Helping others …. With certain anxiety patients I use equine assisted psychotherapy. I teach my patients to help, not another person but to help a horse overcome their innate fear of plastic grocery bags, by using systematic desensitization or exposure to the plastic bags.. This therapy was taught to me by the great horsewoman, Jona Ryan of Kentucky, the horse capital of the world. Jona Ryan, horsewoman and therapist. I teach my patient how to read horse body language so that they will know when the horse is getting angry or afraid or is becoming calm. I tie a grocery bag onto a stick and have my patient slowly and quietly touched the rear of the horse with the bag. The rear of the horse is the least scary part of its anatomy to be touched. Gradually over hours and on different days the touching of the grocery bag to the horse is tolerated more and more and it gets closer and closer to the horses head which is the most vulnerable and scariest part of its anatomy to be near dangerous threats.
CAN FRIENDSHIPS HELP ANXIETY?
Stephen Cox, M.D.
Did you know that there is a Friendship Day?
NAF website designer, Jeanette Woodward, informed me that there is a Friendship Day and it’s coming right up. I looked it up. Google says it’s on July 31. Or, August 1. Or, August 5. I was a little unnerved by Google listing different dates for Friendship Day, being somewhat perfectionistic about certain things. Then, I thought, that the 3 answers I got for when Friendship Day is celebrated was a good thing. I think every day should be a friendship day.
What is a friend anyway? Here’s one idea: “Sometimes in life, you find a special friend; someone who changes your life just by being part of your life. Someone who makes you laugh until you can’t stop; someone who makes you believe that there really is a good in the world. Someone who convinces you that there really is an unlocked door, just waiting for you to open.”
I don’t know who said that; but, that does sum it up. In practicing clinical psychiatry, one of the questions I ask my patients is “Do you have a 2 AM friend?” A 2 AM friend is a friend that you can call at 2 AM if you break down on the highway, 40 miles from home, and they will come to help you. And, they could count on you to do the same for them. I think it’s therapeutic for anyone, especially people who have anxiety, to have a 2 AM friend in their corner.
Years ago I started a free support group for people who suffered from panic. It started the same week I the National Anxiety Foundation. I went to some of the initial group sessions; but after it was on its feet and self-running, I gradually pulled out. I wanted them to take responsibility for their own group. I went back from time to time over the years and I noticed that, as time went on, various members made friends with each other. One person who needed someone to help them overcome their fear of elevators by going with them to ride elevators, paired up with someone who didn’t have a fear of elevators; but, who needed support to help them in overcoming their own fear of driving on a four-lane highway. I was struck with how strongly beneficial this pairing off of people into supportive friendships developed over time. Before long most of these connected people became 2 AM friends. Again, having 2 AM friends helps one to feel secure and that alleviates considerable anxiety.
Let’s all celebrate Friendship Day every day and become friends with people who are older and people who are younger than ourselves.
Carl Harley, the famous country humorist, told the story of the Sunday school teacher who was teaching the little children, “We were put here to help others.” One child innocently spoke out, “What would the others put here for?” I love country humor. But maybe the “others” were put here for us to befriend and help. -- And for them to help us.
“Dear Abby”, Abigail van Buren, noted advice columnist, once asked Karl Menninger, a famed psychiatrist, “Karl, if a person thought they were having a nervous breakdown, what would you advise the person to do?”
Dr. Menninger replied, “I would tell them to go out into the street, find someone who needs help, and help them.” That’s really what friends do; they help each other.
Finally, my patient can touch the horses head with a grocery bag and then gradually able to massage the horse’s head with the bag, giving the horse a nice comfortable head rub and ear rub which they enjoy.
My patient takes a sense of pride and satisfaction in helping the horse overcome its fear of grocery bags. The patient also makes a connection between what I’m telling my patient to do (for example, to drive their car on the part of the road that they fear, to overcome their driving fear) and what they are accomplishing gradually with the horse, to help it overcome what horses afraid of. It is very encouraging to the patient to see this 1200 pound animal overcome an extreme fear by gradual exposure to what it is afraid of. It helps them to go home and put their heart into their own exposure therapy with driving or whatever it is that they fear.
Dr. Cox with his therapy horses, Ruger and Captain, being blessed by Fr. Rickert
But there’s more to horses and anxiety. Horses are fearful creatures. They have survived thousands and thousands of years by being vigilant, being afraid, and running away from perceived danger. Horses are noticeably less likely to startle and run if they are in the company of familiar horses that are there friends. I believe that being in the real-time presence of our friends is therapeutic for our anxiety and fear just as it is for horses.
Anxious people can really relate to this characteristic of our friends the horses.
Let us all celebrate Friendship Day every day of the year. Invigorate and nurture your own existing friendships. Be on the lookout for possible friendships that might come from people you meet. It may help your own anxiety and the anxiety of another person.