"I'm so stressed out!" "I have a lot on my plate." "Finals are here and I'm just a bundle of nerves!"
How many times have you heard a student talk about their stress levels? Probably too often to count! Paper-writing, passing grades, finals -- stress is our body's response to the pressures and expectations in life. When a stressful situation arises, it releases adrenaline in our bodies which activates our "fight or flight" mode to help us overcome that situation. Stress in small doses helps our minds and bodies to focus on a task at hand and is very useful. But what happens when stress responses become debilitating rather than helpful?
The Difference Between Stress & Anxiety
Anxiety and stress are often used interchangeably, but they are very different. Stress is causal — this means that a specific event causes the stress as a response. It is a natural bodily reaction to situations in life and helps us solve problems.
But anxiety is fear-based. Rather than helping the brain focus, it activates the fear center of the brain causing a sense of unease that diminishes response. Anxiety is causeless — there is not a specific moment that brings it about, which means the heightened sensitivity in the body becomes constant rather than situational. When the adrenaline-rushing high continues after a stressor has gone away, stress has now stepped over into anxiety.
Because anxiety is not causal, it makes the body's fight or flight response hyperactive which leads to increased blood pressure, mental fatigue, heightened sensitivity, and overactive or underactive neurotransmitter activity that many times leads to depression. This stepover from stress to anxiety often happens due to a person's lack of understanding of how to self-manage stress.
Are Students Healthily Stressed or Unhealthily Anxious?
According to research from the CDC and numerous studies published by the National Library of Medicine, nearly 4.4 million young people suffer from clinical anxiety with only 59% receiving proper treatment. Anxiety in young people has been rapidly increasing with numbers nearly doubling from 2003-2012. Students with high functioning anxiety often display symptoms such as behavioral issues, poor grades, reduced mental performance, tardiness, and lack of a social life.
High functioning anxiety in students significantly depletes their sense of curiosity and desire to learn. This takes a drastic toll on their academic performance and investment. Everyday events in a young person's life that seem manageable to some may feel impossible for someone with severe anxiety — activities such as getting out of bed, going to school, interacting with friends, and completing homework.
How Horses Can Help
Horses are hypersensitive creatures. This makes them especially poignant therapy animals for those dealing with high functioning anxiety because they mirror the sensitivity and hyper-awareness the person feels. Horse therapy, or equine-assisted psychotherapy, has been gaining more and more popularity in recent years. The concept actually dates back to 600 B.C. when horseback riding as a therapy was documented by the Greek physician, Hippocrates.
Here are some ways working with horses can help a young person manage their anxiety.
Because horses are pack animals, they have developed an acute ability to read other being's emotional states, reflecting them back and communicating clearly. This makes them extremely effective partners in the therapeutic realm. Their sensitivity allows the person to experience connection and also to better understand their own emotional state by seeing how the horse reacts to them.
Horses are very aware of surroundings and are easily "spooked." Such a degree of intensified fight or flight mirrors what a young person experiences with their anxiety. By understanding a horse's struggle with fear and hyper-awareness, a young person can learn how to respond to them compassionately and effectively which helps them learn how to self-manage their anxiety.
Those who struggle with high degrees of anxiety often develop coping tactics to diminish the heightened sensitivity they feel. One of these is a sense of disembodiment or numbness to the body. This is also common in people who've experienced trauma and are suffering from PTSD. Working with horses helps people reconnect to their body through physical touch as well as reading body language. In order to manage the horse's sensitivity and illicit a positive response, a person must manage their own body language and interpret the horse's.
NJIN understands how much of a toll anxiety and depression can take on a young person's academic and social life. And we want to help! We are currently working to create a new program that will provide equine-assisted therapy to young people and others suffering from anxiety disorders, PTSD, and other mental health struggles. One of our equine experts was recently certified with EAGALA, Equine Assisted Growth & Learning Association. This certification gives them the knowledge to partner with a licensed mental health specialist to provide equine therapies to those who need it.
The program is still in the works but we are really excited for what we're creating! Check out our P.E.T.A.L. program webpage today and sign up for our newsletter to keep up to date with the program's progress!
The horses at our farm hold so much therapeutic potential for young people. Our NJIN team is exhilarated to discover the immense healing that will occur when humans and horses work together on our farm!