Horses help with Stress Management in Humans
Stress has physiological effects on the human body that can cause chronic illness or disease if maintained long term. The purpose of this research is to provide information on the effect horses have on the human body systems, specifically related to the relief of side effects caused by stress. This research sought scholarly sources of education on the definition of stress and its effects on health, as well as equine therapy, and therapeutic benefits of being in mother nature as a natural accompaniment to being with horses. Also, examples of horses causing relief of stress, chronic illness, and other health conditions were sought out and presented. Through this research I discovered that the key component to horses being able to relieve stress in humans is the oxytocin release that is triggered and the domino effect oxytocin has on the human body, physiologically. All humans who are interested in horses and do not have any fear of being around horses should consider adding time with horses as part of a stress management plan.
Horses help with Stress Management in Humans
The human body has specific responses to stress. Horses help humans decrease or reverse the body’s physiological and psychological reactions to stress in various ways. Horses are being incorporated into therapy for people with diagnosed disorders such as PTSD, victims of domestic abuse, children with autism, and more. Studies show these equine therapy offerings are successful because horses help humans relax, to state it simply. Long term therapy with horses helps humans to better cope as well as develop skills to minimize stress responses (Beetz, Kotraschal, Uvnas-Moberg, & Julius, 2011).
This essay will first consider the human body’s psychological and physiological responses to stress. Stress has been defined differently by different experts. Stress has been identified as the cause and conversely as the effect of a stimulus (Greenberg, 2013). Based on research for this paper, I define stress as the body’s response to a stressor; any event or occurrence that causes the individual’s body to go into fight or flight mode.
Stress on the human body affects all systems in the way opening the floodgates of a dam can affect a river. A small action, such as barely opening a floodgate, can result in a large outcome. Once opened, it is not always easy to close the floodgate or have balance in the water level on either side of the floodgate, especially if the water is flowing heavily due to a heavy current or pressure. Stress on the human body in a chronic state can lead to chronic illness, disease, and potentially death if not managed or relieved (Greenberg, 2013).
Stress physiologically affects human body systems such as the brain, the endocrine system, the cardiovascular system, the gastrointestinal system, the muscles and the skin. The human brain responds to stress in various ways. The hypothalamus is an area of the brain that initiates the response to stress the rest of the body has, as it activates the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system commands the activity of the hormones and body temperature as well as other functions of the human body. The thalamus and hypothalamus make up the limbic system which is said to be emotional center of the brain, responsible for a person’s production of fear and anxiety as well as joy in response to both physiological and psychological stimuli (Greenberg, 2013).
The human endocrine system is the control center for the body’s hormone activity by way of the adrenals, ovaries, testes, pituitary gland, thyroid, and others. Hormones regulate physiological functions, which means the endocrine system being affected by stress can make a substantial difference in either helping to remove the potential for illness due to high hormone activity or adding greater potential for chronic illness and disease through high hormone activity (Greenberg, 2013).
Once the floodgates of the human body’s systems are opened, the flow of effects of stress continues into the cardiovascular system where potential occurrences such as arteries and bronchial tubes being dilated, heart rate being accelerated, and blood pressure being increased are experienced. Stress on the human body can cause decreased saliva, uncontrollable actions of the esophagus, and cause ulcers due to increased secretion of hydrochloric acid. Bracing of the skeletal muscles can cause tension headaches, migraines, TMJ, back pain, fatigue, and other consequences (Greenberg, 2013).
Stress management in the form of relieving the side effects on the human body is important for long term health. Research shows many styles of stress relief and relaxation can offer positive results, depending on the individual’s needs and lifestyle.
During the research on horses alleviating stress for humans I learned that, generally speaking, animals help relieve stress for humans. Though horses are being used in various forms of therapy, effectively, such as riding therapy, equine assisted psychotherapy, and equine assisted trauma therapy, studies show that simply being in the space of a horse or other beloved animal or thinking about them can result in reversal of some of the detrimental physiological and psychological effects stress has on the human body (Aspinall, Mavros, Coyne, & Roe, 2013).
