The magic of animals in mental illness

guinea pigs

I am the proud mama of 4 guinea pigs, each one full of personality.  They mean the world to me, and sometimes they’re my reason to get through the day.  When my depression has left me feeling like I’m too tired to go out of bed, I can count on them to be very vocal about reminding me I need to get my butt up and give them their veggies.  When I have felt suicidal, they have given me a reason to carry on.

I’m a mental health nurse, and I’ll often take some of the piglets to work.  They are always a hit, and I find that the clients who are the most ill tend to be the ones who are the most drawn to my little furballs.  Sometimes I’ll feel like the most effective therapeutic therapeutic intervention I provided during a shift was my animals.  They can help people who are paranoid, anxious, or depressed.  Sometimes I’m able to give an agitated client a guinea pig to hold rather than giving them extra medication, and it can be just as effective.  Clients who have been quite disconnected from the world because of their psychosis will sit for hours holding a guinea pig.  Cookie (in the bottom picture) has watery eyes, and one client believed that her tears were because she knew what he was feeling.  He expressed a sense of appreciation that finally he felt understood.

guinea pig

So how are they able to work their magic?  I think it’s something along the lines of what psychologist Carl Rogers termed “unconditional positive regard”.  We may be broken and battered by our illness, feel like a failure, and be ready to give up, but none of that matters to our animals.  They will never judge us, and they will always accept us.

guinea pigI truly believe that our pets can tell how we’re doing.  Of course my little ones’ brains are far too small to have any grasp of human emotions, but they always seem to know when something’s not right.  My little Cookie (in the picture to the left) is crazy in love with me.  She likes to make sustained eye contact, and it feels like she’s looking straight into my soul.  Oreo (that’s her above with the white hair on her head) likes to give kisses, especially when I need them the most.

My guinea pigs, like many pets, love routine.  They know what they want and when they want it, and get pretty thrown off by changes.  That forces me to stick to a routine even when I’m feeling really low and amotivated.  With them around I’m never really home alone, which is particularly valuable when I’m isolating due to illness.  I also find them to be a helpful focal point during mindfulness meditation, as watching and listening to them do their thing really grounds me in the moment.

There’s a lot of literature on the internet about animal-assisted therapy and emotional support animals.  While dogs may be the most recognized support animals, there are many animals (including guinea pigs!) that can engage with humans in meaningful ways.  If you are thinking of getting a pet, please consider a shelter animal – they can’t wait to shower you with love!

 

Update (Nov 19/17): I have just added a 5th member to my guinea pig family.  I may be well on my way to becoming the guinea pig version of the crazy cat lady, but my mood has improved, and I’m feeling less isolated.  Magic.

 

 

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Coming to meditation: From skeptic to believer

girl in seated meditation poseI was initially reluctant to try meditation.  My thinking went something along the lines of… I’m so f***ing sick of being inside my own head, so why on earth would I want to spend more time up in there?  But my depressive illness was kicking my butt despite being on a hefty load of meds, and I was willing to try just about anything that might help even a little bit.  Meditation seemed like a good fit with the holistic approach I was trying to put together, so I downloaded a couple of meditation apps (I’ve made some suggestions on my mental health apps resource page) and decided I was going to meditate for at least 5 minutes first thing every morning.

I remained unconvinced in my early days of meditating.  Most of the beginner meditations I was listening to focused on the breath, and the cynical part of me thought that seemed like a big waste of time.  I still had no real desire to focus inward any more than I already was.  I was horribly sick of myself and couldn’t avoid myself even if I wanted to, so the idea of sitting back and watching my thoughts go by didn’t seem much different from the average moment in my day.

Once I began to realize what wasn’t working, I started looking for something different.  Then I stumbled upon Cory Muscara’s 31-day fresh start podcast on Simple Habit, and something clicked.  This was the well guided mix of inward and outward focus that I hadn’t realized I was looking for, and I was hooked (along with a bit of a virtual crush, I must say).  Around the same time I also started doing restorative yoga, which incorporates a lot of meditation.  I could listen peacefully for hours to my teacher Tianne, whose voice is almost as soothing as Bob Ross from the Joy of Painting.

omMy meditation practice has since expanded to at least 15 minutes every morning and 5 minutes every night at bedtime.  I’m proud of the 140+ day meditation streak I’ve got going on my favourite meditation app.  I’m starting to understand the meaning of the quote often attributed to Victor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and freedom”.  Meditation can help to expand that space, and since I tend to be quite an emotional reactor (more like nuclear reactor what I’m not well), I’ll take any space I can get.

