TRAUMA IN HORSE AND HUMANS
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When you move too far to the left side in this picture (or bottom if you turn the picture around – a window has 4 frames…), you will gradually defend yourself against new learning by shutting (down) the window. If you move too far to the right (or top of the frame) – you are opening (it) up too much, you are taking in in too much (information, stimuli, experiences, emotions…) and get overwhelmed.
For you to learn – you need to stay in your window of tolerance, keep it open. When something is stressing you (one or more stressors are entering the picture), you will move closer to the edges in your window of tolerance. And being close to either of the edges heightens your ability to learn (moving out of complacency). You are challenged. And you need to make use of your potential and your learning resources, using – or questioning your prior experiences and "knowledge". That can be hard work but can also be very rewarding and put you in a state of excitement or even flow.
Stress – which equals physiological and psychological arousal – is your answer to one or several occurring stressor. To make it easier to understand that stress also is necessary, crucial to learning and can feel/be perceived as good – we sometimes call it Eustress. But it is basically the same thing as stress (it is sometimes also just called positive stress).
Sometimes when you overdo it (push yourself), or someone else, or something else – is pushing you outside of your WoT – you leave it, you go into a more complete shutting down of your responses – or you go into a spin, a panic attack or a "runaway" – physical or mental. The scale is individual, individually phased, have steps – and it all occurs on a spectrum. The point is – when you leave your WoT – you can also come back. There is a way back. You can need help to find it, at times, but it is there.
But then, what is trauma? Trauma is an event that moves you totally outside of your window of Tolerance (Learning). It doesn't work with in it. It crushes it, or grabs hold of you and move you way outside of it – which ever metaphor works best for you. The thing is, you can not bring your traumatic event with you and enter your WoT again.
When trauma happens to you – it floods your whole system – the system of WoT is temporarily put out of work. Depending on the trauma, your support system (other people, resources around you), your own history (if you already have a lot of unresolved trauma, your age, your genetics, your coping strategies etc) – you might be able to integrate your traumatic event into your life – your life story – on you own, or with help. But sometimes you can't. You will have to leave it, unresolved – and find your way back to your WoT and your life – without brining this traumatic event with you – and hence – it starts to live its own life and you will need to allocate resources to keep it that way. Which, all of this, is a totally unconscious process. The more of these separated bubbles of unresolved trauma you have around you – the more your WoT will shrink. The more resources (energy) you need to allocate to keep the traumatic bubbles away from you. But at the same time – the more things – triggers – will show up – that will trigger, make you – in a way – aware of one of more of these bubbles. You live less and less in the now – and more and more in your past traumatic life – and spend more and more time in conflict with it, guarding it and so on.
No trauma is not the same as stress. Untreated trauma destroys the stress system. Going to good trauma therapy will restore it. As good as it can be restored, and give the traumatized person new coping strategies, find new and old resources, give more knowledge of how their system works, etc.
So – is trauma then the same for humans and for non-human animals?
Different animals have and use different senses to explore and learn about their world (umwelt). These senses correspond with brain areas that are there to process the incoming information and make use of it. This is done via a central nervous system. The central nervous system looks similar in all mammals and all mammals have a similar brain structure (even non-mammals have the same system – albeit the brain structure does not look the same – but it all function in a similar way). So – there are similarities. But – nature uses the same, or similar structures – to obtain very different results. Because all species are evolved to live in different ecological niches. The CNS, part of the brain structure, hence the physiology – are the same. But each species is DIFFERENT.
Trauma in a human and in a horse – is not the same. As trauma in a dog and in a horse is not the same. I am even not sure if it is appropriate to call it trauma outside the human experience. Why? Because by calling it by the same name – it hides the differences. Crucial differences. Crucial to our understanding of how to help traumatized humans and "traumatized horses (or dogs and so on).
