How can horses help Anxiety?


Anxiety. There is a word isn’t it. A description of a feeling, a definition of a condition, a state of being or life. The technical descriptions of “A feeling of worry, nervousness or unease about something with an uncertain outcome” or “a nervous disorder marked by excessive uneasiness and apprehension, typically with compulsive behaviour or panic attacks”[1] seems too little to describe the all encompassing feeling of your chest tightening, breath shortening as your brain spirals into a hundred different possible outcomes of a situation.

Anxiety disorders can come in many different formats, Generalised Anxiety Disorder, PTSD, OCD, Social Anxiety, Attachment Anxiety, but the feelings and physical reactions can often be the same. The loss of control and changes to your life can become all-encompassing and devastating. We all experience anxiety in some form or another – over moving to a new house, a new job or an uncertain event, but when that anxiety begins to control your live, is over everyday situations or an over exaggeration of the threat of the situation. “People with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) experience extreme and persistent worry that is usually accompanied by physical systems.”[2] At this point GAD (or similar) is often diagnosed by a doctor.

Current best practice treatments from the NHS include the use of medication, most commonly SSRIs, alongside talking therapies such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) or counselling, and recommendations for self-help activities.

Through CBT someone experiencing anxiety learns to question and confront their anxiety, alongside completing tasks that help them to retrain the way their brain thinks reducing their anxiety. It is an effective talking therapy that helps lots of people work through their issues.

SSRIs work by increasing the serotonin levels in the brain. By preventing the reabsorption of Serotonin after it has worked as a neurotransmitter there is more available to be used around the brain. This can help raise the serotonin levels in those suffering with GAD (and other mental health conditions) and make them more responsive to other treatments such as CBT. SSRIs rarely help to control Anxiety on their own.

Self-help can have a huge impact on managing anxiety, getting outside, exercise and social interaction can all help to lower anxiety and improve a sense of well-being and good mood. Sometimes though the anxiety itself can stop you engaging in the activities that would help reduce its impact, and a cycle of anxiety is created.

This all sounds great, I can see you nodding your head, you know the rhetoric. You’ve had CBT, you are taking the SSRIs yet still the prickly beast of anxiety still clutches your throat, forcing your stomach into back flips and causing you to shout at your friend because they walked the wrong way across a street. The need to control everything around you to manage this beast is exhausting you. You are desperate for a way forward.

What if there was a way you could work with your anxiety in real time. With real emotional feedback in front of you, enabling you to see the difference between being in the moment and when you enter your anxious state. What if being able to recognise this reflected back at you, you begin to spot it quicker, and quicker, until before you even begin you can see the flicker of its prickly shape and take evasive action. Stepping into a mindful state where you can be in the moment and just breathe?

This is part of the power of Equine Assisted Activity and Therapy. As prey animals horses are highly tuned to the breathing, heart rate and emotional state of those around them. They are also truly in the moment, if you want to improve your mindfulness – learn from the masters.

Through guided sessions horses can help you first learn to recognise those thoughts earlier, once recognised working through the thought and moving on the feeling of empowerment is huge. Working on issues in individual or group sessions has lasting, long term impact and prevent the cycle of anxiety continuing. By learning how to ‘be more horse’ and in the moment the brain becomes more present, calmer and less anxious. This skill can then be taken into everyday situations and whenever the prickly monster rears its head deployed to ensure that it does not take control. Soon implementing these methods stops being a fire fighting exercises and part of daily life and the control anxiety once held over your life has gone as you are now ‘more horse’ and more able to be present in the present.

In the fight against anxiety being able to re-centre is a crucial tool to add to the tool kit. Equine Assisted Therapy, as a stand alone or alongside other talking therapies and medication can have a profound and lasting impact on managing and defeating the prickly beast of anxiety.

[1] Source Oxford Living Dictionaries, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/anxiety

[2] https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/conditions/generalized-anxiety-disorder

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