What can you do if you suffer from phobias, panic attacks, traumatic memories or other emotional disturbances? Like millions of Americans, you might choose to see a psychiatrist or other therapist. You could engage in some form of talk therapy to gain a fuller understanding of your emotions. You might take an antidepressant or other medication. Both talk therapy and medication (often used together) are helpful, but they may not eliminate the root causes of your distress.
New approach: Havening. It’s a technique (“havening” means to put into a safe place) that uses touch to change how electrical signals are transmitted in the brain. After a successful havening session, the traumatic memory is viewed as distant and detached from the emotions, such as fear and anger, that are generated during the event—that is, it no longer causes distress. The havening technique still is considered experimental and is not scientifically proven, but it is inexpensive, safe, rapid and gentle, and there is growing anecdotal experience suggesting that it works.
To understand the theory behind the havening technique, it helps to understand what happens when we experience a traumatic event. Let’s say, for example, that you get mugged in an alley—if you’re lucky, you’ll put it behind you over time. But for some people, the event may be encoded in the brain as a trauma. When you perceive a threat, your brain activates neurons in the amygdala, the region of the brain associated with threat detection and other emotions. If certain criteria are met, cell receptors in the amygdala are potentiated. In other words, they increase in number and remain permanently primed for activation by related stimuli.
Because the encoded receptors are always present, the emotions associated with traumatic memories can be reactivated over and over again. Individuals might experience nightmares, worry every time they walk past an alley or even stop leaving the house altogether. This leads to a worsening of emotional distress.
Experts used to think that traumatic events caused lifelong distress because the memories—and associated emotions—could never be erased. But the brain is essentially an electrochemical system. The theory behind havening is that if you change the brain’s circuitry, you can eliminate the response to signals that have been causing emotional pain—even if the memory originally associated with that pain is not gone.
DOES SCIENCE SUPPORT IT?
The goal of havening therapy is to delink the emotions from the encoded traumatic event. The therapy is designed to generate brain waves that remove the potentiated receptors so that the individual won’t experience again those fears or other emotional disturbances associated with the event.
During a typical havening session, a patient is asked to recall the painful memory. This activates the potentiated receptors. He/she then is exposed to “havening touch”—gentle, soothing stroking of the arms, face and hands. At the same time, the patient distracts himself from the memory by counting or singing a song.
How it works: Touching triggers the production of low-frequency delta waves in the brain. Delta waves open calcium channels in the amygdala. The influx of calcium sets off an enzymatic reaction that causes “trauma” receptors to disappear. A patient might still remember the details of the traumatic event, but he will no longer feel disturbed by the memories.
Only one peer-reviewed, published scientific study has examined the effects of havening. Two others are completed and awaiting publication. The published study, which appeared in Health Science Journal, looked at workers in the UK who self-reported that they suffered occupational impairments because of depression and/or anxiety due to a traumatic event. After a havening session, participants showed improvements in tests that measured depression, anxiety and work and social adjustment.
Important caveats: The study was small (27 participants) and didn’t include a control group…and the participants weren’t randomly selected. In addition, the workers were all health-care professionals, so they might have been more open to—and affected by—psychotherapy than other adults.
WHAT TO DO
In the US, there are only about 40 havening practitioners who have participated in courses and trainer events and have been certified by a Havening Techniques trainer. These practitioners are mainly in New York City and on Long Island and in Chicago and Los Angeles…and there’s one in the Louisville, Kentucky, area. Worldwide there are about 140 certified practitioners. The average cost for a havening session is about $200 to $400. But because there are only a small number of havening professionals, some people choose to practice the therapy on their own. In our experience, self-havening often is as effective as practitioner-guided sessions.
What happens in a session…
Activate the emotion. You’ll be asked (or you’ll ask yourself) to recall the distressing event and all of the details. It might be a street crime…a memory of childhood abuse…even a cruel thing you yourself once did…or another memory that causes you repeated distress. You’ll rate the distress that the memory causes on a scale of 0 to 10.
Apply havening touch. The practitioner (or you or a loved one) will offer comforting touch that involves stroking the arms from shoulder to elbow, stroking the forehead and rubbing palms.
Distraction. Simultaneously, with your eyes closed, you will distract yourself by imagining that you’re climbing a staircase with 20 steps. Count the steps aloud. With each step, you’ll imagine that your distress is diminishing.
After the twentieth step, with eyes still closed, you’ll hum two rounds of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” or another neutral song. You’ll open your eyes, look to the right and left, and inhale and exhale deeply. If your distress level is still high, you should repeat the touch/distraction components (using different visualizations and tunes) until the level of distress is zero or remains fixed after two rounds.
The distraction is important because your mind can’t process two thoughts at the same time. The idea is that distracting yourself from the memory displaces the recalled event and prevents it from continually activating the amygdala. At the same time, the touch part of the therapy produces the brain waves that de-link the memory from your emotions.
A single session can last for minutes to hours, but a typical session lasts 60 minutes. In my experience, many people will notice permanent improvement after a single session.