Lightning Process gaslights long Covid patients

  • Post last modified:May 23, 2024
  • Reading time:12 mins read

The BBC has exposed how an insidious group of predatory charlatans have been gaslighting long Covid patients. It revolves around a pseudoscientific treatment known as the ‘Lightning Process’.

It would be shocking, were it not for the experience of those with another post-viral disease. This is because it isn’t the first time these quack practitioners have scammed vulnerable patients. The reality is, they’ve been grifting off of the devastation myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) has caused to the lives of the millions who live with it for years.

The Lightning Process strikes long Covid patients

The ‘Lightning Process’ commercialises a raft of psychological treatments. Primarily it taps into the realms of ‘neurolinguistic programming (NLP)’ – essentially, brain training that purportedly teaches away negative thoughts. Crucially, its proponents promote that it can cure chronic illnesses. In fact, the programme is so-named precisely over the claim that in its three short days of training, patients can be cured.

So, think: affirmation culture meets dubious science in a perfect storm of ableist gaslighting. In other words, this dazzling purported panacea peddles the pseudoscientific and palpably trash idea that patients can think themselves better.

Now, a BBC expose has found its adherents have been offering the so-called training to people living with long Covid.

In an undercover investigation, health and misinformation reporter Rachel Schraer revealed how Lightning Process coaches told patients that:

almost anyone can recover from long Covid by changing their thoughts, language and actions.

Schraer’s podcast included a series of secret recordings from training sessions she participated in over Zoom. As the accompanying BBC News article explained:

Over three days on Zoom, the course taught the ritual that forms the basis of the programme. Every time you experience a symptom or negative thought, you say the word “stop”, make a choice to avoid these symptoms and then do a positive visualisation of a time you felt well.

You do this while walking around a piece of paper printed with symbols – a ritual the BBC was told to do as many as 50 times a day.

However, Schraer scrutinised the controversial scheme – platforming the experience of ex-Olympic rower Oonagh Cousins. Notably, the Lightning Process had approached her to offer a free place on the course. She told the BBC that during the programme:

They were trying to suggest that I could think my way out of the symptoms, basically. And I disputed that entirely…

I had a very clearly physical illness. And I felt that they were blaming my negative thought processes for why I was ill. They tried to point out that I had depression or anxiety. And I said ‘I’m not, I’m just very sick’.

Shocking history of abuse in ME

Ostensibly, the Lightning Process appeared to be banking on bagging another celebrity poster-child for its contentious training.

Already, it boasts endorsements from public figures like actress Martine McCutcheon and right-wing corporate journalist Esther Rantzen, among others.

However, its star-studded list of shills conceals an insidious history of patient gaslighting – just as Cousins and Schraer found. Specifically, the Lightning Process has been abusing people living with ME for many years.

During the podcast, Dr Binita Kane told the BBC that:

There are decades of evidence in ME to show that there is pathological reasons why there is energy limitation, that there is an underlying problem in the energy-making factory of the body”

Alongside this, Schraer acknowledged that there is an overlap between ME and long Covid.

Largely however, the brief nod to ME skipped over the turbulent and torrid history of the Lightning Process for the chronic illness. Yet, as Lightning Process acolytes crawl out of the woodwork to flog it to the latest generation of post-viral patients, its past is more important than ever.

Snake-oil salesman

The mastermind behind the Lightning Process is osteopath, tarot card and aura-reader Phil Parker. Parker founded the approach in the 1990s and has promoted it for people with ME for decades. Since then, its influence has spread across the globe, with various practitioners picking up the programme for patients with ME.

And, in the spirit of its affirmation wellness guff – it thrives on confirmation bias through selectively curated patient testimony. It has plastered its website with platitudes to its own success from patients that purportedly recovered from chronic illnesses after the course.

However, there is no real evidence base for its claims. Moreover, there are numerous anecdotal patient accounts of harm. This includes a 2012 survey in Norway where by a large majority, ME patients reported that the programme had either not helped, or actively made their condition worse.

Despite this, junk science studies have painted a veneer of reputability for the medically unproven approach. Unsurprisingly, it has ‘scientific’ support from the echelons of the ME psych lobby. That is, notorious PACE trial supporter, and all-round endorser of bunk psychosomatic interventions for ME – Esther Crawley – has propped up this dubious training programme.