Some simple tricks I’ve learned are using a finger to trace an outline of the other hand, breathing onto the back of the hand, and effortless hearing (being a wide-open receiver to all the sounds around you).  I’ve found some breathwork to be really helpful, such as extending the exhalation or thinking of breath as an anchor, while other strategies are less helpful (alternate nostril breathing leaves me feeling like I’m gasping for air).  Like anything else in life, you take what works and leave the rest.

Mindfulness has become a bit of a buzzword lately, but this is not a new concept – mindfulness meditation is something that has worked for people for a very long time.  I started off a skeptic and am now a believer, but I still find I’m very particular about what resonates with me and what doesn’t.  Plus I’d probably be useless at trying to meditate without guidance.  There’s a lot of options out there to explore, and  I think that for anybody with mental health issues it’s worth doing some digging into meditation – some of it might work, some of it might not, but being able to widen that space between stimulus and response can be golden.

 

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Taking a holistic approach to mental illness and wellness

elements of wellness: yoga, sleep, nutrition, activity, physical health

In school, we study a lot of different subjects in order to get a well-rounded education that helps us to understand the world around us from different perspectives.  Yet when it comes to our mental health, it’s easy to to narrow our focus and come at the issue from one very specific direction.  Treatment providers can certainly contribute to this by emphasizing one particular approach over all others.  Working in the field of psychiatry, I’ve certainly encountered people who see meds as the be all and end all, but this sort of tunnel vision is by no means unique to the medical system.  There is also the opposite approach that is fervently against standard medical approaches, which can be equally problematic.

What if instead we took a holistic approach to mental health, coming at it from as many different angles as we could?  There are many treatment modalities that do not have to be mutually exclusive.  Certainly medications and certain types of psychotherapy have a strong scientific evidence base, but there are many alternative strategies that can be incorporated into a holistic approach that not only targets illness but aims for wellness.  I will elaborate more on these other strategies in future posts (such as Coming to Meditation), but for now I’ll just say that the more tools we can add to our toolbox the better off we are.

Knowing whether a particular treatment is likely to work in a given population is useful on a broader level, but the science isn’t quite there yet to know what specific treatment will work for a specific individual.  We can’t know what will or won’t work for us until we try it.  For example, I’ve found that, despite being a huge proponent of psychotherapies such as CBT in my professional practice, in my personal experience it just hasn’t felt like a good fit for me.  Does that mean there’s something wrong with CBT? Absolutely not; it’s just not a piece in my puzzle at this point in time.

connecting puzzle piecesMy current wellness plan includes psychiatric medication, naturopathy, meditation, massage therapy, aromatherapy, and yoga.  Medications play an important role in managing the way that my depressive illness manifests, and I am lucky to have found a med cocktail that makes me feel more like myself and doesn’t cause a lot of side effects.  Still, targeting the symptoms of my mental illness with medication is not enough; I need to do more to work towards mental wellness.  The holistic plan I’ve arrived at makes me feel like I’m targeting mind, body, and soul and working as hard as I can at getting better.

What are the ingredients in your wellness recipe?  What pieces of the puzzle might be missing for you?

 

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What is wellness?

bicep_silhouette

Wellness can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people.  It is much more than simply the presence or absence of illness.  And what does wellness look like in the context of mental health?

I believe the foundation for mental wellness is strength.  I have major depressive disorder, and for me an important part of recovery is rebuilding my strength.  Regardless of whether or not I’m still having symptoms, I don’t consider myself to be well unless I feel strong – strong enough and resilient enough to handle the challenges that inevitably arise in life.

Rebuilding internal strength is a process, a journey, and is just as important as specifically targeting symptoms of illness.  The journey towards wellness is very individual, and may not have a lot to do with the nature of the illness itself.  It is a process of reflection, self-discovery, and trial and error.  It is often a search for meaning and purpose, for things that we can be passionate about.  Sometimes this can get lost if we focus too much on the manifestations of our illness, but if that happens we are doing ourselves a disservice.

We all deserve wellness – wellness on our own terms that gives us a reason to get up every morning.

 

Photo credit: Chance Agrella on Freerange