A new trauma therapy that relies on touch to dampen the brain's hyperactive fear circuits.
Havening means “to bring to a safe place.” It is a neuroscientific technique invented by Dr. Ronald Ruden in the early 2000s. Havening embraces a research-based understanding of what trauma does to the developing brain and how to cure it in adulthood through a sequence of calming self-touches, positive visualizations, and spoken self-affirmations that prompt the reorganization of the brain.
The developing brain has a cluster of cells called the amygdala which is extremely sensitive to survival threats. Simply put the amygdala’s job is to keep us alive. The amygdala has been called the brain’s fear detector and the brain’s fire alarm. A related part of the brain called the hippocampus stores memories from our earliest days stamped with emotional messages by amygdala that tell the rest of the brain some very important things. They tell the brain who, if anyone, we can trust; whether the world around us is safe/pleasant or dangerous/distressing; and whether we can safely explore the world or must act defensively to assure our survival.
A developing child who is well loved and nurtured is one who is safely held by her parents who gently stroke her skin and speak to her in soothing, reassuring tones. This forms a well-regulated amygdala that aims more for thrival than survival. A healthy amygdala keeps us in that happy middle between hyper-arousal (fight/flight) and hypo-arousal (freeze/dissociation). In that happy middle we can roll with unexpected challenges and adversities and remain socially engaged. We are also securely attached to others so we can enjoy healthy, stable, loving relationships.
A developing child who is not safely held and gently stroked, but rather is glared at, yelled at, shaken, hit by hands or objects, pinched, burned or confined, develops a hyperactive amygdala which is constantly scanning for survival threats. Lack of touch, as in Romanian orphanages, or painful touch intended to harm causes the adult equivalent of PTSD in children. Th human amygdala has a hair trigger. It processes sensory data and makes decisions about safe/unsafe in just 75 milliseconds which is four times faster than the blink of an eye. When a child has endured repeated trauma key parts of its brain are molded to interpret human interactions as threatening. A hyperactive amygdala sees a neutral face as an angry one. The insula of the brain, which creates a touch-based sensory map of the body, interprets touch as threatening and potentially hurtful.
The brain of the trauma survivor functions in survival mode. At certain times during the human life span, especially during the later teen years, the brain prunes away an excess of cells that are determined to be unneeded. Normally this is a good thing which renders the brain more efficient. However, in some cases this process goes awry.
One such case is schizophrenia in which gene mutations cause the brain to prune away much too many healthy cells in the fronto-temporal lobes. This reduces gray matter brain mass with loss of cognitive capacities and onset of hallucinations and delusions. On the other hand, schizophrenia is rare and affects just 1% of the population. What about developmental trauma? In survivors the brain does not prune away the cells that are inscribed with messages of fear, terror, worry, and anxiety; and this is because the brain is convinced the world is dangerous so survival depends on a combination of hypervigilance with defensive tactics. Trauma effects a lot more than 1% of people. Estimates are that it negatively impacts more than 50% of us, the group that includes people who never properly attached to their parents because their attachment needs were not met. Poor attachment styles include fearful, avoidant, and fearful-avoidant. Each form of attachment injury causes its own set of obstacles to healthy, loving, stable relationships.
Why is the amygdala so important? Approximately 90% of inputs to the thinking part of our brain (the cortex) come from past learning and memory rather than new sensory data. If we grew up feeling powerless, helpless, hated or unlovable we will remind ourselves of this obsessively during adulthood through negative self-talk. A maltreated child whose attachment needs were not met grows up with excessive fear of rejection/abandonment and is easily shamed. Traumatized individuals who “self-medicate” with alcohol, recreational drugs or abuse of prescription drugs are simply seeking to soothe their pain and shame.
So how does havening help? It has to do with touch, which is the first of our five senses to come online during development. In fact, our sense of touch develops early in utero. Soothing touch is known among mammals, primates, and humans to promote positive mood and social bonding, while decreasing cortisol production, heart rate, and blood pressure. Soothing touch increases neuro-hormones that keep us calm, relaxed, and able to engage socially while calming our amped up brain waves into the theta-delta range Dr. Ruden discovered that human skin has a set of mechano-receptors (C-Tactile Afferents) that feed through the thalamus to the amygdala, and that gentle stroking of the skin in the palms, over the eyes, under the eyes, and along the upper arms calms the amygdala. Light touches of these areas also activate the cognition the world is safe in the prefrontal cortex and the capacity for social bonding in the insula, the part of the brain that creates empathy.
When the havening technique is repeated during the course of psychotherapy for trauma the client’s brain and the client change. The fear, worry, shame, and self-dislike ebb; the capacity to attach well to others increases; and the client’s self-esteem and self-confidence rise. Kate Truitt, an expert in the field of havening, says that havening culminates in the client’s discovery of “an inner smile.”