Understanding Your Pet’s Arousal/Relaxation Axis
Anxiety is simply arousal with nowhere to go. An anxious animal is experiencing an arousal response triggered by a non-life-threatening stimulus. Often after the anxious animal is triggered into anxiety (even after the stimulus is gone), they cannot regulate back into a healthy state of relaxation.
Anxiety is a disease with a strong mental/emotional bias, in my opinion. The animal thinks that bad things are going to happen, even when they are not. This mental/emotional (learned) response to a stimulus (anxiety trigger) is what triggers the mental/emotional distress, and then the physical body flips into flight/fight mode.
An animal can become sensitized to any stimulus as an anxiety trigger if they get a fright at the same time they first experience that stimulus. The fright or fear could be from something unrelated, but then, after that, every time they experience the anxiety trigger they will experience mental/emotional distress, which causes their whole system to go into arousal (fight/flight) very physically.
The anxiety response then becomes physically programmed into the body- with release of fight/flight hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones prepare the body to flee or fight, with a movement of blood away from the digestive tract and into the muscles, as well as an increase in heart rate, breathing rate, and tension in the body.
Any animal that has long term chronic arousal running through their system is going to have a negative impact on their well-being- mentally, emotionally, and physically. The immune system will be damaged. Chronic pain and tension will build up in the soft tissues of the body. They will continually experience mental and emotional distress.
Every time an animal is triggered into anxiety (arousal) by a particular trigger it reinforces the anxiety pattern. This is why the common understanding in veterinary medicine is that anxiety issues nearly always tend to get worse over time.
That’s what I got taught at university! BUT I have proved this contention wrong in my own whippet, and I have seen dramatic improvement and healing of anxiety in the pets belonging to many of my clients and my students.
How? With the healing power of intentional, loving touch. Through working with tens of thousands of animals over 25 years, I have discovered some specific, simple, easy to learn bodywork techniques that cause a deep, body level (somatic) relaxation response. These skills are part of my signature healing bodywork modality – the Whole Energy Body Balance (WEBB) method.
I teach people from all over the world how to help their pets with the WEBB work. We have more than 1300 students in our online trainings. Every week we get stories of dramatic improvements in anxiety and behaviour issues due to the WEBB work.
Pearl, my whippet, has had a very significant improvement in her thunder phobia. She used to become a shaking, shivering, dribbling, terrified mess with thunder. Extremely distressed! These days, she doesn’t like it much – but I can ask her up on the bed, and she will lie down and settle with my hand resting on her. This is SO much better than she used to be it’s simply not funny!
I have seen a client’s Staffy with awful separation anxiety (literally chewing the house to pieces when left alone) heal so much that all the destructive behaviour stopped within two weeks of using the relaxing bodywork I taught them (he was so relaxed he wasn’t even getting off his bed when his mum came home).
A student of mine has seen her severely traumatized rescue dog (who had been treated with all the prescription anxiety medications available with no effect) become almost normal in her behaviour (calm, happy and settled) within two weeks of studying and practicing the Whole Energy Body Balance method.
Arousal/Relaxation self-regulation is the key
A healthy animal is able to move back and forth between healthy arousal and healthy relaxation. They will move into heathy arousal for play, or if there is something dangerous threatening them. After play finishes, or when danger passes, they will be able to quickly and easily return to their healthy resting state.
[By the way – this includes you, the human! We humans live in a severely arousal biased world, and many people don’t even know what true healthy relaxation feels like. Any arousal in the human (stress, anxiety, over-stimulation) always causes a sympathetic arousal response in their pets. It is vitally important for your pet’s well-being that you learn how to regulate yourself to healthy relaxation!]
The center of gravity on the arousal/relaxation axis in a healthy animal should be well and truly on the relaxation side. All healthy, happy pets spend far more time in healthy relaxation than in any kind of arousal.
It’s worth noting here that most humans love to excite, razz up, stimulate and stir up their dogs into a state of arousal. There is a strong emphasis on giving dogs a lot of high impact, high arousal activity and play. Yes, some high arousal activity is important. But it should be a small amount of time compared to the time you should spend on teaching, supporting and maintaining your dogs relaxation abilities.
Yes! Healthy relaxation is a learned behaviour. It’s something that we all need to be teaching our pets. The most effective way I have found to teach relaxation is through the special relaxing bodywork skills I teach in the WEBB method online trainings. I can teach you the core of this in less than 30 minutes. It’s simple, and highly effective.
Your vet will most likely want to prescribe anxiety medication. There is a place for these medications, but they do NOT treat the root cause of anxiety in pets, which is a lack of ability in the animal to be able to regulate from arousal into healthy relaxation.
These medications can be a great support in the training process, especially if you have an animal with very severe anxiety. I believe that if I am to be a truly holistic vet, I need to be open-minded with regards to using allopathic medication, surgery, and Western medicine. These therapeutic approaches may not be my first port of call, but they will absolutely be the best thing for some of the animals who are under my care.
A holistic, natural approach to treating anxiety in pets
My approach is as follows:
1) Assess for and treat pain
Especially silent pain (the main cause of silent pain is Neuro-fascial Pain or soft tissue pain – the only sure way to find this is with a skilled hands-on assessment). Pain is nearly always involved with anxiety issues. More than 50% of the animals I see have silent pain that their humans are unaware of!
2) Learn how to communicate clear, healthy boundaries with your pets.
Essentially this means learning how to have a silent conversation (using body language and presence) so that you can ask your pets to respect your space. You need to be able to gently use body language and perhaps an ‘out’ command to ask your pets to stay out of your space for as long as you want.
Most humans are AWFUL at this vitally important communication. You need to be more determined than your pet on this one. You have to gently demand that they stay out until they stop pushing to come into your space. Then you need to keep them out until they show obvious relaxation signs. This is sometimes not easy, but I have taught so many people how to do this.
The benefit is that your pet will have to regulate themselves. A lot of the time, pets are using their humans as a drug for mental/emotional regulation. Every time they feel the slightest bit of discomfort, they go to you for touch. So then they never learn how to relax themselves!
3) Use relaxing bodywork to train your pet how to regulate from arousal to relaxation.
This is the most important thing you can learn to help your anxious pet. I believe that if you have a pet with anxiety symptoms, you’ll need to learn how to do this to help them heal, to relax, to be calm and happy. (Please note: do go to your vet if your pet has severe anxiety. The prescription medications can often help them heal more quickly in these cases.)
Here’s an advance tip – a way to start helping your pets relax and heal anxiety with loving touch. Simply touch or pet them the same way you usually do, but make your hand movements slower. Halve your normal stroking or patting speed.
Then halve it again.
Then halve it again – until you’re moving so slowly that it’s hard to stay that slow. You’ll see your pet relax! But be aware that this is a body level relaxation, and it may take days, weeks, or months for your pet’s mind to catch up and learn that it’s safe and comfortable to relax.
It will be normal for an anxious pet to relax and then trigger themselves into arousal many times before they learn how to relax properly. You’ll have to ride through that!
If you have an anxious pet and you need help, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org