Animal Therapy In Addiction Recovery

Many people know the feeling of being able to forget their worries when they’re around animals.

Pets, especially dogs, can be loyal, and the love they give is usually unconditional. For people recovering from addiction, however, pets can offer even more: They can assist with rehabilitation in countless and often unrecognizable ways.

Studies show that animal therapy can reduce tension and improve moods — avoiding some of the biggest predictors of relapse: stress and depression. Other benefits include lowered blood pressure and heart rate, and a reduction in the severity of pain from physical illness. Just how do animals do this?

Benefits of Human-Animal Interaction

In Frontiers in Psychology, scientist Andrea Beetz looked at the literature on the psychological and physiological effects of human-animal interactions. Reviewing evidence from 69 studies on human-animal interactions, Dr. Beetz found that the effect is due to an increase in oxytocin, which is sometimes referred to as the “bonding hormone.”

The review showed that interactions with animals could have a pronounced benefit on a number of areas, including:

  • Interpersonal interactions
  • Mood
  • Stress-related variables such as cortisol, heart rate and blood pressure
  • Fear and anxiety
  • Cardiovascular diseases

In addiction in particular, Beetz says, there’s some evidence of human-animal interaction lowering stress-related factors such as epinephrine and norepinephrine, improving of the functioning of the immune system as well as pain management, increasing trust toward other people, reducing aggression, enhancing empathy, and improved learning.

As a supplement to more traditional types of addiction treatment, animal therapy works by helping people to focus on someone or something else. By caring for a creature that’s dependent on them, especially after having spent a long time serving only their own needs in active addiction, people recovering from addiction discover the nurturing side of themselves. They can also gain a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be nurtured — something they may have never learned or have forgotten while they were using. Animals can help people in recovery build self-confidence and self-esteem.

The Therapeutic Effects of Equine Therapy

While horses have been human companions for centuries, equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) started as a program to treat people with physical disabilities. In recent years, it’s been translated to treating all kinds of conditions, including addiction. At The Ranch addiction treatment center in Tennessee and Lucida Treatment Center in Florida, both part of the Elements Behavioral Health network of facilities, EAP is used to great advantage.

For starters, horses are big. Interacting with them is one way to help trauma victims “take back their space,” so to speak, or at least feel comfortable again around a creature that seems threatening but isn’t. Since horses have similar communication styles as humans, people can begin to relate. Horses provide immediate and honest feedback that can help people struggling to rebuild their relationship skills after active addiction.

Heather Kuhl is a licensed counselor who specializes in treating children, adolescents, and young adults. As an avid equestrian, Kuhl is a certified equine-assisted therapist through the Equine-Assisted Growth and Learning Association. She works at Lucida among other places.

At Lucida, Kuhl partners with an equine specialist to use horses to create “situations and activities that provide potential for challenge, ambiguity, emotional connection, independence, and anxiety,” she says. “Through the use of ground activities involving the horses, the client or group is required to apply certain skills such as non-verbal communication, assertiveness, creative thinking, problem-solving, leadership, teamwork, confidence, and trust.” Kuhl has used EAP to treat depression, marital and familial conflict, chronic pain, self-esteem issues, and addiction.

Dede Beasley of The Ranch is a counselor and a nationally certified horseback riding instructor through the Council for Horsemanship and Safety. She is among the first practitioners to be certified by the North American Handicapped Riders Association as an equine-assisted psychotherapist. Beasley has 20 years of experience in private practice, and she uses equine therapy on her farm in Ashland City, Tennessee, as well as at The Ranch.

Horses And Human Relationships

Beasley says that horses can teach people about relationships. Because they are relational creatures, horses serve as mirrors to what’s wrong with how people recovering from addiction relate to others. “Horses are relational in that they’re more herd animals,” she says. “I believe they interact with us as if we’re other herd animals. There’s not anything that people do that doesn’t happen specifically with horses and people.” People can learn how to be in a healthy relationship by simply interacting with a horse. “It’s about mutuality and reciprocity, having relationships that are equal and fair,” Beasley says.

In EAP, metaphors are a key mechanism of learning, Kuhl says. “Through the powerful work of partnering with horses, EAP assists individuals with learning new ways to relate to others as well as enriching their own lives in the process.”

This doesn’t always happen, however. For many people in recovery, letting go and letting it happen — rather than making it happen — is hard to do. But with horses, they have no other choice. “It’s really spontaneous and in the moment, with no major goal in mind,” Beasley says. “The goal is for them to learn to be introspective and to make a decision out of that.”

Some people don’t take to the horses, but Beasley says it’s all part of the recovery process — which is, in essence, a learning process about oneself. “There are some people who don’t like being with horses and they won’t give it a shot,” she says. “I always wonder what that is, why they’re so rigid and stoic — maybe sometimes that’s a way to not get involved in something you don’t understand or can’t control.” “Or maybe people are scared the horses will reveal something about them that they aren’t ready to know,” she says. “Every personality situation shows up, and you just have to go with what it is.”

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