It’s 1pm and I am driving down the road 3 days before Christmas questioning my own sanity. In the backseat are my teenage daughter, her best friend, and a very exuberant 50 pound dog whom we have known for about 10 minutes. He seems friendly yet slightly crazed, pacing back and forth between the two girls, stepping on them and then circling back to poke his head up between the front seats. Round and round he goes. I have been warned by the dog rescue agency through whom we are fostering that this dog, Manny, will be VERY stressed and unable to learn or process anything for about 3-4 days! Buckle your seatbelts!
We have not had a dog in a long time and fostering through this rescue seemed like a good way to reacquaint ourselves with the responsibilities, challenges, and joys of having a dog. We were not disappointed! We got to experience wild jumping, snuggles, leash pulling, squirrel-chasing, throw-up, plenty of poop pick-up, and lots and lots of walks and runs. One of the unexpected gifts though was having an opportunity to watch Manny's live example of how, given the right loving environment & supports, a dog (much like a human) can travel through great stress and trauma response and back into a baseline of well-being.
This handsome 2 year-old stray boy from the country with his red coat, mouth-open smile, and ribs peaking out on the sides was friendly yet wild! From the moment we picked him up he was on high-alert, constantly pacing and scanning his environment. When we walked him he was in a perpetual zig-zag pattern moving back and forth scanning the environment. At home he wouldn’t sit or lay down but instead paced. I remember on Christmas eve talking to my fostering mentor and saying that I wasn’t sure we could handle him much longer. She knowingly advised us, "Hang in there, he will change." Of course, how could I forget, healing requires time.
The constant pacing Manny was doing was not unlike what humans go through when they have been under chronic stress - it is often referred to as hypervigilance.
“Hypervigilance is accompanied by an exaggerated startle response and the individual will be anxious, tense, and ‘on guard’ as they constantly scan their environment for potential threats.”
Yep, check, check, and check. He is doing all of the above!
The other thing that happens when we are in a chronic and high state of stress is that we have little access to our higher cognitive functions. We aren’t thinking logically and rationally, our memory isn’t working well, we aren’t in a ready state for new learning or bonding with others. Think about the last time you felt really stressed - perhaps you will recall your mind likely didn’t feel like it was working as your ally! You may have noticed your short-term memory was coming up short, maybe you started having tunnel vision -focusing just on what was wrong in your environment and losing perspective of the big picture. You may notice difficulty sleeping. If you have ever been under a lot of stress your system was likely operating primarily from your lower brain whose main focus is to save your life when it feels you are under threat (unfortunately for us, it generally interprets all stressors similarly regardless of whether our actual lives are in danger). This is exactly what was going on for Manny! And just like we may feel when we are under a lot of stress- he was having a lot of trouble relaxing and engaging with us.
So we gave him lots of love and affection, lots of consistent reassurance with a calm and friendly approach, lots of exercise and outdoor time, and as much routine as we could to help keep from overwhelming his system any more than it was.
And do you know what happened? That foster mentor was right! 3 days later on Christmas eve we came back from a run and my daughter settled in on the sofa and he went over, lay down on top of her, and from somewhere deep within his body he released a huge groaning sigh (like I’ve never heard before) as if his whole body was able to finally surrender. And there he slept deeply on top of my daughter for a couple of hours, both of them bathed in the warm glow of lights from our Christmas tree.
My heart is swooning here!
As we know, dogs aren’t the only ones who get stressed. The constant barrage of demands and information of our modern era coupled with little real recovery time are a formula for chronic overload of our systems. I have found through working with 1000's of clients that most of us are in some state of moderate to high levels of chronic stress. And we know the science behind how this negatively impacts our health over the long-term. The good news is that we know some of the powerful tools that we humans need to help us manage and buffer the detrimental effects of such stressors. We now have a strong evidence-base that regular positive social interactions, regular exercise and good nutrition, and the regular use of mindfulness and meditation practices to change our internal relation to stressors can build emotional and physical resilience, develop positive mental states, and increase overall health & quality of life. (Lucky dogs- they don't seem to be so overwhelmed by their own busy brains so get to skip the mind tools we humans so desperately need!)
If you are interested in learning how to create a sustainable mindful foundation to boost your own mental and emotional resilience and well-being and reconnect to your true intentions for this life, I will be releasing the course I have been putting my heart and soul into - Mindful Life Roadmap: Harnessing the Tools of the Mind to Create Intentional Connection to Self, Purpose, & Community very shortly. This course is a culmination from what I have learned from my 20+ years of practice, study, and work with clients around the power of using intention, mindfulness, & meditation techniques to create a life full of love and meaning. Stay tuned as I will be sharing more soon. Wishing you peace, joy, and wellness in body, mind, and spirit.