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Nurturing touch technique shown to change brain activity and reduce distress

The first study to investigate the role of touch in a novel intervention known as Havening shows how therapeutic touch reduces feelings of distress by changing brain activity.

Two people hugging
An invited hug can be critical to our psychological and physical wellbeing

Researchers at Nottingham Trent University (NTU) have explored an innovative psychological therapy known as Havening, which incorporates nurturing touch to help people recover from traumatic experiences.

Participants who reported experiencing a moderately distressing thought or event, at least a month prior to the study, took part in online psychological testing and a face-to-face therapeutic session.

The individuals were randomly allocated to a session which either did or did not include Havening Touch. Led by an experienced Havening therapist, participants began each session by thinking about their distressing event or memory before carrying out four cycles of activities, such as naming animals beginning with specific letters, singing a childhood song, thinking about photos of happy images, and imagining watching a tennis match.

For those receiving the Havening Touch, the practitioner also administered a gentle sweeping touch to either the participant’s face, upper arms and shoulders, or palms during the activities.

Before, after and during the session, participants reported their mood state and had a brain scan using electroencephalography - electrodes placed around the head that measure the brain’s electrical activity.

In general, improvement was seen in negative mood states after the session, compared to just before. Moreover, those who completed a follow-up psychometric test two weeks later also reported better psychological health.

Greater reduction in self-reported distress about the troublesome thought or event was observed during the session that contained Havening Touch than the session that did not. This was reflected in the electroencephalography, which showed a specific increase in beta and reduction in gamma activity in the Havening Touch group. This might reflect changes in a brain network known as the limbic system, involved in processing emotions, and is in line with the theory that Havening Touch helps relieve a sense of fear or threat.

Dr Alexander Sumich, Associate Professor in Psychology at NTU’s School of Social Sciences, said: “Hormones and brain chemicals, such as oxytocin and dopamine are released through our bodies with desired social contact, such as sharing a hug, and are critical to our psychological and physical wellbeing, supporting our immune system. Oxytocin also helps an area of the limbic system called the amygdala adaptively determine whether we should be fearful of something or not.

“While our findings suggest that both conditions carried therapeutic potential, we see that incorporation of the Havening Touch accelerates the reduction in distress, with even just a single session.”

The research team from the university’s Affect, Personality and the Embodied Brain (APE) group and NTU’s School of Science and Technology Sport, Health and Performance Enhancement group are also developing online guided interventions. This includes research investigating how these interventions may help competitive/recreational athletes deal with distressing memories of a single sporting event or experience.

Future work will also investigate the relationship between the changes in brain activity and biochemical response to nurturing touch.

Dr Sumich added: “As we emerge from a time of social distancing, it is important to recognise the importance of touch in wellbeing, and hug once more.”

The study The Power of Touch: The Effects of Havening Touch on Subjective Distress, Mood, Brain Function, and Psychological Health is due to be published in the journal Psychology & Neuroscience.

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    About Nottingham Trent University

    Nottingham Trent University (NTU) received the Queens Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in 2021 for cultural heritage science research. It is the second time that NTU has been bestowed the honour of receiving a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for its research, the first being in 2015 for leading-edge research on the safety and security of global citizens.

    NTU was awarded Outstanding Support for Students 2020 (Times Higher Education Awards). It was the University of the Year 2019 (Guardian University Awards, UK Social Mobility Awards), Modern University of the Year 2018 (Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide) and University of the Year 2017 (Times Higher Education Awards).

    NTU is one of the UK’s largest universities, with over 33,000 students and more than 4,000 staff located across five campuses. It has an international student population of 4,000 and an NTU community representing around 160 countries.

    In the past 15 years, NTU has invested £450 million in tools, technology and facilities.

    NTU is in the UK’s top 10 for number of applications and ranked first for accepted offers (2019 UCAS UG acceptance data) It is also among the UK’s top five recruiters of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

    75% of NTU students go on to graduate-level employment or graduate-entry education / training within fifteen months of graduating (Guardian University Guide 2021).

    NTU is 4th globally (and 3rd in the UK) for sustainability in the 2021 UI Green Metric University World Rankings (out of more than 900 participating universities).

Nurturing touch technique shown to change brain activity and reduce distress

Published on 9 March 2022
  • Category: Press office; Research; School of Science and Technology; School of Social Sciences

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