It infuriates me when someone misappropriates the word “science” to promote treatments that are not actually based on science. I have just read a book entitled The PTSD Breakthrough: The Revolutionary Science-Based Compass Reset Program by Dr. Frank Lawlis, a psychologist who is the chief content advisor for Dr Phil and The Doctors. There is very little science in the book and references are not provided. It amounts to an indiscriminate catalog of everything Dr. Lawlis can imagine that might help post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients. 

He describes recent brain imaging studies suggesting that signs of traumatic brain injury are associated with PTSD.  He thinks PTSD can no longer be considered a psychological condition, but must be approached as a complex biological, physical, psychological, and spiritual condition. He says many of these patients have brain damage. He says 

Odd as it may seem, a very loud noise can actually cause mild to moderate brain damage. The strong sound waves continue to cause inflammation in the brain and may cause the immune system to backfire, creating more damage as the signals of cell injury reverberate through the body. Exposure to strong pesticides or heavy metals (such as mercury, tin, and copper), and even some food allergies, can also have a devastating effect on the brain. 

His program consists of six steps:

  1. Nurturing and healing the brain
    1. Hyperbaric chamber (he claims that this is one of the most effective treatments for PTSD, but I couldn’t find any evidence to support that claim)
    2. Vitamins and minerals
    3. Sleep
  2. Cleansing the brain of toxins and poisons
    1. Diet
    2. Supplements (a long list including vitamin C, selenium, ginseng, organic iodine, etc. – you’re not intended to use them all, but to somehow choose which ones are right for you)
    3. Colon cleansing
  3. Making reconnections and taking control of the disoriented brain
    1. Breathing (through alternate nostrils)
    2. Physical exercise
    3. Rhythm and harmony (beat drums, find your “power song”)
    4. Mental exercise
    5. Blue light
  4. Relinquishing fear and rage
    1. Desensitization
    2. The BAUD (a patented bioacoustical utilization device developed by Dr. Lawlis  )
    3. Biofeedback
    4. Smells (a sort of aromatherapy)
    5. Cognitive behavioral therapy
    6. Journal writing
  5. Creating a new beginning
    1. Among other things, pick an animal to symbolize you, and decide which color best represents you.
  6. Reestablishing your internal compass
    1. Among other things, go on a vision quest like some American Indians used to do: spend 7 days alone with no intake but water until a symbol appears in your consciousness. 

Patients are encouraged to love themselves and to pick from these methods to effect their own recovery. Interspersed throughout the book are questionnaires to assess your stress level, quality of sleep, etc. They are the same kind of unvalidated questionnaires that are often found in popular magazines. 

There is a little bit of science in the book, but he doesn’t provide references, and most of what he writes is not supported by any peer-reviewed studies. Much of it is pure fantasy.    

He says

…the research on chewing gum to relieve stress is pretty impressive. The act of chewing gum pumps healing blood into the frontal lobe, where executive functions are controlled, and into your temporal lobe, where stressful emotions are found. There is clear evidence that stress is reduced by as much as 50 percent by chewing gum, and you may gain some IQ points while you’re at it.

 There are some studies showing chewing gum reduces stress, like this one funded by a gum manufacturer  but I wouldn’t characterize the research as “clear evidence” or “50%” or “increasing the IQ” or as “pretty impressive.” 

How’s this for a “science based” recommendation?:

Another easy technique you can do is to use a powerful mouth rinse. If you have bacteria working in your gums, it can create bad results for the rest of your body. Anything you eat can be affected by this [sic] bacteria, and you don’t want any bad guys holding up the train to recovery. 

What does “science” mean to Dr. Lawlis? Apparently, as Humpty Dumpty told Alice in Through the Looking Glass, it “means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'” 

He has anecdotes of patients who responded to some of these methods, but he has no data to show that his methods produce better outcomes than other methods. PTSD is a difficult condition to treat, and offering hope for recovery is a good thing; but offering false hopes for untested treatments under the pretense that they are “science” is reprehensible. The sad thing is that suffering patients may delay getting professional help while they experiment with useless detoxification rituals, chewing gum, and pop psychology nonsense. 

The cover proclaims “The Groundbreaking Program Officially Endorsed and Advocated by Dr. Phil McGraw.” As if to say, forget the scientific literature: if Dr. Phil endorses it, that’s all we need to know. The old “appeal to authority.” And what an authority! Dr. Lawlis is Dr. Phil’s “chief content advisor,” so he presumably advised Dr. Phil that the compass reset program was worth endorsing. Anyway, real science doesn’t need endorsement: evidence is self-endorsing.


Posted by Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall, MD also known as The SkepDoc, is a retired family physician who writes about pseudoscience and questionable medical practices. She received her BA and MD from the University of Washington, did her internship in the Air Force (the second female ever to do so),  and was the first female graduate of the Air Force family practice residency at Eglin Air Force Base. During a long career as an Air Force physician, she held various positions from flight surgeon to DBMS (Director of Base Medical Services) and did everything from delivering babies to taking the controls of a B-52. She retired with the rank of Colonel.  In 2008 she published her memoirs, Women Aren't Supposed to Fly.