Recently, I learned about a new technique that uses tactile stimulation to calm the mind-body, relieve stress, decrease anxiety, and alleviate mental health issues. In order to understand this new therapy better, my previous post discussed how touch is processed and coded in the brain and how it impacts cognition, stress, and mood.
In this follow-up article, I will get into more specifics on the mechanisms of how the Havening Technique could accomplish healing emotional trauma by incorporating touch.
The Havening Technique, in Simple Terms
The Havening Technique was initially brought to my attention through a post by the Amen Clinics. It explained this unique therapy and featured a video by a neuroscientist, Dr. Sandlin Lowe, who explored the science behind it. The article stated:
“Certain surfaces of our skin—such as the palms of our hands—have special nerve endings called Pacinian corpuscles, and if you put pressure on them, they generate delta waves. These calming brainwaves, which typically occur during sleep, can help soothe anxious feelings.”
The blog also offered “do-it-yourself” Havening techniques that one could use during times of turmoil. These included:
-Rubbing the palms of your hands together slowly as if you’re washing them.
-Giving yourself a hug. This is done by placing the palms of your hands on your opposite shoulders and moving them down your arms to your elbows.
-“Washing” your face in which you place your fingertips within your hairline and then let them fall down your face to your chin. Note: This technique is not recommended during this time, as health officials say it is not advisable to touch your face.”
What captured my attention was the video with Dr. Lowe. In it, he reviewed how this therapy impacts the brain and builds new neurological connections. For those who are interested in more of the nitty-gritty science, in the next section I dive into the biochemistry and psychology of this method in more detail.
The Science of How the Havening Technique Works
First, it is important to realize that, according to founder Ronald Ruden, there are several components to traumatic memories. These are all related to how these triggering events get “trapped” in the mind. These aspects include:
- Somatosensory (sensations felt by the body)
- Cognitive (subconscious and conscious)
Connecting Psychology to Biochemistry
An emotional experience or trauma is encoded in the brain through chemical signals. These neurotransmitters are released and translated by the amygdala (the “emotional brain”) but blocked during subconscious exposure to it. To decode the incident, the Havening Technique incorporates an exposure and habitation through an imaginal trigger. This brings the traumatic event into conscious awareness, allowing it to be processed.
Bringing up the occurrence results in an increase in glutamate, an excitatory chemical, in the brain. At this point, touch is introduced into the therapy, followed by a distraction component. This produces an extrasensory stimulus response in the brain, causing electrical changes, an increase in serotonin, a decrease in cortisol, and activation of delta wave patterns. Finally, depolarization of the chemical circuits occurs through the AMPA receptors.
To summarize, by incorporating touch, the brain produces serotonin and delta waves which calm the mind-body and displace the fear response to the triggering stimuli. (R) The end result is that the triggering event pathway becomes “unplugged” and the traumatic response is released. (R, R)
Interesting, in a recent study, it was found that trauma-focused psychotherapy, which involves exposure of a person with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) to a trauma, worked by changing the functional connectivity to emotional areas in the brain. By assessing fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) results, researchers found that PTSD sufferers had reduced connectivity between areas in the brain related to emotion and logic. When there was more connection between them, there was a greater reduction in symptoms.
Could it be that the neurotransmitter pattern shift that occurs during the exposure portion of the Havening Technique process is what results in trauma-focused psychotherapy being effective? It certainly appears to be connected.
The Process of the Havening Technique
Now that we’ve explored the mechanisms, let’s look at what the Havening technique entails. As mentioned, it incorporates a kinesthetic (touch and posture) and distractive component utilizing a series of processes. (R) The process can be visualized and demonstrated in this article .
Psychology Today describes it in the following way:
The Havening Technique was developed by US neuroscientist* Ronald Ruden (he’ll be at the London workshop). If you go to his website, you find the following description of how the technique is used as a form of trauma therapy: “First is activation of the emotional content of the [traumatic] event by imaginal recall … A gentle and soothing touch is then applied to the upper arms, palms, and around the eyes. It produces an extrasensory response of safety that arises from the evolutionary equivalent of what a mother’s touch does at the time of birth. It is innately wired. Concurrently with havening touch the therapist distracts the individual. Since the mind cannot hold two thoughts simultaneously, the use of distraction displaces the recalled event from working memory and prevents it from re-activating the amygdala.”
