Q&A with Dr. Kate Truitt: The power of gentle, soothing touch

Kate Truitt, Ph.D., M.B.A, is CEO at the Trauma Counseling Center of Los Angeles, Chairman of the Board at Amy Research Foundation, and a co-developer of the havening techniques. Havening utilizes mindful touch to engage receptors in the skin, and was created by Dr. Ron Ruden and Dr. Steve Ruden. Dr. Truitt is also the author of the books, Healing In Your Hands and Keep Breathing (Winter, 2023). She shared more about her work and story in a conversation with Michelle Konstantinovsky at the Within Summit event, “An Intimate Conversation About Our Brains, Trauma, and the Recovery Journey.”

Can you tell me about self-havening, and how it empowers people to let go of traumatic experiences?

Anybody can learn the self-havening protocols, which involve different kinds of gentle, soothing touch, and calm the parts of the brain tied to stress and autonomic nervous system dysregulation. Regularly using these techniques also proactively heals the brain from triggers and stress in the present. We can all heal ourselves, with the proper tools, knowledge, and information.

How did you come across these techniques, and what resonated with you about this?

I was living with PTSD and very severe traumatic grief after my fiancé passed. We’d been together for 10 years, and he died from an accidental overdose due to medical mismanagement. I was the one who found him. It was a week before our wedding, and it triggered severe trauma. I’d specialized in trauma for almost a decade, I knew what was supposed to work, and yet my brain was spiraling out of control. I did a lot of great therapeutic work, but my brain was stuck, which happens for so many people.

When I first learned about havening I thought it was a little wacky, but I attended a training, and it was like my brain was back. So in 2014 I partnered with the Rudens to bring havening to the West Coast. Since then we’ve partnered with the Department of Defense, I’ve spoken at the United Nations, and I’m now a co-developer. It’s a very personal mission. Therapy should be a right for all, and this is a way to break that barrier.

What do you think are some of the most common misconceptions about healing from trauma?

That once we experience trauma and trauma symptoms, we’re incapable of healing. It certainly feels that way, but we do know how to help our brains heal.

The other one is that it’s shameful to have trauma symptoms. Those symptoms are how our brain is trying to keep us safe. Not in an ideal way, but it’s trying to make sense of the nonsensical.

What advice would you offer someone experiencing that shame, and what are some of the best ways to find trauma-informed therapists?

The first step is to see what certifications and trainings practitioners have done. Becoming a trauma-informed provider entails ongoing training and cultural and diversity awareness. Some you might look for include Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Interpersonal Neurobiology, and Internal Family Systems (IFS), and we have a wonderful certification for havening.

Have a consultation—I believe all providers should offer a free 30-minute consultation — to get to know a provider and their training, and see whether they feel like a good fit. The number one predictor of successful treatment outcomes is rapport and relational safety. Trauma teaches our brains we’re not safe, so connection is key.

For people experiencing shame and fear about reaching out, it’s helpful to understand that fear is your brain trying to keep you safe. Following really good, strong social media individuals can be a great bridge. Sometimes that kind of engagement can be less intimidating. Trauma can take away the sense that we deserve options and help, but we’re all deserving.

What do you think the biopsychosocial model can teach us about addressing trauma?

The biopsychosocial model presents the opportunity to make a change in one area of our lives — like practicing mindfulness — that creates further changes in our brain, body, and relationships. Our social relationships shape how we understand the world. I call these the core values of the amygdala. We learn how to seek safety, love, belonging, and success through social patterns and reinforcements, and we’re also influenced by our biology and psychology. All those things tie together beautifully, but for some of us painfully, into what we call the “case for self,” which is how we experience ourselves in the world.

Can you talk more about the relationship between trauma and self-sabotaging or self-destructive behaviors, in particular disordered eating?

Our amygdala is always learning, based on what we’re seeing from our caregivers, peers, and culture. There’s a lot of societal influence around food and body relationships, and that teaches your amygdala. For example, presentation was very important in my family, and I struggled with an eating disorder for many years. Knowing that if I looked the “right” way I would have a greater felt sense of safety led me to develop food behaviors. When you look a certain way, especially in American culture, you get rewarded. The brain remembers those rewards and goes, this is how I feel safe and lovable.

There are many continuums of how this manifests. These experiences activate reward circuitry, which teaches our brain and body that these self-harming behaviors are ways to feel better. We will hurt ourselves in order to feel safe.

What do you hope the future of this work will hold?

In my perfect world, everybody would know and use self-havening techniques, and the broader havening techniques would be an integrative part of all mental and behavioral health programs.

The other critical pillar is mental health literacy, and reducing stigma and shame. I always want to encourage people to be gentle with themselves, extend the brain the benefit of the doubt, and understand our reactions with curiosity and self-compassion.