A couple of months ago, my article outlined how our own anxiety may present, and its possible impact on our own dog’s emotional state.
If our own anxiety may be inadvertently contributing towards our own dog’s emotional and behavioural problems, there are strategies we can use. I will first outline some quick and effective short-term anti-anxiety exercises than can be practiced both regularly or used on a one-off basis.
Relaxation is a great way to send the message to our body that it is safe. That there is no threat. Progressive Muscle Relaxation is an effective way of reminding our body of what a non-anxious affective state feels like. When our body is in a state of calm and safety, our mind follows. A good time to practice Progressive Muscle Relaxation is when lying in bed waiting to sleep. Starting with your toes, work your way gradually up each muscle in your body by tensing for several seconds as tightly as you can (avoiding any areas of pain) and releasing. Focus then on the feeling of relaxation as the muscles ease. Repeat a few times before moving on to the next muscle up. If you fall asleep before you reach your head, consider it to be particularly successful!
Likewise, if we can bring our mind to a place of calm and safety, then our body and emotions follow. Imagery is incredibly powerful – far more than thoughts. The threat system in our brain cannot differentiate between a real threat (i.e. a branch falling from a tree) and a perceived threat (i.e. worrying about a problem). Therefore, practicing comforting imagery can have a significant impact on our emotional state in a more positive way. If we reflect on the effect that anxious images can have on our emotions and physical state then we can appreciate the power of positive imagery. Guided Imagery is an exercise that can refocus our mind away from catastrophising thoughts and into a state of comfort. Lying or sitting somewhere without distractions and with your eyes closed, bring to mind a place that evokes feelings of safety and calm. A real memory can be particularly tangible: i.e. being read a story as a child, being with a childhood caregiver, or a favourite holiday location.
However, an imagined image is just as powerful – it doesn’t matter that it isn’t real. Really bring the scene to live as if you are in a film, by using all of your senses and walking through the scene in real time: what can you see as you slowly turn your head left and right? What can you see, smell, taste, touch, hear? Using our senses makes the image much more engaging and easier to concentrate on. When you return to the here and now, note any changes in your physical and emotional state. Use that same memory or image when you are feeling anxious and, for best effect, practice returning to the scene regularly.
Have a go at these exercises and practice them for a week to identify which work particularly well for you. They are each simple, gentle and even enjoyable. They can help you to live the life you want to enjoy with your dog! Next time will be anti-anxiety exercises, part 2!
Written by Emily Bright – Cognitive Behavioural Therapist, freelance writer and trainer at BRIGHT DOG TRAINING. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or search @brightdogtraininguk on Facebook.