What Is Havening Therapy and Is It Legit?

Here's what you should know about the alternative therapy technique used by Justin Bieber.

silhouette double exposure of a person expressing multiple emotions
Photo: Getty Images/Henrik Sorensen

There are myriad ways to help manage stress and anxiety in the moment you're feeling them — and the Havening technique is one that doesn't sound as familiar as, say, breathing exercises. The practice garnered mainstream attention after Justin Bieber revealed his use of the technique in his YouTube documentary Seasons.

Buzz Mingin, Psy.D., who treats Bieber using the Havening technique, weighed in on the technique during the documentary: "Havening is a psycho-sensory technique that actually raises the feel-good chemicals in your brain on demand. [Justin] and I coordinate prompts that allow him to know what it is he should be doing in the moment that he's feeling stressed, and then he has a coordinated signal back to me that lets me know what's wrong, how he feels, and what he needs," he explained.

So, how does that work, exactly? Here are the basics of the practice, including whether the Havening technique actually works.

The Havening Technique, Explained

Havening is a psycho-sensory technique, meaning it uses the senses (in this case, touch) as a healing tool in stressful situations. "Havening is a technique which uses sensory input like touch to change how the brain functions," explains Ronald Ruden, M.D., a primary care doctor who created the technique with his brother, Steven Ruden, D.D.S. "It does so by creating a special type of brain wave, [a delta wave,] that acts in a therapeutic manner," he says.

Dr. Ruden notes that he was initially inspired to develop Havening after learning about acupressure, a form of massage therapy originating from traditional Chinese medicine that involves applying pressure to certain points on the body to address ailments. The idea of acupressure is that people have meridians or channels throughout the body, and Qi — understood as a life-sustaining energy force — runs along those meridians. The goal of acupressure is to keep the Qi energy flowing using pressure at specific points.

But Dr. Ruden says he "does not believe" in meridians and Qi running through the body, arguing that acupressure doesn't account for biological changes that happen in the brain in response to touching certain pressure points on the body. "So, I went down that route of trying to solve the problem of how events and emotions are encoded in the body and then found [that Havening provides] a pathway by which we can change those for the benefit of the client," he explains.

During a typical Havening therapy session, a patient will recall a traumatic memory and a therapist who is specifically trained in Havening will use gentle touch on their hands, arms, or face, says clinical psychologist Jaime Zuckerman, Psy.D. "The idea is that because your brain is unable to process two thoughts at the same time, the soft touch removes the trauma memory and halts activation of the amygdala — the part of the brain responsible for processing emotions," she explains.

Self-Havening is also a thing — instead of a therapist touching you, you apply the touch — but it's recommended that people with severe trauma or a psychological disorder work with a trained Havening therapist, notes Dr. Ruden. In addition to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Havening has also been used to improve emotional resilience and self-esteem and treat phobias, he says.

Does the Havening Technique Really Work?

At this point, the Havening technique hasn't been supported by research studies (FWIW, the Havening website has a disclaimer about this), leaving some mental health experts skeptical of the approach.

"Given the availability of evidence-based psychotherapies, they should be the first line of treatment ahead of alternative approaches that have not yet been tested in clinical trials," says Sherry Pagoto, Ph.D., a professor in the department of allied health science at the University of Connecticut. "Sometimes we assume that there is no harm to trying a new therapy, but this is not always the case. Harm can result from unsubstantiated therapies; for example, they could delay a patient from getting a treatment that works," she points out.

Alternative therapies can carry a potential for harm, agrees Liz Morrison, L.C.S.W., owner of group psychotherapy practice Liz Morrison Therapy in New York. "Those who have experienced trauma are constantly looking for some type of relief to heal memories that cause emotional distress," she says. "If it seems that Havening therapy could provide this for them, then most likely they would want to try it. This could be a dangerous way to approach trauma because it could lead to retraumatization as well as deeper scarring," notes Morrison.

That said, the Havening technique has some similarities to more researched forms of therapy, says Morrison. "Havening seems to be very similar to other treatment modalities such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), which specifically focuses on treating trauma and PTSD by engaging in specific eye movements and tapping to help you work through a specific traumatic event. There have been many studies looking at the effects of EMDR which have proven it to be an effective treatment," she explains.

Still, while some aspects of Havening have been researched, Havening itself is only backed by anecdotal evidence. "There is evidence that memories of traumatic experiences are malleable when recalled from [short-term] memory," says Zuckerman. "Additionally, there is support for the notion that sensory stimuli can impact how we process our emotions of trauma. However, there are limited controlled studies on the efficacy of this treatment. More research is required to determine if Havening therapy is, in fact, an empirically supported treatment for patients diagnosed with trauma, depression, and/or compulsive behaviors," she continues.

The bottom line: If you've tried more scientifically established techniques and think the Havening technique might work for you, go for it — but proceed with caution. There are more reputable and better-proven techniques for understanding and treating mental illness, and those should be your primary line of defense.

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