War, Post Trauma and Animal Assisted Therapy
From soldier to “messy”. From warrior to “outpatient”. From hero to “discharge”. Too many of our military, our outstanding Canadian citizens, and role models of patriotism and sacrifice are coming back to us from abroad in a different way that is earning them labels like “mentally ill” or “mentally disordered.” They refer them to psychologists to talk about their depression, anxiety, and their PTSD. They are taking medication and hoping that they can ascend from the depths of their memories, turn off the fury of their recent horrifying experiences, and descend into a peaceful sleep routine sometime in the near future.
Most military personnel in Canada did not ask to go abroad to fight in someone else’s war, and none of them planned to return with the haunting memory that it had negatively affected their lives. Are they “disordered, clinical, diagnosable?” Much research supports the fact that the human brain, like the brain of the horse and any other animal brain, has a universal response to life-threatening circumstances. The “different” way that veterans have returned may be “normal” considering where they have been.
At the moment of a threat, the human brain reacts in a similar way to that of a “prey animal”. Neuroscientist Mobbs (2007) conducted a fear-based experiment at the Cambridge Medical Research Centre, 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 time, the frontal lobes of their brains showed the most activity. Forebrain activity prepares our bodies to act, think, and strategize to avoid being harmed. It also keeps our midbrain inactive, preventing us from moving so we can sit still and think.
In the experiment, when the predator got closer, the forebrain functions were turned off and the midbrain functions were activated. The midbrain activates our “fight or flight” responses. Our fight/flight response is also controlled by the Sympathetic Nervous System, which triggers more than 1,400 different physiological and biochemical changes in the brain when we perceive a threat, whether 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 prey animals and have had to survive in the wild. Anytime a horse experiences something that it perceives as threatening, it triggers a “freeze” response. It can be anything from a flying piece of plastic to a bicycle on the road. Their ancient brain circuitry makes it easy for them to light up, and when they do, their heads rise into the air, triggering a chemical discharge in their brains. The horses freeze and their synapses stop working. They react by running away or by kicking, biting, or trampling the object. They fight or flee. They are very much “survival skills” and this served their species well over the past hundreds of thousands of years.
Both veteran and instinct-driven hyper-alert horses are actively engaged in their primitive survival minds. They are on high alert and share a common understanding of the need for security. Horses are great mirrors of human emotions. A sensitive horse will feed back feelings of fear, anxiety, sadness, or anger into its body posture, movements, head position, breathing, licking and chewing, and much more. If people hide their true emotions or are unable to understand them, horses will react to what is really going on and with the informed and sensitive human helper, people can be helped to address and deal with what is really going on inside. their bodies. The process is not easy, foolproof, or immediate, but through working with horses, people in “war brain” mode can learn to understand that their condition is a normal response that requires understanding, awareness, and a return to peace. time.
Since 2007, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs has awarded 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, undated). The Equine Assisted Learning and Growth Association evaluated the treatment of Georgia National Guard members where deployments averaged two years or more. The study revealed that 100 percent of soldiers who completed horse-assisted therapy had dramatically reduced stress levels. There are many reasons why horses are effective in helping veterans gain information and understanding while lessening negative symptoms caused by combat zone experiences. This topic will be discussed in a follow-up article.
Another alternative method to help soldiers deal with the aftermath of war is dog-assisted therapy. Dogs are being recognized as a 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 the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington in 2009 that involved servicemen and women still showing survival reactions with trained service dogs. Thirty-nine people presenting with “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 warriors by nudging them when they begin to show signs of panic attacks, calming them down by calmly reacting to something the person perceives as a threat or validate them. the heightened awareness of the person if a real threat is present. Dogs’ natural reactions to the environment help the combat survivor relearn how to interpret real threats from imagined ones and give him the immediate response he needs to relax and calm down or fight/flight.
Pacelle (2010) describes the specific benefits of service dogs for veterans by allowing for reductions in medication, increases in sleep, and increases in social integration. Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is being recognized as an effective therapeutic modality to help veterans positively readjust to peacetime, so much so that the first AAT symposium was held on the military base from Fort Myer in Virginia in late 2009.
Animal-assisted healing methods are natural, non-intrusive, non-medicated ways to help our human brains regain balance. It is a fact that when some veterans return home after long tours of duty, there are sometimes unexpected feelings of isolation, anger, fear, or grievance. Their brains have been submerged in a hormonal bath for months, keeping them “on alert” and on “high alert” to ensure their survival. Animal-assisted programs run by qualified professionals are abundant in Alberta. There are at least 25 such programs that have been around for 15 years. If animal-assisted and equine-assisted therapies have been researched and found to be effective and non-intrusive assistive techniques in the United States, then perhaps it is time that awareness of this assistive medium was raised to further assist our Canadian Armed Forces personnel.