Oxytocin is at the forefront of the case for animals being considered as a medicine that can alleviate stress in humans. A study in South Africa showed results of levels of oxytocin being doubled when people pet or talk to their dogs. Another study by the University of Missouri documented that all animals appear to have cells directly under the skin that activate oxytocin in the brain, suggesting that calming, soothing touch can offer a release of oxytocin and the powerful benefits this “love hormone” generates. Oxytocin decreases blood pressure, slows breathing, and can generate an all around happy feeling in the human body. Studies have shown that oxytocin can cause more trust, socially and can be experienced amongst people in stable relationships. Oxytocin offers further benefits such as the release of fear and the feeling of being safe. Further physiological results from petting or speaking to their dogs were observed in subjects of the study, such as the increase of beta endorphins, which are natural pain killers, were notable. The study at the University of Missouri also resulted in documentation of an increase in serotonin, the neurotransmitter that anti depressants attempt to boost in order to decrease depression, when subjects were petting dogs (Olmert, 2009).
Spending time with horses generates a scenario where a person is out of the city and is usually in a country environment, or at least surrounded by mother nature in various degrees. A study by a University in Edinburgh, Scotland measured brain waves of subjects walking in three different environments during a 25-minute stroll. Measuring brain waves of people in motion was made possible by using a mobile EEGs or electroencephalographies. The emotional experience of each participant was analyzed using the data collected from the EEGs. The first area of Edinburgh the subjects walked through was a historic shopping district with mild traffic. The second area was a park with no traffic and the walkers were surrounded by only green space. The third area the subjects walked through was a busy commercial district with high traffic. The EEGs continuously “recorded five channels, short term excitement, frustration, engagement, long-term excitement, and meditation” (Aspinall, Mavros, Coyne, & Roe, 2013). Subjects showed low frustration as well as meditation in the park setting and higher brain activity as well as higher frustration while walking in the urbanized areas (Aspinall, Mavros, Coyne, & Roe, 2013).
Horses & Humans Research Foundation identified a correlation between the physiological aspect of oxytocin and the psychological aspect of attachment and caregiving systems. Attachment is defined as an emotional connection in relationships, an evolution of the past definition identifying the connection between children and caregivers. The purpose of the attachment system as identified in this research is to help a person under stress find relief through the connection to the attachment figure, which I interpret from the research is a loved one that an individual feels emotionally safe and comforted when in the presence of, such as a partner, parent, or a horse. Studies show that attachment is strongly linked to oxytocin effects. Conversely, the attachment system is affected when a person has negative experiences with other humans. For example, a person who suffered abuse by a caregiver or parent will likely transfer the patterns and trauma into future human-human relationships he or she has based on the negative experiences of abuse. However, studies show the trauma of abuse at the hands of a human will not be transferred to attachment relationships with animals (Beetz, Kotrschal, Uvnas-Moberg, Julius, 2011). Humans who have had negative experiences and trauma at the hands of other humans are likely to remain open to positive experiences and trusting relationships with animals. Connection between human and animal can activate the oxytocin system, which offers the potential for healing emotionally and physiologically based on the multitude of effects the release of oxytocin has. The close contact humans often have with horses in therapy through riding therapy, grooming, or simply petting or sitting with a horse makes this relationship a clear example of how the attachment system and oxytocin can be understood and utilized in a therapy plan for humans who have experienced negative treatment by people they were attached most closely to. These people may have fragmented attachment patterns based on their experiences and are top candidates for animal therapy because they are likely to be able to form attachments to animals, whereas if they attempt therapy with humans perceived to be in a caregiving role their insecurities and lack of trust will likely transfer to the human attempting to help them. In these instances, oxytocin will not be triggered, resulting in a loss of potential physical and mental healing for the individual (Beetz, Kotrschal, Uvnas-Moberg, Julius, 2011).
