Have you ever wondered why one person can have a scary experience - for example, a bad flight in an aeroplane - and forget about it, while someone else can have a similar experience and develop a phobia or anxiety for the rest of their life?
Ronald Ruden, a doctor in New York State, has puzzled over this for about fifteen years and believes that he has found the answer developing a treatment for anxiety, phobias and negative emotions which he has called “havening".
His approach, based on the latest neuro-science, does not involve taking drugs, undergoing hypnosis, adopting a special diet - or even a belief that it will work. It uses the normal responses of your neurology to resolve negative emotions, is easy to learn and is something you can do for yourself.
So if this sounds like something you would like to find out more about, please read on!
Dr Ruden began researching the neuroscience of anxiety about fifteen years ago and in 2011 he published the results of his study and clinical experience in his book "When the Past is Always Present" - though he is still refining his ideas as further research into neuro-science is published.
I first came across havening in May 2015, and my positive experiences with it led me to undertake the training to become a Havening Techniques Practitioner in November 2015.
So what is havening? And how does it work? The best place to start is with a summary of how the experiences of anxiety and fear are generated in the brain.
The fight or flight response
We have all experienced the fight or flight response - the feeling of fear, anxiety or anger, when we feel under threat, that tells us that our mind and body are gearing up to fight or run away in order to protect ourselves.
The key area of the brain responsible for the fight or flight response is the amygdala - a small almond sized area of the brain which has a primary role in the processing of memory, decision making and emotional reactions. We actually have two amygdalas - one in each hemisphere of the brain - and the amygdala in the right hemisphere in particular has a role in processing fear inducing stimuli and is associated with negative emotions, especially fear and sadness.
When our nervous system detects a threat in the environment, the amygdala initiates the fight or flight response and various physiological changes occur in the body to give us increased strength or speed in fighting or running, including:
•noradrenalin is released into the body
•we become more alert, vigilant and anxious and our attention is focused on the perceived danger
•our heart rate increases and our blood pressure increases
•our breathing becomes more rapid
•our blood supply is diverted to our muscles and away from non-urgent functions like the digestive system.
These changes all occur rapidly and automatically to enable us to take immediate action to protect ourselves. This is very useful if we are faced with physical danger where we need to run away or fight, but in modern life the fight or flight response is also triggered by all sorts of events where we are not actually in physical danger and where it would not be appropriate to fight or run away.
Phobias and Anxiety
What normally happens after the fight or flight response is triggered is that the front part of the brain (the medial pre-frontal cortex) evaluates the threat and, if it determines that the threat has passed or is not significant, it sends a message to the amygdala to switch off the fight or flight response and we return to a state of calm.
However, in cases of extreme fear or anger or chronic stress, the signal may not be enough to turn off the activity of the amygdala and the symptoms of fear and anger persist. In this case, the events causing the negative emotions can become permanent memories with the result that if we recall or are reminded of any part of the original event, whether consciously or unconsciously, the amygdala is activated, and the fight or flight response is triggered.
This activation of the amygdala occurs outside our conscious control - which is a good thing because if we are in real danger, we need to respond instantly, rather than get into an intellectual debate about whether we need to react. But it is also why people who come to me for help with anxiety or phobias often say something like “I know my fear is stupid, but I can’t turn it off.” What lies behind such statements is that one part of our brain (the pre-frontal medial cortex) believes that there is no danger, but this message is not getting through to another part (the amygdala).
So if reasoning and rationalising are not enough to turn off the fight or flight response, what else can we do? This is where havening comes in.
Havening is very simple. It consists of three steps:
1. Activating the memory of a stressful experience by remembering it for a few seconds, and then rating the intensity of the stress feelings on a scale of 10.
2. Then distracting the conscious attention from the stressful memory by, for example, imagining walking on a beach, or humming or counting aloud.
3. While distracting the attention, gently stroking the upper arms, forehead and cheeks and palms of the hands.
This process is repeated until the stress feelings subside to zero, It works whether you do the stroking yourself (self-havening) or someone else does the stroking for you.
It is tempting to think that it is simply a distraction technique. However, this does not seem to be the case because typically someone will report after havening that they can still remember the memory but that it no longer bothers them, and the changes appear to be permanent.
There therefore seems to be more to it than mere distraction and Dr Ruden believes that he has identified how the technique works from a neuro-scientific point of view.
The science of havening
Research by Mel Harper at the University of Colorado Boulder shows that the stroking of the arms, face and hands causes delta waves to appear in the brain. These normally appear in adults only during sleep and in the deepest levels of relaxation.
Dr Ruden believes that the production of delta waves is key to why havening works and that the stroking of arms, face and hands, after activating a stressful memory, stimulates the production of various neuro-chemicals - serotonin, GABA and calcineurin - which cause the negative emotions linked to the activated memory circuits to be permanently turned off.
He called the technique "havening" because the stroking tells the amygdala that it has reached a "safe haven" and the fight and flight response can be switched off.
My experience is that the stroking of arms, face and hands can produce a profound state of relaxation - which leads me to suspect that human beings are "hard-wired" to comfort themselves or others in this way. It is a common experience to see someone greet or comfort a friend by stroking their upper arm; it is a common experience to come out of a stressful meeting and stroke our face with our palms; it is a comforting experience to hold hands with a loved one.
The Art of Havening
Havening is based on science but its practice is an art. The skill of the havener lies in providing a safe space for change to occur and sometimes it may take detective work to identify the source of a problem.
Here is a short video (about 20 minutes long) in which Ronald Ruden's twin brother, Stephen, demonstrates using havening to help someone overcome a bridge phobia.
Have a look too at the official website www.havening.org which has a list of registered practitioners (including myself!).
If you would like to know more about the science of havening, or even to book a havening session please get in touch.
Article written by Roger Gilbert - Leeds
I specialise in helping people with anxiety and phobias, confidence building and smoking cessation using hypnotherapy, NLP and havening techniques.
I am based in Alwoodley, North Leeds, with easy access by car and public transport from the centre of Leeds. If you are travelling by car there is plenty of parking available.
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