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War, Post Trauma and Animal Assisted Therapy
From soldier to “naughty”. From warrior to “outpatient”. From hero to “discharge”. Too many of our military, our trusted Canadian citizens, and our paragons of patriotism and sacrifice return from overseas in a different way that earns them labels like “mentally ill” or “mentally disturbed.” They are referred to psychologists to talk about their depression, anxiety and PTSD. They are medicated and hoping like hell to rise from the depths of their memories, block out the fury of their recent horrific experiences, and descend into a peaceful sleep routine sometime in the near future.
Most military personnel in Canada did not ask to go overseas to fight someone else’s war, and none of them planned to return with the haunting memory of it affecting their lives. Are they “disturbed, clinically, diagnosable?” Much research supports the fact that the human brain, like the horse brain and any other animal brain, has a universal response to life-threatening situations. The “different” way in which veterans returned may be “normal” considering where they have been.
At the moment of threat, the human brain reacts similarly to that of a “prey”. Neuroscientist Mobbs (2007) conducted a fear-based experiment at the Medical Research Center in Cambridge, England. Mobbs (2007) had subjects play a video game in which they were being chased by a predator while lying in an fMRI scanner. Mobbs found that people experienced a “freeze” response when they first perceived a threat, and at that moment, the frontal lobes of their brains showed the most activity. Forebrain activity prepares our body to act and thinks and plans ways to avoid harm. It also keeps our midbrain inactive, which prevents us from moving so we can sit still and think.
In the experiment, when the predator approached, forebrain functions were shut down and midbrain functions were activated. The midbrain activates our “flight or fight” responses. Our fight/flight response is also controlled by the Sympathetic Nervous System, which triggers more than 1400 different physiological and biochemical changes in the brain when we perceive a threat, real or imagined. Psychological changes include feeling more aggressive, angry and fearful, and a long-term fight/flight response keeps us in a heightened state of fear and anxiety.
In a horse’s brain, we see the same brain patterns at play. Horses are game animals and had to survive in the wild. Whenever a horse experiences anything it perceives as threatening it triggers a “freeze” response. This can be anything from a flying plastic to a street bike. Their ancient brain circuitry causes them to be startled easily, and when startled, their heads shoot up into the air which causes a chemical surge in their brain. Horses freeze and their synapses stop firing. They react by either running or kicking, biting or stomping on the object. They fight or go. They are very “survival-savvy” and this has served their species well for the past several hundred thousand years.
Veteran horses and horses driven by instinct actively engage their primitive survival mind. They are alert and have a shared understanding of the need for security. Horses are wonderful mirrors for human emotions. A sensitive horse will feed back feelings of fear, anxiety, sadness or anger in its posture, movements, head position, breathing, licking and chewing and more. If people hide their true feelings or are unable to understand them, horses will react to what is really going on, and with the right knowledgeable and sensitive human helper, people can be helped to face and deal with what is really going on inside. their body. The process is not easy, foolproof, or immediate, but through working with horses, people in “warfare brain” mode can learn to understand that their condition is a normal response that requires understanding, awareness, and a return to peacetime. .
Since 2007, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs has been providing grants to qualified professionals to run equine-assisted programs with troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. Preliminary results suggest that there are statistically significant rates of positive change for those who participate in these programs (Wassom, n.d.). The Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association evaluated the treatment of members of the Georgia National Guard where deployments averaged two years or more. The study revealed that 100 percent of the soldiers who completed equine therapy had dramatically reduced stress levels. There are many reasons why horses are effective in helping veterans gain insight and understanding while reducing negative symptoms caused by combat zone experiences. This topic will be discussed in a future article.
Another alternative method to help soldiers cope with the after-effects of war is dog-assisted therapy. Dogs are recognized as comfort and support for warriors who have trouble sleeping, nightmares, and other fear-based reactions that helped them survive in the war zone. The US Department of Defense funded a $300,000 study at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. in 2009 involving fellow servicemen and women who still had survival reactions with trained service dogs. 39 people experiencing “survival symptoms” were given service dogs, and 82 percent reported a reduction in symptoms (Love & Esnayra, 2009).
There are now more than 100,000 service dogs in the United States, some of which provide assistance to the Nation’s warfighters by nudging them when they begin to show signs of panic attacks, calming them by calmly reacting to something the person perceives as a threat, or validating the person’s heightened awareness if there is a real threat. The dogs’ natural responses to the environment help the combat survivor relearn how to interpret real from imagined threats and give him/her the immediate feedback needed to either relax and calm down or fight/flight.
Pacelle (2010) describes the specific benefits of service dogs to veterans as they allow for decreased medication, increased sleep, and increased social inclusion. Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is recognized as an effective therapeutic method to help veterans adjust positively to peacetime so much so that the first AAT Symposium was held at Fort Myer Military Base in Virginia in late 2009.
Animal-assisted healing methods are non-invasive, non-drug, natural ways to help our human brains come back into balance. It’s a fact that when some veterans return home from extended tours of duty, there are sometimes unexpected feelings of isolation, anger, fear, or sadness. Their brains have been soaking in a hormone bath for months, keeping them “on their toes” and on “high alert” to ensure their survival. In Alberta there are plenty of assisted animal programs run by qualified professionals. There are at least 25 such programs that have been around for 15 years. If animal and equine assisted therapies have been researched and found to be non-intrusive, effective aid techniques in the United States, then perhaps it is time to promote awareness of this aid to further assist our Canadian Forces personnel.
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