Can a self-hug help alleviate anxiety and fight depression? The science is promising.
Small daily rituals can help keep sadness and anxiety at bay. Running, yoga, deep breathing, spending time in nature, and turning off news alerts on your phone do real work. Exercise releases endorphins, greenspaces increase happiness, and removing screens can lead to better sleep. In the midst of the nationwide mental health crisis stemming from COVID-19, these small defenses help in a bigger battle. Here's another science-backed, and surprisingly impactful weapon to add to your arsenal: havening.
On the most basic level, havening means hugging or caressing yourself, sometimes while voicing positive affirmations. On a more technical level, it's using self-soothing to induce "amygdala depotentiation," which essentially means reining in and retraining the emotional part of the brain that kicks us into fight-or-flight mode and causes anxiety. There's not denying it's touchy-feely stuff. But it's got the backing of real science and enthusiastic experts. Here's why.
The Brain on Anxiety
To get what havening is and how it works, it helps to first understand what's happening in the brain when we experience anxiety. Because whatever the root cause of anxiety — whether a phobia, childhood trauma, generalized anxiety disorder, or fear of contracting COVID-19 — scientists theorize that what's going on in our heads is essentially the same.
Each of us has an "emotional brain" and a "thinking brain." The emotional brain, ruled by the amygdala, is primal; it exists to gauge threats and react quickly to avoid danger. "The amygdala is designed to keep us safe," says Kate Truitt, Ph.D., a psychologist and certified practitioner of the Havening Techniques. "It's not very bright — it doesn't think; it just operates on 'safe' or 'not safe.'" When sensing a real threat, the amygdala activates the sympathetic nervous system, better known as fight-or-flight mode. Whenever we're in this state, we feel unnerved and anxious.
Fortunately, the thinking brain also kicks into gear upon perceiving a threat, albeit four times more slowly than the emotional brain, says Truitt. It introduces reason, allowing us to react more intelligently and appropriately, which might mean not reacting at all.
"We've all experienced some version of walking down the road, seeing a hose or a stick, and doing a stutter step," Truitt says. "The brain is saying 'is that a snake?' because we are biologically designed to look for snakes because we know they can kill us. In a healthy system, the amygdala goes, oh, that's just a stick, and the thinking brain says, cool; we're OK then."
Trouble is, many people's brains are not so healthy, especially right now. In that case — as experts believe is the case for people with generalized anxiety, phobias, or post-traumatic stress disorder — the amygdala hijacks the thinking brain and runs the show, trapping us fight-or-flight mode, even when there's no threat present. The result: persistent, sometimes crippling, anxiety.
"Attacking or running is what we do acutely in extreme situations, but otherwise, we're not supposed to be in sympathetic mode," says Julie Holland, M.D., a psychiatrist in New York City. "We should be in our parasympathetic nervous system, where we stay calm, present, and open to connection. This is the only time where the body rests, digests [information], and repairs, so parasympathetic is where we want to be." Many of us, though, are stuck in sympathetic.
Interestingly, as Holland writes in her new book Good Chemistry (Harper Wave, 2020), feeling disconnected, isolated, or lonely also activates the sympathetic nervous system. "Humans have to be social to survive, so anytime we are cut off from society or feel isolated, the body goes into fight-or-flight mode," she says, adding that this response traces back to our early ancestors. "On the savannah, if you strayed from the tribe, you wouldn't get help building shelter, gathering food, or finding mates. Isolation, literally, meant death. We still carry that genetic code today—we are hardwired to feel unsafe when we are alone."
Holland says feelings of isolation and loneliness were already super common pre-pandemic, thanks to our increasingly digitized world. But now that COVID-19 has closed schools, canceled social events, and forced us to work from home, these emotions — and therefore anxiety — have become rampant.
How Havening Helps
Havening (more specifically, the trademarked Havening Techniques) was developed by neuroscientist Ronald Ruden, Ph.D., about a decade ago as trauma therapy. It uses gentle touch of the upper arms, hands, and face, along with constructive messaging, to 'depotentiate' or rewire unhealthy neural pathways that have developed due to stressful experiences, putting healthier responses and emotions in their place.
But havening is also a powerful stress-busting technique that anyone can learn and practice at home on themselves or their kids. You basically cross your arms, place your palms on your shoulders, stroke your arms downward to your elbows, and repeat. While doing this, you can recite a simple mantra like "calm and relaxed" over and over, sing a song, or, as Truitt suggests, play a distracting brain game such as thinking of band names starting with letters A through Z. (Check out the official Havening Techniques website for lots of videos demonstrating applying havening to specific situations.)
On a neurological level, havening helps shift the brain into parasympathetic mode. It does this in part by boosting oxytocin, a hormone that is normally conjured up by human touch and bonding — something many of us are sorely lacking these days.
"Havening harnesses the brain's ability to heal and build itself," Truitt says. "Use this technique whenever your nervous system starts to feel dysregulated. As soon as you notice a stressful stimulus, such as text messages coming in or CNN popping up on your phone, do havening to bring the system back to a state of calm." The more you do this, she notes, the more resilient your amygdala becomes and the more easily you can access this calming state in the future.
Havening can also help if you're anxious about something specific, such as delivering a work presentation on Zoom. "Sit down and do self-havening and ask yourself how you would like to feel," Truitt says. "If you'd like to feel confident, reflect on a time when you felt confident. Because you have that memory, you can imagine going into the speech with that confident energy instead."
Parents can also use havening with their kids when they get anxious. "Parents are the nervous system for their children," Truitt says. "When they regulate their nervous system, the child starts to regulate right along with them. For kids, we teach the 'don't worry massage.' Kids apply touch and the whole family sings songs and applies touch together, which brings the family together."
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