We're back from our latest program this week and as we reflect on our time in the bush with our female participants, we discuss themes that were apparent throughout the expedition. One such theme I noticed was a kind of disconnection between mind and body. That is, not noticing how we feel emotionally leading to a manifestation, into our physical senses, causing symptoms such as shortness of breath, a tight chest, and feeling queezy or exhausted.
Many mental health organizations have emphasized awareness of such symptoms and on our last program, psyhco-education, awareness, self-regulation and moving forward were ways in which we tackled this invisible barrier between the emotional and the physical. Of course, increased heart rate can be normal when experiencing anxiety, but not being aware of the anxiety may enable it to manifest, to breed. And of course constant anxiety and an increasing intensity of anxiety has huge negative effects on our physical health.
This can result in panic attacks or even digestive disorders. If we shrug off a traumatic incident which induced a fight or flight response - something physiological, something natural - and never allow our body to repair and find that maintenance level of safety - from a physiological perspective - we will forever be fatigued and stressed.
Day to day we may not experience any trauma, but if we are never aware of what's going on, our jar of emotional pebbles will start to spill over and create both mental and physical issues. For some of us, it has become our engrained defense mechanism to 'turn off' - and we don't even realize we're doing it. Instead we may only feel the physical symptoms which we often ignore or shrug off. Stopping to sit with what we feel - emotionally and physically can be uncomfortable - but hugely necessary, beneficial and therapeutic.
Within our group, awareness and regulation are about learning. Learning about how the mind and body intertwine. "You're feeling angry, where in your body can you feel that? What does it feel like in that spot?" Or "I noticed you have been experiencing shortness of breath each time we receive letters from home, can you tell me what you are feeling and where you are feeling it at these times?"
Basic Mindfulness is simply awareness. Once we realize the connection between our feelings and our physical being - we can practice our awareness and regulation. Perhaps daily - stop and focus on what's going on inside us. Take some deep breaths. Sit with it.
A logical tool we used in the bush and continue to use with some clients individually is a Feelings Chat, allowing clients to scale from 0-10 how they feel throughout the day. This helps us to stop and check in with ourselves. It forces us to pay attention to what's going on inside us, and it helps prevent our pebble jar of emotions from overflowing creating these physical symptoms of stress and anxiety.
Earlier this month, Will and I had the pleasure of meeting with Annemarie Menne, a clinical psychologist at Neaves and Menne in Adelaide, to discuss the concept of 'animal assisted therapy'. We know that somehow, animals can be hugely therapeutic. We form bonds with them. Playing with our dog, sleeping with the cat, and, from my own personal experience, I noticed as a child that my Father would visit the horse if he needed to 'de-stress' at the end of a long day at work.
Annemarie uses a therapy dog, a beautiful, well natured labrador who greeted us with slobbery hellos and friendliness, before smelling us, and taking a liking to my chair - to which he jumped on before falling asleep behind me. 'Balou' - the huge sleeping puppy behind me sits in the office daily, contributing to an animal assisted approach to psychotherapy.
Annemarie explains that sometimes Balou sits quietly with little client interaction, and other times he plays a role in gaining trust between child and therapist, as well as acting as a bridge of communication. Annemarie showed us some videos of how mindfulness techniques can be used with Balou and children within therapy - "Can you feel Balou's heart rate? Can you feel your heart rate?"; "Where is the softest of Balou's fur?"; "Can we be quiet with Balou and notice what he smells like, what he feels like, what he sounds like?" She showed us how having Balou in the room can provide her with a conversation starter and relationship builder with her clients. Many clients keep coming back just to check in on Balou and see how he is going!
ANDAAT - the Australian network for the development of animal assisted therapies provides useful definitions of therapy animals or assisted animal therapy and highlights the importance of client and therapist collaborating on a specific therapeutic goal, and using the animal as a tool - rather than the dominant resource of psychotherapy - hence the term animal assisted therapy and not animal therapy.
A number of studies have linked animal assisted therapies to reductions in anxiety and depression, decreases in loneliness in the elderly, facilitating an inviting environment for psychotherapy to take place and an increase in the relationship between client and therapist.
Both Annemarie and Balou taught us why it is that animals can have a therapeutic value - Balou provides a kind of unconditional positive regard - something that clients are drawn to. This regard is something that we as therapists approach our work with. However, it can be harder to convey and for clients to perceive. We ended our discussion with Annemarie by inviting her along to speak at next years National AABAT Forum held next year in Adelaide.
We're excited to continue learning more about animal assisted therapy and hope to one day incorporate it into our own approach at True North Expeditions.
True North Expeditions, Inc. provides adventure therapy programs and services for children and teenagers in Australia. Based in Adelaide, the TNE team writes about child and adolescent psychology, family dynamics and how adventure therapy programs can connect with struggling adolescents.