The Havening Technique for PTSD
The Havening Technique – more formally known as Amygdala Depotentiation – is a psychosensory therapy used to address deep rooted anxiety, rumination, and severe, instinctive negative responses.
The name Havening comes from the fact it is a step-by-step process that puts your emotional responses into a safe space – a haven.
Similar self-comforting and supported-distraction techniques have been used for many years. You will also find that therapists have their own version of what Havening involves.
Its merits for supporting people with PTSD and other conditions are also open to opinion. Though for some individuals, it can provide an important way to break a cycle of negative emotional responses.
This guide will answer questions such as ‘What is Havening?’ and how does Havening help PTSD?
The science behind the therapy
The amygdala is an area at the base of the human brain that is repeated on both hemispheres (sides). It is where emotions are encoded and where they are attached to memories, associations and responses.
Sometimes, this process creates poor associations within your emotional landscape. For, example, in PTSD a source of anxiety gets attached to a remembered fear of having your life threatened. It’s a pattern that gets ‘stuck’ and which can create an immediate negative reaction – fight, flight or freeze. Logical analysis struggles to catch up with this ingrained reaction.
The Havening Technique aims to interrupt and divert this activity in your amygdala. By breaking the negative association, it sends you instead to an emotional refuge.
Who invented Havening?
The Havening Technique was developed by US neuroscientist and Harvard Graduate Dr Ronald Ruden. He explored the concept in his 2010 book ‘When the Past is Always Present’.
However, this psychosensory technique received its biggest publicity boost when Paul McKenna – a celebrity hypnotist – became a firm believer in its value. Paul McKenna drew substantial media attention when he began offering workshops and therapy sessions in Havening. The problem with this is, Havening was then often assumed to be a form of hypnotism. Which is not correct.
What does Havening involve?
The central element of Havening in all interpretations by therapists is touch. Havening involves a distinctive self-soothing motion with crossed arms, gently but noticeably stroking from shoulders to elbows.
There are also versions which involve tapping your collar bone and stroking the palms of your hands and around your eyes. This is all to create a sense of wellbeing and safety.
Another common feature is having your eyes closed and exploring the negative emotional associations and reactions that are a feature of PTSD and other mental health conditions. Either via support from a therapist or using your own thought processes, you are then distracted away from the negative emotional area you just explored. As the self-soothing touch continues.
The distraction involves going to a safe place, which is often a beach. You then mentally walk 20 purposeful steps in your imagination.
In some interpretations of the Havening Technique, therapists also ask you to sing a simple, familiar song with a soothing pattern. For instance, the Happy Birthday or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star melodies.
The theory is that this combination of touch, sound and mental distancing, ‘trains’ your amygdala to break its connection to a negative reaction. Instead, you will always be automatically and instantly rerouted to a positive association.
Does Havening work?
Though it has been around for some years, there has not yet been sufficient research or data to provide indisputable evidence of Havening’s effectiveness.
There was a study with limited scope in 2015, which did show promising results. However, that was in relation to depression, anxiety and impaired functioning affecting workplace absenteeism. Participants reported a general improvement in their sense of wellbeing, which did then appear to reduce their ‘occupation impairment’.
One of the concerns expressed about Havening is that it diverts people away from other therapies, which are used to address the roots causes of trauma and teach coping mechanisms. While some proponents of Havening see it as a therapy that changes the brain, dismantling the link to trauma memories and responses. Others see it as a temporary soothing and distracting method.
Can Havening help with PTSD?
It is always risky to assume any of the ways to treat PTSD are ‘quick fixes’, including ones that show promise in redirecting negative emotional responses.
However, when offered as part of a carefully formulated programme of therapy and coping techniques for PTSD, Havening may offer some people a welcome source of relief. Particularly as you can do it yourself, at moments of severe anxiety.
Keep in mind that some people who have used it report feeling light-headed, emotionally numb or uncomfortable and irritated by the process. It is all about having realistic expectations, and finding what works for you!
It’s important to note, that while choosing your PTSD recovery path you need to address both the symptoms and the underlying condition. NICE guidance updated in 2018 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Please remember, these aren’t meant to be medical recommendations, but they’re tactics that have worked for others and might work for you, too. Be sure to work with a professional to find the best methods for you.
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