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War, Post Trauma and Animal Assisted Therapy
From soldier to “messy”. From fighter to “ambulatory”. From hero to “downloader”. Many of our soldiers, our esteemed Canadian citizens and paragons of patriotism and sacrifice are returning to us from abroad in a way that is labeling them as “mentally ill” or “mentally disturbed.” They are referred to psychologists to talk about their depression, anxiety and PTSD. They’re on medication and hoping like hell that they can climb out of the depths of their memories, shut down the rage of their recent horrific experiences, and settle into a peaceful sleep routine sometime in the near future.
Most of the military personnel in Canada did not seek to go overseas to fight someone else’s war, and none of them planned to return with the terrible memory of what negatively affected their lives. Are they “disordered, clinical, 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 circumstances. The “different” way veterans have returned may be “normal” considering where they’ve 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 Medical Research Center in Cambridge, England. Mobbs (2007) asked subjects to play a video game in which they were being hunted 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 this time, the frontal lobes of their brains showed more activity. Forebrain activity prepares our body to act and thinks and strategizes 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, the forebrain functions were shut down and the 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 over 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. Whenever a horse experiences something it perceives as threatening, it triggers a “freeze” response. This could be anything from a piece of flying plastic to a bicycle on the road. Their ancient brain circuitry results in them being easily startled, and when they are, their heads go up in the air, which causes a chemical rush in their brain. Horses freeze and their synapses stop firing. They react by either running away or by kicking, biting or stomping on the object. They fight or flight. They are very “survivable” and this has served their species well over the last several hundred thousand years.
Veteran, instinct-driven 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 excellent mirrors for human emotions. A sensitive horse will translate feelings of fear, anxiety, sadness or anger into 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 happening and with the right informed and sensitive human help, people can be helped to address and address what is actually happening inside their body. The process is not easy, foolproof, or instant, 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 peacetime. .
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 involved in these programs (Wassom, nd). The Assisted Horse Breeding and Training Association praised the treatment of members of the Georgia National Guard where deployments averaged two years or more. The study found that 100 percent of the soldiers who completed the equine-assisted therapy had dramatically reduced stress levels. There are many reasons why horses are effective in helping veterans gain knowledge and understanding while reducing negative symptoms caused by combat zone experiences. This topic will be discussed in a subsequent article.
Another alternative method to help soldiers cope with the after-effects of war is dog-assisted therapy. Dogs are being recognized as comfort and support for warriors who have trouble sleeping, anxiety 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 in 2009 that involved servicemen and partner women who were still exhibiting survival reactions to trained service dogs. 39 people exhibiting “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 are providing assistance to the Nation’s warriors by nudging them when they start to show signs of panic attacks, calming them down by calmly reacting to something the person perceives as a threat or affirmation. the person’s heightened awareness of whether there is an actual threat. Dogs’ natural responses to the environment help the combat survivor relearn how to interpret real threats from imagined ones and give him/her the immediate response he/she needs to relax and calm down or fight/ gone.
Pacelle (2010) describes the specific benefits of service dogs for veterans as allowing for decreased medication, increased sleep, and increased social integration. Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is being recognized as an effective therapeutic modality to help veterans adjust positively to peacetime so much so that the first AAT Symposium was held at Fort Myer Army Base in Virginia in late 2009 .
Animal-assisted healing methods are natural, non-invasive, drug-free ways to help our human brains return to balance. It’s a fact that when some veterans return home from extended tours of duty, unexpected feelings of isolation, anger, fear, or sadness sometimes occur. Their brains have been immersed in a hormone bath for months, keeping them “on their toes” and on “high alert” to ensure their survival. Assisted animal programs run by qualified professionals are plentiful in Alberta. There are at least 25 such programs that have existed for 15 years. If animal and equine assisted therapies have been researched and found to be non-intrusive and effective assistive techniques in the United States, then perhaps it is time for awareness of this assistive tool to be brought forward to provide further assistance to our Armed Forces personnel. Canadian.
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