A major feature of PTSD, or any anxiety disorder for that matter, is a state of constant hypervigilance. In a word, people who struggle with very high anxiety can be said to be, for the most part, regularly in survival mode.
The problem, of course, is that for people for are in this overly-activated state, identifying that they are actually in this state, and the effects of this on themselves and those around them can be quite challenging. And because this state has been chronic for some time, knowing how to alleviate anxiety, bring down the physiological responses, and return to a calmer state, can be even more challenging.
Certainly, for those who work with anxiety disorders and those with PTSD, there are many modalities designed to lower anxiety. The idea with many of these interventions is to facilitate present-moment awareness, and thereby gain control over the sometimes overwhelming symptoms of anxiety. Yet, the question is, do these modalities require a person to be fully present?
For any person who has ever tried to meditate, the answer is unfortunately all too clear. Because meditating doesn’t force a person to be fully present — that is to say we can attempt meditation while the mid wanders, and it is up to us to bring our attention back — for many sufferers of anxiety, the experience itself may be more frustrating than it is helpful.
So is there a way to, in a sense, require a person to get out of survival mode and be fully present? The answer is yes. When the lack of present awareness actually jeopardizes safety, a person will become present. For example, let’s say that Jim, a PTSD sufferer arrives home one day to find his 6 year old son trapped underneath a bookcase that has fallen on him. We don’t have to guess what will happen, Jim’s senses will heighten, his reactions will quicken, and he will act, in the moment to save his son.
Obviously, this sort of situation could not be considered a therapeutic modality, but in a way, working with a horse — otherwise known as equine therapy — does require a person to be fully present for many reasons. For one thing, a horse itself is an animal that is in a very frequent state of hypervigilance, and to work with a horse and communicate effectively, a person has to be calm, or the horse will become startled, and yes, potentially dangerous. Further, if a person is not fully present with a horse, let’s face it, he/she is at risk. The is after all, a very large animal, and for any person, PTSD or not invokes a feeling of reverence.
Perhaps the most appealing part of equine therapy for those with anxiety is simply that nothing other than present moment awareness is required. There is no need to revisit the trauma verbally, not need to attempt to direct attention anywhere, no need to practice any form of relaxation routine. The horse’s behavior itself will serve as a barometer for a person’s anxiety, and naturally, as every person most likely wants to be around a calm, rather than startled, horse, the inclination to be present, and thereby reduce the symptomatology of anxiety is already there.
Horsewoman photo available from Shutterstock