The human prefrontal cortex and the connections it has to other parts of the brain – is a human construct. It gives us experiences that are unique to humans. To be a human, is in my eyes – to be more vulnerable to aversive experiences than other species are. Our ability to imagine, to dream, to hope, to plan, to move around in our thoughts between the past, the present and the future – is also our Achille's heal, our vulnerability. We can use these abilities to create happy and fulfilling lives, to create art, culture, games and plays, invent new fantastic solutions to all kinds of problems. But these human abilities can also backfire – and lead is into despair, hopelessness, reality distortions, a lost, or "false" sense of our self – and "give"/keep us in a lifetime of suffering and emotional pain.
Yes, trauma affects the body. It is important knowledge. But it is not true that it is only the body that keeps the score. The mind does that too, in a very high degree. Our minds work hard on keeping trauma away from us. To make it possible to keep on having a life, it works hard on allocating resources, energy etc. Or – more accurate – from my point of view. The body and the mind do this together. The dichotomy is false. There is no division. The divisions are created by trauma – and treatment should not keep it in place.
A trauma therapy can start by addressing trauma via the body, or via the mind. What will work best – is individual.
When it comes to other non-human animals. We will keep on making them a disservice if we see the aversive things that can happen to them in their lives and what effects this can have on them, through a human trauma lens.
Yes. All animals, humans, mammals, vertebrates, not-vertebrates, maybe even amoebas – can "experience" stress. Because life – all life – is full of stressors. Stressors are not traumatic events.
All that hurts is not trauma. Trauma just means wound. Psychological trauma is a wound to the psyche. Only humans have a human psyche (from the beginning psychology only meant the study of the human psyche – nobody at the time (old Greece) thought anyone else but humans had a soul, mental capacities, thoughts etc) – and it stayed that way for a long time. Now, the pendulum has, in my opinion, swung too far in the other direction. I would be the first to say all mammals (maybe all animals) are sentient, have mental lives, have some sense of self, create "bonds and relationships" etc. But – it has gone too far. Humans are humans, horses are horses, dogs are dogs, etc. We will just create confusion, mix-ups – if we keep on referring in the same way, with the same words – to what happens to humans and non-humans when we experience trauma. But will also confuse and make the word trauma useless if we keep on mixing it up with stress.
I think that e.g. a horse can have and experience trauma-like events. It will partially make the horse react in similar ways as humans. But will the horse ruminate, feel survivor's guilt, develop addiction to numb feelings, lash out on near ones, self-harm, contemplate suicide, develop other comorbid "states"? What we know so far of other non-human animals – they don't. They simply don't.
To learn about what aversive events do to non-human animals – we need to study them for their own sake, and we need to study humans, for our sake – and be careful with cross-species conclusions. I am all for getting inspiration from studies on all sorts of species when I learn about humans – and horses – but I need to be critical.
Models, theories, hypothesises– are simplifications – tools to use when you study and try to understand something. Do not confuse them with reality. Do not think they can describe reality. They can't – only a small portion of it, only in a simplistic way, only in general terms, only one piece at a time. And we are all individuals… whole, complex beings. Different beings. Individuals."
Text and pictures are copyright protected. Katarina Lundgren 2019Let me present a different perspective:
A good example, albeit personal, is childbirth. I have been in several situations in my life that may be deemed "traumatic", "abusive" or outside of my window of tolerance. Experiencing intense pain during, for instance childbirth, can overwhelm an entire physiological system and thus can be considered "traumatic". I will share that when my firstborn was born, I was in excruciating pain. I had opted against medication and chosen "natural childbirth". I reached my personal limit in the very last few minutes before he was being born. I was definitely outside of my window of tolerance.
What happened though?
I fought against the pain.
In my mind, I at times was preoccupied with being in a setting where I was not comfortable, in a position that felt exposing to me - my mind was preoccupied and applied meaning to the various things. I could feel the biological and physiological responses throughout my body. I was, even then, aware of the biological processes, chemical releases, information processing and transporting processes that current and old theories describe.
Was I traumatized? No.
