No, you’re probably not going to cure your PTSD by hanging out with a horse or a dog. Get your trauma healing done with an efficient, proven-effective method like EMDR, PC, and some others. That being said, sometimes interacting with an animal can help, primarily with attachment and self-regulation, both during treatment and afterwards.
Facilitating Trauma Processing
Secure attachment is known to enhance resilience in the face of adversity, foster emotional and nervous-system regulation, and increase capacity for stable interpersonal relationships (Dwiwardani et al, 2014). Therapy clients who enjoy secure attachment status are better able to benefit from therapy, because they are better able to cope with painful emotions as well as to benefit from the therapist’s support. This is why trauma-focused therapists often provide reparative attachment interventions and/or strengthen existing secure attachment status, prior to guiding the client to engage in trauma processing. The development or enhancement of secure attachment – via the therapy relationship and/or attachment-enhancing therapy activities such as visualizations – often facilitates more efficient trauma processing.
So where does the animal come in? Animals may support further establishing secure or earned-secure attachment, and thus mitigate challenges with nervous-system regulation caused by attachment insecurity (Sable, 1995). The benefits of interactions with animals are well established, and the use of service and emotional support animals has become popular among traumatized individuals, despite the paucity of research support for this specific purpose.
The client’s relationship with an animal can also be invoked during therapy. When the trauma work becomes too difficult, the therapist might ask, “Who would you like to have with you (for emotional support)?” Sometimes the client chooses their pet – usually a dog. Then the therapist guides the client to imagine the presence of the pet, while facing the trauma memory. Just as when the client chooses some other attachment figure such as a parent, relative, or friend, imagining the presence of the identified animal tends to have a calming, grounding effect, enabling the client to resume the trauma work (e.g., Greenwald, 2007, 2013).
An actual live animal can also be used in therapy, whether the client’s pet or service animal, or an animal employed by the therapist. Therapy clients may develop connections to animals that provide emotional support, a sense of protection, and/or attachment and grounding during periods of heightened arousal.
Animals are often used to facilitate self-regulation, over the course of treatment as well as afterwards. The most well-researched species for therapeutic benefit are dogs and horses, though therapeutic connection with cats and farm animals has promise as well (O’Haire, Guérin, & Kirkham, 2015) Theoretical explanations (O’Haire et al) for why animals may support trauma healing include:
- the sensory stimulation of animals provides a comforting tether to the present moment, possibly minimizing intrusion symptoms
- animals serve as “social facilitators,” possibly reducing symptoms of avoidance and experiences of isolation and disconnection
- connection with animals causes secretion of oxytocin, possibly reducing hyper-arousal symptoms
Usually, once you’ve done your trauma healing, you feel and do much better. Sometimes, though, trauma healing doesn’t quite get the job done, because the emotional dysregulation has become self-perpetuating. Then some additional activity is needed to re-train your brain and body in self-regulation. Interaction with animals is one of several promising or research-supported methods for increasing and routinizing self-regulation capacities, to fully achieve and maintain trauma-related symptom reduction.
Dwiwardani, C., Hill, P. C., Bollinger, R. A., Marks, L. E., Steele, J. A., Doolin, H. N., … & Davis, D. E. (2014). Virtues develop from a secure base: Attachment and resilience as predictors of humility, gratitude, and forgiveness. Journal of Psychology & Theology, 42, 83-90.
Greenwald, R. (2007). EMDR within a phase model of trauma-informed treatment. New York: Haworth.
Greenwald, R. (2013). Progressive counting within a phase model of trauma-informed treatment. New York: Routledge.
O’Haire, M. E., Guérin, N. A., & Kirkham, A. C. (2015). Animal-Assisted Intervention for trauma: A systematic literature review. Frontiers in Psychology, 6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01121
Sable, P. (1995). Pets, attachment, and well-being across the life cycle. Social work, 40, 334-341.
Note: Thanks to Margot Reilly for her assistance in writing this post.