How to ease anxiety through the power of touch
I’ve battled with anxiety since I was a child. It wasn’t until I had my son, nearly 14 years ago however that I was ‘treated’, through antidepressant medication. I have gained considerable insight into what and why of it. But only two years ago did I come across a technique that has truly helped me deal with the symptoms and underlying emotions, and which I have also found has helped me help my son, who has also battled with anxiety.
As a registered psychologist who has always been wedded to the idea of evidence-based practice, my first thoughts about my first experience of Havening were ‘this is too good to be true’, followed by ‘where’s the evidence’. And here I will provide a disclaimer. No therapy works for all problems or all people with the same problem. Even those that are well researched and deemed ‘evidence-based practice’ (e.g. cognitive-behavioural therapy) do not work for everyone who experiences them.
The effectiveness of Havening is emerging, but there is some scientific evidence that Havening touch reduces the experience of distress. This is part of a larger series of studies that are being undertaken by academics at Nottingham Trent University, England (1).
So, why am I blogging about a technique where the evidence is ‘emerging’? Well, because of three things: firstly my personal experience of it, secondly my professional experience of using it with my coaching clients, and finally the truly incredible impact it has had on helping my son to settle at night when his head (and often stomach) is full of worries.
Both my son and I are highly sensitive people (see https://hsperson.com to take the quiz and see if you are too), which means we are prone to overstimulation. We are also emotionally very sensitive, so my son would ponder on things to an extent that his friends never really have.
He would often lie in bed worrying about something to the point where he couldn’t sleep. We would walk, sometimes for hours, before bed to try and help him clear his head. When we’re highjacked by our emotions it can be impossible to think straight. Anxiety, stress and overwhelm change the way we process information, when our levels of cortisol are really high(2). High cortisol is also known to influence memory and visual perception(3). So, our anxious thoughts and feelings can become sticky – difficult to shift, even if we gain considerable insight into the what and why of them.
What is Havening?
Havening is a psychosensory therapy that uses touch. Research shows that touch can have a powerful effect on our chemical state - massage decreases cortisol and increases serotonin and dopamine(4). Touch boosts oxytocin another chemical which is associated with feelings of closeness and connection and shared experience. So, we know that touch can have therapeutic effects.
How does Havening work?
Havening generates delta waves that have a positive effect on regions of the brain that are involved in creating emotionally charged memories and trauma.
One of these brain regions is the amygdala, which plays a major role in recording the emotions of our experiences. When it comes to stressful experiences, the amygdala encodes emotions in a different way, and so they become hard-wired – which is why we often find ourselves replaying events in our mind. Events that are unpredictable or that are felt as unescapable are more likely to be stored this way in our brain.
The increased delta waves impacts on the emotional charge of the memory so it becomes less engulfing and research shows that havening reduces emotional distress(5).
You can find more information on Havening and different techniques here: www.havening.org.
How can you use havening with an anxious child?
Given the bedtime scenario which we still experience (although much less frequently), I will sit at the side of my son, with him lying on his back, and I will place the palms of my hands on his forehead side-by-side and then gently stroke them down each side of his face, before returning them to his forehead and repeating.
At the same time, I will ask him to describe out loud in words a place that makes him feel safe and loved, and get him to describe it in as much detail as possible. I will keep him talking for 7-8 minutes and often that is enough. The combination of touch, focusing on somewhere that makes him feel safe and loved, and the verbal distractions help to reduce his feelings of anxiety.
Want to know more?
If you’re as intrigued by the idea of havening as I was when I first came across it, then you can find out more at www.havening.org, or do please contact me I can’t help you, then I will be able to find another havening techniques practitioner who can.
You can also find many YouTube tutorials on using havening for stress reduction.
1. Sumich, A., Heym, N., Sarkar, M., Burgess, T., French, J., Hatch, L., & Hunter, K. (2022). The power of touch: The effects of havening touch on subjective distress, mood, brain function, and psychological health. Psychology & Neuroscience.
2. Van den Bos, R., Harteveld, M., & Stoop, H. (2009). Stress and decision-making in humans: performance is related to cortisol reactivity, albeit differently in men and women. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 34(10), 1449-1458.
3. Echouffo-Tcheugui, J. B., Conner, S. C., Himali, J. J., Maillard, P., DeCarli, C. S., Beiser, A. S., ... & Seshadri, S. (2018). Circulating cortisol and cognitive and structural brain measures: The Framingham Heart Study. Neurology, 91(21), e1961-e1970.
4. Field, T., Hernandez-Reif, M., Diego, M., Schanberg, S., & Kuhn, C. (2005). Cortisol decreases and serotonin and dopamine increase following massage therapy. International Journal of neuroscience, 115(10), 1397-1413.
5. Gursimran, T., Deborah, T., Matthew, G., Paul, M., & Neil, G. (2015). Impact of a single-session of Havening. Health Science Journal, 9(5), 1
About the author:
Dr Erica Bowen is a coach, psychologist and havening techniques practitioner who helps overwhelmed and over-giving women who challenge the status quo create boundaries so they can lead and live well. She does this through small group coaching, bespoke 1:1 coaching and one-day retreats. She is a former Full Professor, recovering perfectionist, and highly sensitive person.