BBC Takes on Lightning Process and Highlights Perspectives of the So-Called “Anti-Recovery Activists”

By David Tuller, DrPH

For years, I have criticized the research purporting to prove that the Lightning Process, a three-day mind-body workshop that has claimed to be effective in curing ME/CFS and a host of other chronic illnesses. The largest study of the LP, conducted by the methodologically and ethical challenged Esther Crawley, a professor and pediatrician at the University of Bristol, claimed success but was, in fact, a fraudulent mess.

The trail should never have passed peer review; having been published, it should have been retracted. Because of my complaints, the study now carries a 3,000-word correction/clarification and a 1,000-word editor’s note explaining with tortured logic why it was republished rather than pulled down completely. The journal, Archives of Disease in Childhood, is in the BMJ staple. Its handling of this paper was a disgrace.

With the advent of Long Covid, LP practitioners began to claim that they could cure this emerging condition as well. Just like the claims about ME/CFS, this one is not supported by any serious evidence in the scientific literature. Nonetheless, there are multiple personal anecdotat accounts of patients who say they experienced dramatic recovery. Notably, the range of anecdotal accounts also includes stories from others who did not get any better or who got much wore.

On May 21st, the BBC released a 38-minute radio documentary and a text article about the Lightning Process and its claims regarding Long covid. The radio piece was part of the current affairs documentary series File on 4. The headline of the text article on the BBC’s page: “Long Covid course is ‘exploiting people’, says ex-GB rower.”

Here’s the written introduction to the radio piece:

“There are some two million people with long Covid in the UK – and most of them – around one and a half million – have symptoms that interfere with day to day activities. Fatigue, breathlessness, heart palpitations and severe dizziness are just some of the conditions people experience.

“Currently there’s no test for long covid and it could be years before we know for sure how best to treat the condition. This struggle to get help is leaving some very unwell people desperate – and willing to try anything to get better. There are treatments to wash your blood, high pressure oxygen chambers normally used by deep sea divers. A rainbow of supplements. All with varying degrees of evidence. And perhaps most strongly dividing opinion – programmes that claim to retrain long Covid patients’ brains to stop their symptoms. They say they can help people recover from illness by rewiring the brain using techniques to influence physical changes in the body. Rachel Schraer – the BBC’s health and disinformation correspondent – hears from people with long Covid who say the programmes didn’t work and in some cases made them feel worse. Others say they fully recovered.”

The BBC account describes the story of Oonagh Cousins, a world-class rower. Cousins had made the British Olympic rowing team for the cancelled 2020 Summer Olympics. By the time the event took place the following year, she had become debilitated by Long Covid. According to her account, she was offered free entry to participate in the Lightning Process, which usually costs around £1,000.

 Presumably, the organizers of the Lightning Process course hoped that Cousins would appreciate the workshop, find that she had improved dramatically, and tout her experience publicly. That’s not how things worked out. In the documentary and the text article, Cousins blasts the Lightning Process. In a key section, she describes her experience:

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.’”

Shraer herself participated in an LP training and taped the goings-on, as the article describes;

“In secret recordings by the BBC, coaches can be heard telling patients that almost anyone can recover from long Covid by changing their thoughts, language and actions.

“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…

“The coach on the course we attended said ‘thoughts about your symptoms, your worry about whether it’s ever going to go – that’s what keeps the neurology going.’

“‘Being in those kind of thoughts is what’s maintaining your symptoms,’ the coach said. ‘They’re not caused by a physical thing any more.’”

Ok! Good to know that the LP therapist determined that there is no “physical thing” happening anymore! It’s all your thoughts!

In an interesting turn of phrase, Phil Parker, the osteopath and faith healer who created the Lightning Process, accused the BBC reporters of paying too much attention to “the anti-recovery activists.” I didn’t realize, of course, that pointing out the scientific flaws in expansive claims about a curative treatment was considered equivalent to membership in an “anti-recovery activism” movement—but there it is, straight from Phil Parker.

In considering anything that Parker says, I think it’s important to keep in mind that he had previously claimed he could step into people’s bodies in order to diagnose their medical ailments. If trashing the LP’s scientific claims makes me an “anti-recovery activist,” I guess I should own that insult proudly.

For the project, Shraer also interviewed Danny Altmann, an immunologist at Imperial College London; Camilla Nord, a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge; and Binita Kane, a respiratory physician at University of Manchester. Also included, as a necessary component to ensure balance, was a fan of the LP—a patient who reported full recovery after taking the program. While these accounts of success are hard to explain based on the science, they still deserve a place in the LP narrative.

This was a well-done project. Kudos to Shraer and Paul Grant, her producer.