Does It Work?
As noted above, there seems to be legit mechanisms and aspects to this therapy. On the site for Havening Techniques, there are several resources listed which explore the concepts of the techniques and that go into more detail on the proposed mechanisms. There is also a small, uncontrolled trial that demonstrated that a single use of this technique decreased self-reported symptoms of depression and anxiety in healthcare professionals, as measured by several psychiatric surveys.
I wasn’t able to find many other research studies on the Havening Technique outside of this website. Furthermore, there appears to be some controversy and concerns that it may skip over the benefits of psychotherapy and fully processing the trauma.
My Final Conclusion
I have familiarity with the impact of the senses, specifically the olfaction of essential oils, on releasing trauma and supporting emotional and mental wellbeing. In my opinion, the Havening Technique appears promising, and I will be interested in seeing more research on the power of touch on emotions.
Some of its simple “do-it-yourself” techniques listed above are likely to be soothing if someone is experiencing an anxious moment or is feeling overwhelmed. They will unlikely cause detriment.
Still, for those who have anxiety, trauma, or another mental health diagnosis, any psychological technique is best used in conjunction with a trained therapist versed in its use and who specializes in trauma.
As always, check out my legal disclaimer which implicitly states I am not accountable for your choices, to check with your doctor, and that this information is for informational purposes only.
Addendum: An Important Note on Differentiating Stress from Anxiety Disorders
Although chronic, unrelenting stress can contribute to anxiety, they are not mutually exclusive. An anxious brain has specific neurological patterns and structural alterations that are distinct and differ from someone’s brain under stress. Understanding these characteristics can assist a healthcare provider in proper selection of treatment and coping strategies. For example, although stress-relieving techniques can be helpful for anxiety, they are often not enough to achieve brain balance in someone who struggles with a psychological diagnosis. In fact, they can sometimes exacerbate symptoms in certain individuals. This is why it is important to see a trained mental health provider whenever incorporating a new technique.
Mental Health Resources
*If you are experiencing a mental health crisis and/or are suicidal, please seek professional mental health support:
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (U.S.) — Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- Crisis Text Line — Text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor
- Lifeline Crisis Chat — Chat online with a specialist who can provide emotional support, crisis intervention and suicide prevention services at www.crisischat.org
Other Helpful Resources
Below are some of the highlights of the many free resources on this website:
- Four Essential Oils Blends for Supporting the Mind-Body and Easing Tension
- VIDEO: How Your Brain and Body Suffer with Too Much Stress & Naturopathic Medicine Tips for Calming the Mind and Relieving Overwhelm
- Video Recap: Essential Oils to Ease the Stress & Anxiety of Back to School
- The Importance of Fun, Music, & Play for Mental Health
- Video Recap: Essential Oils for Brain and Mental Health & Soothing Stress
- 10 Natural Ways to Relieve Stress and Calm the Mind-Body During Trying Times
- Video: A Naturopathic Doctor’s Approach to Thyroid Health Using Essential Oils: Video Recap & Additional Resources
Additional Supportive Techniques & Tools
- The Tapping Solution, A Technique to Lower Cortisol and Reduce Stress- Podcast interview by Dr. Kara Fitzgerald with Nick Ortner.
- Stress management tips and resources
Disclaimer: This material is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any illness. You should check with your doctor regarding implementing any new strategies into your wellness regime. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. (Affiliation link.)
According to experts and the World Health Organization (WHO), there is no approved standard of care treatment, cure, or preventative for COVID-19. Supportive measures and containment are in full force as a result. Please see the CDC website and your state’s website for more information and updates. They also state when to contact your physician related to symptoms and travel history, exposures. Please read my more detailed article on this subject here.
This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic quality essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been tested for purity and standardized constituents. There is no quality control in the United States, and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only to contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin. The studies are not based solely on a specific brand of an essential oil, unless stated. Please read the full study for more information.
Thanks Pixabay and Canva.