The EFT method purports to help increase the flow of energy through the body by tapping on strategic points around the head, face and hands called meridians.
The idea of meridians originates in traditional Chinese medicine practices such as acupuncture. Meridians are said to channel energy through the body. Acupuncture professes to remove blockages in energy flows by inserting thin needles into areas around the meridians.
EFT therapists employ a similar method, without needles, by tapping on meridian points in conjunction with focusing on the emotional ailment. The act is said to help patients release the negative emotions that block energy flows, which lie at the heart of a host of psychological disorders.
"We have energy that comes out of our fingertips," Stafford explains.
Once the flows of energy resume, patients return to normal functioning in body and mind.
The method resides well outside of the mainstream of mental health and Stafford knows it. But to her, the results are all that matters.
"I have used it on patients for depression, anxiety, panic disorders, PTSD, chronic anger or grief — it doesn't matter," she said.
Stafford has used the therapy on five war veterans, including David Powell. Powell, a Vietnam veteran, visited Stafford for help with lingering PTSD symptoms. He lived for decades with the disorder, managing to keep painful memories of war buried deep in his subconscious. By 1988, he said, the signs of PTSD began to surface.
"'You just wore out,'" Powell said, reflecting on the observations of a friend.
Powell began treatment, but found little solace in the methods used at the various VA clinics near his northern California home.
"It was all my input and I got nothing out of it," Powell said of the early therapy sessions.
Eventually, he found a treatment that helped him to alleviate some of his PTSD.
"I got a lot out of it," Powel said, but the therapy left several holes in the recollections of his Vietnam experiences. "It put the string of events together, but it didn't get to the gaps."
It wasn't long before the symptoms returned. He began to see drastic changes to his state of mind while living in San Francisco in the early 1990s.
At the outbreak of the first Gulf War, Powell said a series of protests held outside his apartment building triggered a spate of paranoid episodes.
"I was going to start carrying a hammer in my suit in case I was attacked," Powell said.
His parents, living in Tucson at the time, convinced him to leave the Bay Area for Arizona and seek help for his condition. He bean to see a VA therapist in Tucson, but again found little relief.
"The essence of what they were saying was, 'That was then, this is now, get over it,'" Powell said.
After working through a regimen of therapies and writing a book about his Vietnam experiences — "My Tour in Hell" — Powell met Stafford and started EFT.
The process helped Powell to fill in the gaps left in his recollections of Vietnam, gaps that he now says were the result of lingering fear and self-loathing. Through EFT, he achieved acceptance.
"I found it most effective in filling those fear voids," Powell said.
Despite testimonials like Powell's, some in the mental health profession remain dubious.
"It's hard for me to understand how one treatment can cure such a wide variety of problems," said Dr. Alexander Obolsky, who practices psychiatry in Chicago and teaches at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. He specializes in treating disorders caused by trauma.
Obolsky said that as a scientist, it's difficult to accept that a universal method cures such disparate illnesses — body and mind.
"What's the common thread?" Obolsky said.
The method also has received criticism in media, with articles claiming to debunk the therapy appearing on Web sites like quackwatch.org, skeptic.com and others. A story in the journal Skeptical Inquirer branded the technique and its precursor Thought Field Therapy as pseudoscience, saying it relies upon "unsupported and discredited concepts including the Chinese philosophy of chi and applied kinesiology."
The recording of near-miraculous results based largely on testimonials that practitioners ascribe to EFT has helped fuel the disbelief. A lack of peer-reviewed studies hasn't helped the EFT cause, either. Studies that do exist have done little to add to its acceptance in the mental health community.
A 2003 analysis of EFT in the Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice concluded that any success were the result of similarities with more accepted treatment methods. The authors of the analysis allowed for limitations in their study groups and other limits in methodology.
Obolsky takes their criticism a step further.
"What's happening there is distractibility," Obolsky said. "It's a well-known cognitive technique."
He said that by tapping on areas of the body while focusing on the traumatic event, the mind is distracted and thoughts of acceptance replace the harmful thought patterns.
Obolsky doesn't discount the placebo effect or the power of suggestion in treating emotional disorders.
"I'll do a rain dance if it helps (a patient)," Obolsky said.
But for placebo treatments to work, patients have to believe the process can produce positive results.
In the 2003 EFT study, one group of patients performed the therapy not on themselves, but on a doll. Another group was given placebo treatments while another group submitted to actual EFT therapy.
Study authors, however, found that all three groups experienced similar positive results.
"People work in such a way that suggestion works to alleviate pain and emotional suffering," Obolsky said.
Stafford, too, recognizes the importance of a patient's belief in the treatment. She recounted the experience of one veteran suffering with post-traumatic stress who started the process with skepticism and resistance. After some therapy sessions and "tapping," Stafford said he was able to benefit from EFT.
"With EFT, people have to be willing to try it," Stafford said.
Many in the mental health community remain skeptical, like Obolsky, who questions the very foundation of EFT, the theory of meridians and energy flows.
"What evidence do we have that these energy channels exist?" Obolsky said. "I have never seen them, I have never touched them, I don't know what it is."
The reliance on such assertions only serves to discredit their cause, Obolsky said.
"Let's assume that EFT is actually useful," he said, "it's tainted by such claims."
He suggested that people who do seek alternative therapies should do so cautiously and under the direction of their regular doctor.
Stafford remains undaunted by the criticisms.
"The time is going to come when it's totally accepted," Stafford said.
Getting a study published in an academic journal would help the cause immensely, she said. With a doctorate in molecular biology and long career in academia, Stafford knows the sway a published study can hold. But she found the university world cutthroat, with the ceaseless need to publish prompting fellow researchers to steal each other's ideas.
She decided to abandon academia and go back to school where she earned a master's in education with a focus on counseling. She's been working in the field since 1981.
"I fit in here. I didn't fit in with science at all," Stafford said.
Several years of counseling patients using standard therapeutic methods just didn't seem effective. She heard about the Thought Field Therapy and endeavored to learn more.
"This was mind blowing," she said. Patients were showing marked improvements after one or two sessions. More importantly, they could learn the techniques and do them at home.
"This is a counselor's dream," Stafford said. "Until recent years, there was no good approaches for PTSD, just drugs."
She hopes a comprehensive study will start a change in the way the mental health establishment thinks about alternative methods like EFT.
What is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that may trigger PTSD include violent personal assaults, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents or military combat.
People with PTSD have persistent frightening thoughts and memories of their ordeal and feel emotionally numb, especially with people with whom they were once close. They may experience sleep problems, feel detached, numb or be easily startled.
Source: National Institute of Mental Health
For information about an ongoing study on PTSD visit stressproject.org.
Mary Stafford's personal Web site: mindbodytherapy.com.
Vietnam vet David Powell's Web site and an excerpt from his book can be seen at mytourinhell.com.
For information on a variety of emotional health issues visit the National Institute of Mental Health at nimh.nih.gov.