Leafing through my Sunday paper a few weeks ago, a guest column caught my eye: “The unusual technique that relieves anxiety and loneliness
.” I figured the headline was the print version of clickbait, but the writer was on to something. It's called Havening
, and many of us perform parts of it without knowing we do.
Curious, I reached out to the creator of Havening, Dr. Ronald Ruden. He was delighted to talk—and to lead me through a short Havening session, which I'm delighted to give you the skinny on. But you're probably wondering what Havening is, so let's get to that first.
In a nutshell, Havening is a relatively new method for treating anxiety
, depression and other mental woes. You can perform it on yourself or it can be facilitated. It involves visualization and soothing repetitive touch.
To be sure, some health experts are wary
of the psychosensory strategy and note that there's scant scientific evidence to back it. Ruden says the best way to measure Havening's effectiveness is through self-reporting by those who use it. Either way, Justin Bieber
relies on it, as do folks around the world.
Ruden, who calls himself a “medical theorist,” has practiced internal medicine since 1983 in New York City and boasts an impressive resume
. I caught him during his vacation week. He developed Havening after learning of an alternative therapy, back in 2000, that involves tapping on acupuncture points in order to rebalance the body and/or mind.
At the time, Ruden considered the tapping modality “ridiculous,” he recalls. “How can tapping on the forehead remove a phobia?” The explanation came by way of Eastern medicine, but as a Western allopathic physician, Ruden wanted more. “With a great deal of chutzpah, I decided I would see if I could find a neurobiological explanation of what was happening, because I tried it on a couple of patients, and it worked,” he says.
I'm going to vastly simplify what happens with Havening—full details are in this 2019 article Ruden wrote
—but here goes: Incorporating a soothing sensory element, such as stroking the arms, while engaging with a troubling memory/event allows you to separate from the original emotional state associated with that memory/event and replace it with something healthier. Delta brainwaves play a big role. “It is all speculation, a theory, if you will, based in neuroscience,” Ruden tells me. “But it is consistent with what we see clinically.”
My Havening phone session took just four minutes. Ruden noted that he didn't need to know me or what my stressful event was in order for the process to be effective. Here's what happened:
Ruden asked me to think of an event causing me distress, and then drop myself into it, recalling sight, sound, smell, the whole nine yards. Next, I rated the distress I felt from it in the very moment we were talking, on a scale of one to 10. My event was fairly humdrum, albeit nagging. I rated it a six.
He then asked me to place my hands on opposite shoulders, stroke my arms shoulder-to-elbow, lift my hands, and continuously repeat the stroking pattern. Each stroke cycle lasted a second. He instructed me to keep my eyes closed.
Ruden asked me to imagine doing calming and/or empowering activities and count their paces, aloud: swimming strokes, walking on a beach. He also had me hum a tune. Between two of the activities, he asked me to take a deep breath and focus on the back of my eyelids.
Afterward, I rated my distress a two, and—the most interesting aspect for me—the event was hard to recall. “That memory now has been altered completely,” Ruden says. “We made you detach from it by separating the emotional state from the cognitive state … The ability to have emotional recall is gone, and depending on how the memory was encoded determines what remains after successful Havening.”
Want to try Havening on your own? Here's Ruden’s top suggestion. Practice the exercise until your distress tempers to a tolerable level. (Havening.org has more self-guided exercises.)
- Sit comfortably, and close your eyes.
- Cross your arms then place your hands on opposite shoulders.
- Stroke your upper arms, shoulder to elbow, repeatedly, at the rate of about one stroke per second.
- Repeat “safe, peaceful, calm” to yourself as you stroke.
You also can simply relax yourself using Havening’s soothing elements: running your fingers through your hair, stroking your cheeks, rubbing your palms. Most likely, you already instinctively do.
Mitra Malek is a former Yoga Journal editor who writes about wellness.