According to Mental Health America (www.nmha.org), about 20% of the population suffers from depression, and among those, as much as 30% also suffer from anxiety, and/or a history of panic attacks. To be sure, mood disorders are not a small problem, especially considering the probable large number of undiagnosed cases. And while there are a litany of ways to treat mood disorders, they are not always the most easily treated.
For one thing, depressives tend to isolate, thereby precluding therapeutic interventions. On the other hand, those with high anxiety have trouble maintaining therapeutic gains, and for this reason, may downplay the benefits of therapy. So while traditional talk therapy may not always be the easiest way to treat these disorders, sometimes spending time with a horse can be just the trick.
Horses tend to bring people out of their shell, and not only in a environmental way. When interacting with a horse, a person who is depressed will register a different physiological response from what has been normal. And this very fact is important given that one of the hallmark features of major depression is a flatlined physiological system.
In fact, one of the diagnostic criteria of depression is a lack of interest or enjoyment in previously enjoyed activities. What this means is that when exposed to things that used to register the physiological reactions of joy, interest, and pleasure, the person who battles depression will no longer show these reactions. Instead, their brain will be relatively stagnant. Of course, one can only imagine how difficult this situation would make taking the steps to unravel the depression become.
Yet introduce a depressed person to a horse, and here we have a novel situation. And not novel in a small way. So the depressed person’s system is given a jolt, especially when the horse responds to the depressed person in the way that he typically does. That is he nudges, and nudges, and nudges, until, finally a response is gained. This happens because, to a horse, a depressed person is akin to a lifeless foal that must be roused in order to be safe. So what the horse is actually trying to do is activate the depressive’s own self-protective mechanisms. And while the depressed person may begin to take action, and reassert boundaries between herself and the horse, what actually will have happened is that she has done something that depressives do not do. That is, she has woken up, physiologically and literally, and is now acting in her own defense.
If this were an anxious person, the horse might have acted even more strongly, pushing the person more, and invading her space more. Why? Because the anxious person is also not safe. Instead of remaining alert to her surroundings and acting to protect herself, her anxiety has occupied her focus, and left her frozen, physiologically and physically. The only way the horse can then attempt to move her from this state is to put her in a position where she has to defend herself, and move despite her anxiety, again interrupting the flatlined pattern that is also experienced by the depressed person. And because, again, the anxious person has experienced a different physiological response, and one that is linked to a very powerful positive behavior (for example communicating effectively with a horse), she is much more likely to retain the therapeutic gains.
While we may not be able reduce the total number of mood disorders diagnosed every year, at the very least, we can offer innovative approaches to treat them.