Every therapist needs therapy. But mine came trotting on four legs, sniffed me up and left me with lessons and best practices, I still often use, to deal with the emotional fatigue and mental labour of doing what I love.
I am a Cognitive Behaviour therapist and I often see clients who have been diagnosed with anxiety and mood disorders.
The activity of walking a dog (not just sharing your life with one) can be immensely therapeutic for you.
Here’s why you can count it as an intervention if you are up for it.
Often, those with social anxiety disorder have a debilitating fear of being the centre of attention. It can be unnerving to be thrust into the spotlight and in that unsettling moment, even the process of quickly deflecting the conversation if the topic turns to you, can be a trigger for a panic attack. I realized that with a dog, you have a moving force field that acts as a shield because invariably the attention will be on them which in turn gives you enough space and time to process the sensory overload that you may fear.
It is, in some way, also the gentlest form of exposure therapy.
Ever notice that when a dog is anxious while walking with you, it starts pacing. You Pull firmly, but not too hard to hurt it. This usually encourages him to skip from a pace into a trot.
If you have ever been in therapy to deal with anxiety, it is likely that you have heard your therapist talk about grounding. It basically means to bring your focus to what is happening to you physically, either in your body or in your surroundings, instead of being trapped by the racing thoughts in your mind that are causing you to feel anxious. It helps you stay in the present moment instead of worrying about things that may happen in the future or events that have already happened but you still find yourself going over and over them in your head.
When you use a clicker or firmly pull the leash of a dog who is pacing while walking with you, you are helping it refocus the attention on the body and the physical feeling, you are helping it get out of the head and divert the mind away from anxious or stressful thoughts into the moment.
The dogs have mastered the 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique. And thanks to this simple activity of walking a dog, you can learn too.
You are walking along hoping that the dog relieves himself in time and possibly without the little dance it does before it does its business. It can be annoying if you are in a hurry but you are in for a surprise lesson in self-care and preparation when you observe closely.
Dogs often use urine and faeces to communicate with other animals, once they find a prime location for marking, they may need to dance a bit to motivate those bowels into action. Also, canines have scent glands in their paws, so the fancy footwork may be another way to mark the surrounding terrain.
This is similar to the positive talk, the power poses, a good shake, controlled breath notes you ought to give yourself to reduce chances of a dysfunctional thought popping in your head before starting the business for the day.
Do your dance of self -care. Put yourself first. Let them wait till you are ready to walk again.
When you walk your dog, you get to watch a beautiful facet of psychological adaptation and evolutionary mechanism at work – a dog accepts its size, strength and place. It communicates its boundaries to the other animals. It celebrates its own place under the sun.
A dog knows its place in the family, it understands hierarchy outside of its home and has accepted the pack line up. It wouldn’t have survived without understanding a natural order of things.
AAA or Accept, Acknowledge, Appreciate is a commonly used acronym when we therapists suggest behavioural experiments for mood disorders. Here’s what I learned walking my dog, sometimes it’s okay to not be able to tame all the dragons in a day, walk away from the battles you are not ready to fight yet. Acknowledge that no matter how overwhelming your anxious state of mind is in, you are going to find a way to be okay, even if it isn’t today.
Appreciate and credit yourself with the journey that you have taken, the milestones you have crossed and remind yourself that you too are a part of the world that we all share.
An interesting insight emerged on a day that I chose a different path to walk the dog on. Just changing the routine brought out a peculiar behaviour. Some behaviourists call it a displacement behaviour. The dog went in circles, shook its fur after every few steps and licked its paws excessively. A new path is full of uncertainty and the dog was possibly exhibiting behaviours triggered by anxiety and uneasiness that come with the unfamiliar.
I observed closely and saw that the displacement engagement seemed to become better after a few slow strides and an assuring nudge. The new sensory experiences were soon found to be less threatening and the dog was able to trust the environment again. In fact, it seemed to enjoy the walk more than on other days.
Recognize that even for you- you, the human to the dog, during a new situation, your body is doing what it is supposed to in response to thinking you are in danger. The nail-biting, hair tugging, fidgeting, sudden voice loss etcetera are a result of the body’s temporary emergency survival mechanism in action and you have the power to shut it off by adopting certain strategies.
Don’t reinforce it, don’t punish it, recognize the triggers and give yourself tools and time to work through it.
Every time I get to the cabinet where the dog’s leash is, he goes into this happy tizzy. He allows himself a soaked- in, anticipatory emotional response to receiving joy. He doesn’t question it, he assumes that the act of opening that cabinet must lead to happiness and it gives himself permission to feel the positive reaction. Even on those occasions that I have pulled out something else from there, he still has earnestly gone through the process of expressing his pleasure at the prospect of receiving joy.
Now, here’s the thing about human minds -the Researchers have made a surprising observation: People with depression don’t lack positive emotions, they just don’t allow themselves to feel them.
This cognitive style is called “dampening,” says Chloe Carmichael, PhD, a clinical psychologist in New York. It involves suppressing positive emotions with thoughts such as, “I don’t deserve to be this happy” or “This good feeling won’t last.” For example, a new mother with postpartum depression might tell herself she doesn’t deserve to recover because she’s a bad mother for being depressed in the first place, Dr. Carmichael says.
I understand that this may be an oversimplification of the constructs of our brain and why we tend to catastrophize everything and how we interpret everyday events; however, if there is one lesson in mindfulness, I take from this activity of dog walking, it is this.
In case, you aren’t convinced why and how walking a dog can be cathartic, here is a little science that you can lean on.
On a shared activity like a walk, you and the dog further strengthen the bond that Meg Olmert in the book, ‘Made For Each Other: the biology of the human-animal bond’ explains about.
A feedback system that both neurochemically, psychologically and behaviourally sets up between you and your pet when you are walking or bonding with it. Your heart rate comes down, your blood pressure comes down, your heart rate variability which is the ability of the heart to duck and dive and respond to stress improves. You release oxytocin, the opioids, adrenaline, and serotonin. So, all of these great reward chemicals and anti-stress chemicals can be released in both you and the pet.
Sounds like a win-win!
And just what the good doctor ordered.