Even though I felt the biological responses and even though I was preoccupied with interpretations, I was able to "go with what was", knowing that what felt like hours only lasted minutes and being able to put this into a reference frame. I was in the "here and now" (even more so than probably ever before) despite being outside of my window of tolerance, despite being in a position where I could do nothing against the biological process of delivering a baby, in a setting that was not very supportive of this entire process.
Now let's take a step to the other side: Horses.
Why do we, or a lot of us, work with horses?
Because they are in the here and now. And allegedly, they "help" us being in the here and now.
Do horses experience pain? Yes.
Do horses get flooded? Yes.
Do horses get overwhelmed? Yes.
Do horses "dissociate"?
That is an interesting question, particularly when looking at equine welfare and wellbeing in programs/settings that involve horses being with humans in situations where their natural choices are limited.
I dare say: horses are experiencing in the here and now - and do not fight their experience, unless it is completely severe and life threatening. In any form of EAP, I hope to be able to say that not one of us is putting horses in life threatening situations. So does a horse dissociate in an EAP setting? I dare say "no". Instead, does a horse clearly communicate that for whatever reason he/she is not comfortable in that particular situation and takes himself/herself out of it (if he/she can)? Yes. It is if and when this communication is not HEARD that a horse may then "dissociate".
What about horses with prior negative experiences?
Over the years, I have been given lots of "beings" (animals) to care for and work with who had a prior history of trauma. Bad experiences. Horses and dogs. Did I rehabilitate them? Yes, but not as one might suspect. I do not think nor define people through their past. I do my best to experience and respond in the here and now, with full awareness of what is my own and what is not, and with deliberate care not to put what is mine onto others.
What I dare say: we are continuing to put our human experience, our human theory, our human interpretation on things. We are using human labels derived from human explanation and "science" and are alluding to similarities to human experiences by using these labels. We examine and study horses and other beings - from a human view point and perspective. We go into theory instead of practical application.
Is it necessary to "see" the individual - and be able to understand (although I question this) what is going on? Yes.
I feel strongly about this point, as I work with people who are put into theoretical theories day in and day out. And this clinical language leaves a person "broken" - "dys-functional" - categorized - with deficits - and certainly not on eye level with anybody who uses these words, the provider, the "healer", the "I know more than you and that is why I can help you". Yes, I can speak the clinical language - and I know a ton of theories that explain various symptoms, dynamics, underlying notions, somatic process, etc, etc.... BUT: despite all those theories, I work on a relational level and accompany people - each individual at a time. I do not teach them, will not tell anybody how they are, how they perceive, or what their perception looks like, and even more importantly, will NEVER tell anybody what the meaning of their perception is. Instead, I learn about a person's perception and - on eye level - accompany the person exploring him-/herself in the HERE and NOW. As I wrote the other day: pEATT consists of at least four beings (client, Equine Behavioral Specialist, Psychotherapist and at least one horse) coming together, in a cube or quadrant approach, working together on the question posed by one: on eye level, with specified roles and areas of responsibility - each one balancing the other one out and not one taking precedence over the other.
It is pertinent, to ensure equine welfare and wellbeing, to be able to see each and every individual as just that: an individual. BUT: here I dare say and plead: please stop putting individuals into categories, boxes, pre-conceived notions and labels. Even in the attempt to understand them better. In my experience - if I am fully and present in the "here and now", and aware of my own wishes, needs, expectation and anticipation - I am able to respond rather than react to what "is" - and horses (and other beings), in my experience, meet me exactly there. What do I go by? They communicate - in THEIR language - which I again can try to interpret and put into something similar "human" - AND if I respond with respect to their communication, and, in Equine Assisted Interactions, can put those forms of communication into a language for the client to where the client becomes aware of "what is (observable rather than interpreted) - it leaves room for a togetherness and experience that is fully in the here and now.
And is that not what we strive for as providers - enabling or accompanying people on their path to be fully present in the here and now?
Add-on: And what I do continue to see in a lot of equine assisted programs is people NOT responding and not paying attention to the communication that is so clearly put out by our horses.... but instead classifying it into categories. Now that can be traumatic.....
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