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What is Havening? Experts weigh in on Justin Bieber's stress-relieving technique

Proponents of the technique say it does everything from relieve anxiety to cure major traumas. Outside experts are more skeptical.
In the ninth episode of his documentary series, Justin Bieber was seen practicing Havening, drawing attention to the practice.
In the ninth episode of his documentary series, Justin Bieber was seen practicing Havening, drawing attention to the practice. YouTube
/ Source: TODAY

Everyone has their own way of coping with day-to-day stress and anxiety. Yet pop star Justin Bieber's methods may look a little different: When he's feeling overwhelmed, he continuously rubs his hands over his face and hair. It's a stress-relieving technique referred to as Havening.

"It's basically like a self-soothing thing," his wife, Hailey Bieber, said in an episode of Bieber's YouTube documentary series. "Everybody kind of has their own of version of Havening without even knowing it. It's like when you're a little kid and you suck your thumb to soothe yourself."

Bieber's health coach Buzz Mingin, who has a doctorate in psychology, explained that Havening is a "psychosensory technique that actually raises the feel-good chemicals in your brain on demand." While proponents of the technique say it can be used to heal many ailments and traumas, other mental health experts are more skeptical about its effectiveness.

What is Havening?

Kate Truitt, a clinical psychologist who is a certified trainer for Havening, works out of Los Angeles and has been a proponent of the technique since 2014. After experiencing a severe trauma five years ago, she went to a Havening workshop in New York City and found that within minutes she was feeling better.

According to Truitt, Havening focuses on exploring how trauma is encoded in the amygdala, the part of the brain that experiences emotions.

"In a moment of trauma encoding, the brain goes into what's called a hyper gamma wave start, which allows the amgydala, our survivor brain, to basically latch like super glue onto a traumatic experience and say 'I'm remembering this forever, because this threatened my life,'" explained Truitt.

Truitt said that the amygdala, highlighted here, encodes traumatic experiences. Getty Images

The Havening touch and practice creates an "exponential generation" of delta waves, which are typically generated during sleep.

"(Delta waves) are basically the anti-super glue for that traumatically encoded experience," said Truitt. "Those receptors go away, and the amygdala feels safe."

Other mental health experts were less convinced about the technique's efficacy, citing a lack of research and evidence.

"'Havening' is pseudoscience unsupported by any meaningful research," said Melissa Hunt, who has a doctorate in psychology and is an associate director of clinical training at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "There's one uncontrolled trial that relied entirely on self-report ... This is definitely not an empirically supported, or even evidence-based treatment for anything, and the claims about its mechanism have no evidence to support them."

Pop singer Justin Beiber was seen practicing Havening in his documentary series on YouTube. YouTube

Representatives from the American Psychological Association and the National Alliance on Mental Illness declined to comment on the technique. When asked about the lack of studies to back up Havening, Dr. Ronald Ruden, the New York City-based creator of the technique, said that the anecdotal evidence around the technique is "so beyond clinically significant that it is almost not necessary to do these studies."

How is Havening practiced?

According to Ruden, Havening can be performed on oneself, done by a Havening practioner or even performed over the phone. The process involves recalling a traumatic memory in as much detail as possible before embarking on a series of movements and thought activities.

The technique starts by either rubbing your forehead or arms, as seen in the Justin Beiber documentary series, then counting to 20 while visualizing a calming activity such as swimming in a pool, walking in a field or playing Ping-Pong.

After counting to 20, the subject hums a children's song — examples given by Ruden include "Row, Row Your Boat" and "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" — before re-evaluating how much distress the traumatic memory brings. The series is repeated, with some modifications such as a different visualization or movement, until the distress level is reported to be zero.

The technique focuses on touches and visualizations. Getty Images

Hunt said that the procedure as it has been described does not seem to be capable of removing trauma.

"It does not appear to me that there are any actual active components — no breathing (techniques), no exposure, no cognitive restructuring, nothing," said Hunt.

In response to skepticism, Ruden told TODAY that "tens of thousands" of patients have been treated with the technique. Truitt explained that the distraction activities were meant to help disassociate any distress from the traumatic memory.

What can Havening potentially help with?

Ruden and Truitt said it is effective for many different conditions, like post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety, though Ruden stressed that it should not be used for people with more severe diagnoses, like psychiatric disorders.

Theresa Nguyen, vice president of research and innovation at Mental Health America, based in Alexandria, Virginia, said that while she wasn't very familiar with Havening, it seemed to mirror other techniques like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and brainspotting, both of which use distraction to attempt to deal with trauma and stress.

"Maybe Havening is the next iteration of this kind of work," Nguyen said. "It appears that something about what's happening here does help ... In a world where we don't know what works, anything is possible! The brain is such a mysterious organ. If it works for you, it doesn't matter why it works. You just know it works, so let's celebrate that."

What are some other techniques to try?

Hunt recommended "evidence-based interventions" for stress management, some of which bear similarities to Havening. One recommendation, deep diaphragmatic breathing, can reduce in-the-moment anxiety when done correctly, and mindfulness meditation can help with stress.

She also recommended yoga and physical exercise. However, for more extreme situations, she advised seeking professional advice.

Hunt recommends trying therapies with more evidence behind them, or even physical exercises like yoga. Getty Images

"If someone is suffering enough that their ability to function or get joy out of life is impaired in some way, then cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is by far the best supported form of psychotherapy for anxiety of various types," Hunt explained. "There are specific CBT protocols and approaches for lots of different disorders that have anxiety at their core. CBT is always based on certain core principles that are both research-based and have been proven to work in literally hundreds of clinical trials."