Studies show horses help humans to relieve stress in various ways. One example is a group of children with autism who participated in a 12-week riding therapy program. A control group of children were compared to the group that attended the riding therapy program and results showed higher social engagement, sensory activity in the children in the riding therapy program as well as less sedentary behavior and distractibility (Busch, Tucha, Talarovicova, Fuermaier, Lewis-Evans, & Tucha, 2016). This example supports the potential for horses to have positive long term effects on the human brain.
Adults were put in purposefully stressful situations in another study before being exposed to Equine Assisted Therapy. Exposure to horses resulted in physiologically beneficial effects in a multitude of ways. Horseback riding and hippo therapy show positive physical results and improvement in gross motor skills for people diagnosed with physically limiting conditions such as cerebral palsy or conditions related to a previous injury in sometimes astonishing ways. This research essay focuses predominantly, however, on the physiological and psychological benefits of all equine therapies and, more specifically, being in the space of horses. Equine therapy has proven effective in helping soldiers who have experienced trauma in war and have been diagnosed with PTSD, victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse, as well as people with anxiety disorders. Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) is also effective in helping kids and teenagers with anger, anxiety, and behavioral issues as well as at risk youth. Human beings often will become defensive when given advice or feedback from other humans. One tendency is to shut down or tune out a human therapist or well meaning individual. Teenagers naturally brace against any advice or input from adults, and equine therapy has proven to be helpful with this age group. Horses reflect emotions and feelings of people in their space. Humans are often able to put on a smile or suppress emotions that are bubbling from within when interacting with other humans but horses are a mirror and always tell the truth. For example, an angry teenager who has begun to exhibit problematic behaviors, acting out at home or school may act cool and be closed off to engaging with a human therapist or family members. However, the same teenager may be exposed to a horse and simply try to pet or be near a horse. When given the choice, the horse may walk away or choose not to be near this angry teenager, which can cause the teen to wonder why the horse does not want to be near him or her and be able to understand that being angry is pushing people away just like it causes the horse to choose not to be near him (Boatwright, 2013). One equine therapeutic organization identifies the horse in a therapeutic setting as a “large biofeedback machine” (Boatwright, 2013). Teens often become self-confident and show long term results in raised self-esteem according to equine therapists. Teens often say that they have begun to be open to trying new things in all areas of their life due to the experiences they have with horses, which has the potential to create long term positive results in their lives (Boatwright, 2013). Horses that have experienced trauma may develop PTSD and therapists say these horses will often choose a client with PTSD. They often will pick each other out and create a bond, helping each other heal (Boatwright, 2013).
Horses are used in Equine Assisted Learning due to their ability to be a mirror for leaders, teams, and organizational groups interested in better productivity and connection. The horse’s ability to show a leader a reflection of his or her intensity, aggression, or lack of assertiveness, planning, or other behaviors often results in a more cohesive team experience whereas a manager may take years to find that level of self awareness, if they ever do. Engagement of clients is one benefit touted by therapists who utilize equine therapy in treatment. Clients usually engage with the horse within minutes whereas they may remain closed off or unwilling to engage in typical therapy or team building environments. The horse has the unique ability to reflect the truth to a person as well as cause a physiological response in the human body that can undo all that stress causes in the human body systems (Boatwright, 2013).
As with all other stress management approaches, implementing horses into a plan to find relaxation and relief should be considered for those it appeals to. In cases where fear is inspired by being around horses, time with horses would not likely be a useful addition to a stress management plan. However, for those who are interested in horses and especially those who have experienced less than positive results attempting to connect with people to feel seen and heard due to past experiences, simply sitting in a pasture with a horse has great potential to offer relief of stress induced symptoms largely through the increased release of oxytocin and the domino health effect that has on the human body. The potential for long term stress coping skills to be achieved through spending time with horses is great, through the release of oxytocin, the connection and attachment potential as well as the unique ability of the horse to act as a mirror, reflecting the truth of emotions and behaviors a person is experiencing.
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