Fear and it’s fight or flight response is similar through all species. There was an interesting article in Time magazine recently regarding the generalization of fear in people based on an article in Nature/Neuroscience Journal. It talks about how one fearful, anxious experience can then be generalized to increase fear in general. It talks about this as a component of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and how that relates to war veterans. It also mentions different approaches to treatment from medications to behavioral therapy.
I find that similar patterns of generalization of fear exist in animals as well. I have seen it numerous times in dogs that have had a fearful response to a loud noise such as a thunderstorm or a firecracker or some explosive noise. They will then begin to become anxious and fearful following any loud noise and it may progressively get worse and worse until it requires medications. It can also spread to a separation anxiety disorder if the noise happened while the human caretaker was away. I have seen it in horses as well. If a horse has had a negative experience to a veterinarian administering an injection, either intravenously or intramuscularly, it is not uncommon for them to then become more and more anxious and fearful to any injections to a point of being extremely difficult to handle for injections and even dangerous. This is commonly called needlephobia.
It can then be quite challenging for anyone to administer any injection to the horse. In addition, if a horse has had a negative experience in a horse trailer or loading on to one, it can then tend to get more and more difficult to load onto the horse trailer. Sedatives or tranquilizers may be of some benefit in these cases, but more often than not, are not successful. Especially for a horse with a needle phobia.From a more natural, integrative approach I have successfully treated many animals with herbal and homeopathic remedies as well as acupuncture. I have also seen that generalization of fear in elephants, cats, monkeys, etc. It seems to exist in most species. This behavior of fear generalization seems to be an evolutionary defense mechanism based in the almond shaped part of the brain, the amygdala. It helped in the past to help animals recognize potential danger in the future based on their past experiences. However, these days where there seems to be never ending stress and fear with modern society and the media, these defensive fear generalization patterns can become toxic, pathological and almost paralyze us.
A friend and colleague of mine, Vera Muller-Paisner, psychoanalyst and equestrian has spent over a dozen years studying the chronicity and transmission of trauma. One of the tools that she has found to be effective in managing memories of trauma in riders (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)) she has adapted to Bilateral Equine Tapping (BET) for use with horses who display traumatic memory. that Riding is a partnership, and she has found trauma can be transmitted between partners. She has an instrument that attaches to the horses halter and taps on one side of the temple of the horse’s head and then the other slowly, quietly as the horse approaches a similar fearful experience. She has had some success pioneering this approach to decrease the anxiety and fear associated with these behaviors.
Ms. Paisner states that “Indeed, the defense mechanism of the brain, the amygdala, responds to associations that seemed ,or were, life threatening, in the past. It is not a conscious response, it is biological, in all species.
For the war veteran, a car backfiring may start heart palpitations, sweating,the immediate impulse to hide, and a flashback to the original trauma. For the horse, the sight of the needle causes heart palpitations , the need for flight, and must be avoided at all cost, because it seems like a matter of life or death.”
She also states that “One of the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a panic attack that continues to be triggered by an event. Unless the event is integrated into the nervous system, the psysiological response will continue, as will the fear. Eye Movement Desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) for humans and Bilateral Equine Tapping (BET) for horses help to stabilize the fear response, to give an opportunity to experience the event differently”.
To be clear, I agree with Vera that “Not every fear response is PTSD, but I have found that treatment for those who suffer from it, is life changing.”
It is very exciting to see some human behavioral modification techniques being practically applied to everyday animal issues. More research and documentation of this technique needs to be conducted, but it is quite hopeful based on a small number of horses that have responded to it. Vera Paisner’s study on it may be viewed at the website, www.kerulos.org. In the future, we may interview Ms. Paisner regarding her thoughts, experiences and studies on this new innovative approach to help animals heal their anxiety and fear.
It is great to know that with all the fear based media one is exposed to and all the stress and challenges we all face these days, that there are healthy nontoxic approaches to help calm the fear and anxiety.
Have you seen this generalization of fear in your own animals? If so, did you have a successful treatment outcome?
For further information: Muller-Paisner, V. Letting Go of fear. Dressage Today, December 2008
www.kerulos.org/projects (see animal trauma therapy button)
Muller-Paisner, V.& Bradshaw G.A.. Freud and the Family Horse: Exploration into Equine Psychotherapy. In: Spring, Vol 83, Spring 2010. Minding the Animal Psyche.