You can read more on the PACE trial here.

Notably, Crawley led another contentious study known as the SMILE trial. This assessed the impacts of the Lightning Process on 56 children with ME between the ages of 12 and 18

Of course, the study compared a cohort of young ME patients on ‘conventional’ treatments – which then involved other harmful psychologising interventions like graded exercise therapy (GET) and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). The Canary has covered extensively why they’re problematic – you can read more on this here.

Notwithstanding this, unsurprisingly, the study was flawed in a number of other ways too. As such, scientists and patients have slammed the study. An open letter to the medical journal that published the study led to a lengthy editorial correction.

Long-term ME journalist and advocate David Tuller who coordinated the letter said it best:

it was a dung-heap of methodological and ethical violations. It has now been slapped with a correction that seems almost as long as War and Peace.

In truth, when I downloaded the correction into a Word doc, it came out to 2,849 words. That was accompanied by a 983-word “editor’s note” that offered tortured logic to explain why this disastrous study only required “clarifications” rather than retraction. Since the study would never have been published in the first place had the investigators been honest about the conduct of the study, it is disturbing that Archives of Disease in Childhood has allowed them to republish their original and obviously biased findings.

Lightning Process in clinics?

Stopping short of retracting the study? It’s the same old story – as with the flawed PACE trial – and forms another damning branch of the ever-growing medical scandal around ME.

However, there is some tentative good news. That is, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) came out against the Lightning Process in its 2021 ME guidelines.

Nor is there a hint of the Lightning Process in the latest British Association of Clinicians in ME/CFS (BACME) guidance that clinics use. As the Canary has previously detailed, Crawley originally founded this organisation. Currently, multiple clinics across the country utilise their documents – in some cases to devastating effect for patients.

However, in a 2019 survey it conducted on ME services, some reported that they used NLP – which the Lightning Process often falls under. Its latest 2023 survey dropped any reference to this. Even so, it seemingly did not survey for this, instead ambiguously referring to “other” approaches.

Yet while BACME doesn’t appear to openly endorse the approach, a number of its board members are trained in NLP. This includes occupational therapists Charlie Adler and Marina Townend. Notably, both work at NHS ME clinics. Worse still, in 2019, BACME chair Anna Gregorowski led a review of treatments for young people with ME, which concluded that:

The Lightning Process has been shown to be effective when added to medical care.

And, as the BBC reported, the new NICE guidelines also haven’t stopped ME and long Covid services in Scotland from pushing the Lightning Process either. This is because NICE guidelines do not automatically apply there. However, it is supposedly updating its equivalent guidelines to be in step with NICE.

Preying on people living with ME

So, what’s in it for Parker and his adoring apostles? It’s an easy way to make a quick buck of course – all at the expense of the chronically ill community.

Moreover, people who’ve participated in its cultish programme have gone on to become coaches. In other words, it’s a glorified health fad-turned-pyramid scheme – as some patients have been pointing out for years.

Naturally, Parker himself has also been turning a tidy profit from his exploitative scam. He operates a number of companies tied to his Lightning Process approach. Collectively, these had net assets of nearly half a million pounds in 2023.

Essentially then, he’s preying on sick people largely unable to work, scraping by on paltry state benefits to make a fortune.

Chronically ill people as the cash cow: long Covid is next

All this goes to show, snake oil salesmen preying on desperately sick people is nothing new. Lightning Process con-artists continue to make a killing off of chronically ill people without shame nor consequence.

Yet the alarming reality is, that’s not just a metaphor either. The widespread psychologisation of people living with ME has killed people – and is killing patients now. Moreover, patient-blaming abuse from Lightning Process itself has pushed some patients to attempted suicide.

That long Covid patients are the new cash cow for this crooked cult of charlatans peddling vacuous crap is no surprise. Where poorly researched and stigmatised health conditions tread, the psych lobby and its capitalist vultures follow, to pick off those society has shunted to the margins. Evidently, gaslighting psychologising treatments can strike twice – but no shockers there.

Feature image via Matti Blume/Wikimedia, cropped and resized to 1200 by 900, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

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