How to harness the power of touch to reduce stress
Leadership brings with it a whole host of emotions; incredible highs when things are going well, along with incredible lows when they’re not, and for many an increased background uncertainty that for some leads to anxiety, overwhelm and burnout.
Current global events mean that we are all feeling an increase in background stress levels even if we don’t feel aware of it.
When we’re hijacked by our emotions it can be impossible to think straight.
Anxiety, stress and overwhelm lead us to take more risks because our brain cannot process information in the same way when our levels of cortisol are really high(1). High cortisol is also known to influence memory and visual perception(2). So the cruel irony is that just when we probably need to be making better, more considered judgments, our levels of stress may prevent just that.
If our stress is triggered by an event, it may also be that we keep replaying the event, and associated thoughts, in our heads, and become stuck in time, unable to move forward without that event tripping us up.
Often as a coach I have lots of ‘conversations’ about stress, what the situation is, how our thoughts are working to maintain the stress, separating thoughts from truth, creating space for curiosity, but when a client is overwhelmed talking can just make things worse. And, talking can be much harder to do for my clients when they are overwhelmed. So I turn to something very different.
I turn to touch.
How can touch help?
Specifically, I turn to havening techniques which I have found to have remarkably positive and lasting effects.
Research shows that touch can have a powerful effect on our chemical state. For example, it has been found that massage decreases cortisol and increases serotonin and dopamine(3).
We often reassure ourselves and other people by holding hands, stroking our arms and faces. Touch boosts oxytocin another chemical which is associated with feelings of closeness and connection and shared experience. So, we know that touch can have therapeutic effects.
Havening touch, based on neuroscience has been created to help clients move past trauma as well as deal with stress, anxiety, and other emotional challenges (see www.havening.org for more information).
What is more, I teach my clients how they can use it to help regulate their emotions themselves, so it is highly empowering.
How does Havening work?
The Havening Techniques engage our inherent biological system to permanently heal, strengthen and empower our minds and bodies. The Havening Techniques are healing modalities designed to help individuals overcome problems that are the consequence of traumatic or stressful encoding. They belong to a larger group of methods called psychosensory therapies, which use sensory input to alter thought, mood and behavior.
Havening, which was developed by Ronald Ruden, M.D., an internist with a Ph.D. in organic chemistry, generates delta waves that have a positive effect on regions of the brain that are involved in creating emotionally charged memories and trauma.
One of these brain regions is the amygdala, which plays a major role in recording the emotions of our experiences. When it comes to traumatic experiences, the amygdala encodes emotions in a different way, and so they become hard-wired – which is why we often find ourselves replaying events in our mind. Events that are unpredictable or that are felt as inescapable are more likely to be stored this way in our brain.
The increased delta waves impacts on the emotional charge of the memory so it becomes less engulfing and research shows that havening reduces emotional distress(4).
How is havening used?
There are many forms of havening, but 3 of the most common are called transpirational, affirmational, and event havening.
If you feel anxiety from the day’s events, distressing news, or a desperate situation, transpirational havening can help. While you use one of the 3 touch techniques described above in the image, talk about what you’re feeling. For example, as you stroke your arms in a downward motion, you may say something like, “I’m feeling so worried about our finances, and I’m feeling helpless.” As the touch produces delta brainwaves, the special nerve endings send signals to the amygdala that make it feel safe and secure. This helps take away the anxiety-producing effects of the words you are saying.
Saying positive affirmations while practicing one of the havening touch techniques can be very powerful. This is due to the fact that havening mimics the sleep stage when your brain incorporates the memories of the day. Because of this, saying affirmations while havening puts those positive thoughts into the brain’s memory centers—the hippocampus involved in declarative memory and in the dorsolateral striatum and ventral striatum involved in operational and procedural memory.
This can be very effective at resetting anxiety levels. For example, during the day if you get anxious or frightened, think “safe, peaceful, calm” while you rub your hands or arms. This will help defuse your brain’s fear centers and promote soothing.
This form of havening is often used for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It has been found to help eliminate the intrusive thoughts, nightmares, and flashbacks associated with PTSD. Note that this form of havening is best done with a trained therapist (www.havening.org for a list of practitioners).
No therapy works for all problems or all people with the same problem. Even those that are well researched and deemed ‘evidence-based practice’ (e.g. cognitive-behavioural therapy) do not work for everyone who experiences them.
The effectiveness of havening is emerging(5), but as an approach it has not been fully researched and therefore may be considered experimental. At the time of writing, academics at Nottingham Trent University are studying the effects of havening (see HERE).
As a psychologist, and someone wedded to ideals of evidence-based practice, I endorse havening because of the results I have achieved in combining it with coaching with my clients.
Want to know more?
If you’re as intrigued by the idea of havening as I was when I first came across it, then please contact me for a discussion of how you can use this to enhance performance, reduce specific fears (e.g. exams, performance, public speaking, becoming more visible), to deal with emotional overwhelm or anxiety, or to help you process memories that are affecting your current performance. If I can’t help you, then I will be able to find a havening techniques practitioner who can.
1) Van den Bos, R., Harteveld, M., & Stoop, H. (2009). Stress and decision-making in humans: performance is related to cortisol reactivity, albeit differently in men and women. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 34(10), 1449-1458.
2) Echouffo-Tcheugui, J. B., Conner, S. C., Himali, J. J., Maillard, P., DeCarli, C. S., Beiser, A. S., ... & Seshadri, S. (2018). Circulating cortisol and cognitive and structural brain measures: The Framingham Heart Study. Neurology, 91(21), e1961-e1970.
3) Field, T., Hernandez-Reif, M., Diego, M., Schanberg, S., & Kuhn, C. (2005). Cortisol decreases and serotonin and dopamine increase following massage therapy. International Journal of neuroscience, 115(10), 1397-1413.
4) Sumich, A., Heym, N., Sarkar, M., Burgess, T., French, J., Hatch, L., & Hunter, K. (2022). The power of touch: The effects of havening touch on subjective distress, mood, brain function, and psychological health. Psychology & Neuroscience.
5) Gursimran, T., Deborah, T., Matthew, G., Paul, M., & Neil, G. (2015). Impact of a single-session of Havening. Health Science Journal, 9(5), 1.