Feeling anxious? Even if this moment is a non-anxious moment for you, chances are good that at some point in the Year of the Pandemic, you have felt some anxiety; and chances are you’ll feel it again. If you do, might I suggest you try giving yourself a hug. A havening hug.
Even as I typed the words, “give yourself a hug,” I had an image in my head of someone doing that thing where they turn their back to you and rub their hands up and down their arms and neck in a way that makes it look like you’ve caught them in the middle of an intense make-out sesh with someone. This is (mostly) different from that.
First, let’s talk about anxiety
If you experience frequent anxiety, you already know what it feels it—a mixture of nervousness, restlessness, irritability, panic or dread, among other things. Melaina Juntti reports for Fatherly what is happening in the brain when we feel this way:
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.
The problem—and where anxiety comes in—is when the amygdala hijacks the thinking brain and takes over, keeping our bodies locked in fight-or-flight mode when there is nothing to battle or flee.
What is havening?
The Havening Techniques were developed by Dr. Ronald Ruden as a therapeutic tool to combat trauma. It consists of sensory input—human touch—of the hands, upper arms and face, usually applied by a certified practitioner, as well as constructive messaging or mantras. But a very basic version of it can easily be learned at home for you to try on yourself or your kids.
In this video, Havening Techniques practitioner James Hymers demonstrates how to cross your arms and gently rub your arms from your shoulders down to your elbows, closing your eyes and repeating the phrase, “calm and relaxed,” over and over.
As Juntti writes for Fatherly:
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 first time I heard about this technique happened to be very recently when I was feeling particularly anxious about the start of the school year and the continued cancellation of my son’s childhood. I was sceptical, but I tried it and when I was done with this very unscientific study of one, I’d say I felt about 50 per cent less anxious. It didn’t *poof!* cure me of all anxiety, but it took the edge off, and I started with quite an edge.
In the instructional video, Hymers suggests incorporating this technique for two minutes a day into your daily routine to calm your anxious brain.
Illustration: Benjamin Currie (In-House Art)