A DEEPER UNDERSTANDING
Over the last one hundred years through research and discovery, our understanding of the stress mechanisms in humans and animals has evolved from anatomical, chemical, and environmental pathways to energetic interconnectedness influenced by epigenetics and biofield physiology. We realize that all these factors play an interdependent role in how stress shows up in our lives. As such, it has become increasingly important to factor in human stress as a component of our pet’s stress levels and responses.
Generally, the body is influenced by three types of stress; chemical, physical and emotional. Chemically, via pesticides, medications, vaccinations and by-products of normal metabolism; physically via injuries, and exercise; and emotionally via thoughts, perceptions and experiences.
This two-part article will focus on the emotional aspect of stress, the interrelationship between humans and their pets and offer some helpful healing modalities.
What is Stress?
Stress is defined as state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances. Stress is the feeling or emotion that is felt inside in response to something that occurred outside. This feeling or emotion is intimately involved with the basic biological instinct for survival. Physiologically this is represented by the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. This mechanism is an elegant built in biophysiological design that is instantaneous and automatic involving a precise orchestration of events.
Although it is built to protect, times have changed and now- a -days, real threats have turned into perceived threats, and most of our fears are coming from internal sources. The question is, is it possible to control or mitigate its responses?
As a good friend of mine once said, “When we start to understand the whys, the hows become easier.”
The Anatomy of Stress
It helps to understand stress if we understand the anatomical structures that play a part in it. Because the stress response is a primitive survival mechanism, all mammals have it, including humans. The structures in our bodies and that of our animals that regulate how we respond or react to stress are the same.
The major players in the stress response are the limbic system (or emotional center) in the brain; made up of the thalamus, hypothalamus, hippocampus and the amygdala; the brainstem, the adrenal glands, and the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system.
Each of these systems work together in concert to help ensure survival by dilating the pupils to let light in for better eye sight; increase the heart rate to pump more blood to the muscles used for running and fighting; increase respiration to get more oxygen to the tissues; and inhibiting or shutting down the higher thinking areas of the brain.
In moments of survival, it is not a time to think, ponder, plan, or rationalize. It is a time to act!
This reaction is highly appropriate when needed. However, the fight or flight system was designed to be short lived. Long-term stress responses have been implicated as the underlying causes of multitudes of health conditions.
Our animals use this system innately to hunt, to run away from, or fight a predator; or to fight each other in a battle of dominance to establish order and breeding rights. After the ‘episode’ the animal goes back to resting, sleeping, grazing or whatever it was doing before the stressful event. The body resets.
But times have changed for us and for our pets. Dogs and cats are an integrated and integral part of humans and the families they live with. For most, they don’t need to hunt for food, they don’t fight for breeding rights and rarely need to defend themselves against predators. In other words, their food is delivered, they sleep in comfy beds, and are sheltered from impending threats. Imagine, if you or your pet is having these physical reactions described earlier, with no bear or threat in sight. This is called a panic attack!
So, what DO our pets stress about? Do dogs and cats stress differently than us? Do they mirror our stresses? Are we affected in different ways?
We certainly have some individual nuances, but we share more than you may think and effect each other more than you may realize.
Where does it all start?
E-motions are energy in motion and when the conversation goes into energy, frequency, and quantum entanglements, things can get a little tricky. These mechanisms are a factor in how our pets are affected by our state of being and goes to explain that the mechanisms, understandings and mitigating tactics are a little more complex than we have thought in the past. The good news is, that the solutions however are not as difficult as you think.
Emotional stress is linked to our senses, negative experiences, and self -limiting beliefs.
The strongest senses in a dog are the sense of smell, hearing, and as receptacles of emotional frequencies. They learn and navigate through their world mostly around these parameters.
Based upon human and animal studies, it has been shown that a small almond shaped structure in the brain called the amygdala is the caretaker and guardian of perceived threats and hyper-vigilance. It is the brain structure that is associated with protection, fear, aggression and memory-based pattern recognition. It’s the hub for fear-motivated behaviors. While the job of the thalamus, is to act like the gate keeper of all sensory information from the outside world, the amygdala is the structure that receives the sense of smell first. As a dog with a sense of smell forty times greater than a human, and an ability to detect a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water; you can see how impactful this can be.
The amygdala is programmed by recording all the experiences that can hurt you and activates a cascade of survival reactions when it perceives dangers or threats. In humans this programming starts as early as the first trimester when you’re still in the womb. This is probably true for our animals as well.
Memories are tied to Emotions
The hippocampus stores new and old memories, especially those linked to sensory input. The amygdala encodes the emotion, and the hippocampus encodes the context, i.e. the memories of people, places, situations, things and events. Research conducted by the HeartMath Institute shows that the stronger and more relevant the emotion is to an experience, the greater the memory is encoded and solidified. This has shown to be the basis for PTSD.
On the up side, recent research from the Journal Nature Neuroscience (2016) revealed that neurons towards the front (anterior region) of the amygdala play a role in regulating behaviors tied to negative emotional responses; and neurons in the back (posterior region) of the amygdala respond to positive stimuli.
It reminds me of the story of the Two Wolves Inside Us. In essence, a grandfather says; “We have two wolves inside of us; one full of rage, and sorrow and the other filled with love, and peace. They are in a constant battle.” The child asks, “Who will win?”. The grandfather replies, “The one you feed”. These important findings allude to the benefits of positive reinforcement as opposed to old-school obedience and behavior modification techniques.
Do dogs have a sense of purpose?
Deeper reasons for emotional stress for ourselves and our animals are related to feeling a lack of purpose, and subsequent self-worth. Subtle psychological attributes like self -worth, can be debatable in animals, but if you’ve ever been in the presence of a police dog or other ‘working’ dogs and have seen them in action, you could see and feel the pride and seriousness they have in doing a good job.
When dogs are not doing what they are hard wired to do they will become stressed, and divert their energy ‘sideways’, with destructive tendencies. When we or our animals feel lack of self-esteem, it creates uncertainties and limited beliefs, and in our dog manifests as a fear of separation, being left alone, or abandoned.
Where did it all go wrong?
Unfortunately, the stress mechanism has evolved from a necessary protective tool into a normalized state of everyday being. It has become so common that the word has become incorporated into everyday language and its ubiquitous nature has driven us into a state of complacency. The effect of this has impacted our pets, individuals and society in profound psychological, emotional and physical ways.
It’s ONLY stress.. right?
Stress is the underlying process that drives most disease. The once necessary fight or flight system called upon to protect the physical being is being habitually utilized in us in the form of constant mental chatter, worries, and negative, depleting thought processes.
And in our pets, it shows up as behavior and physiological changes.
It is in these states that we learn to live in survival mode and become so familiar and accustomed to it that we don’t even recognize the smoldering undertone of the effects upon our physiology and emotional state of being. When we or our pets are not fleeing and running from the bear or prey to hide out of sight, we flee within, into a state of emotional withdrawal, sadness, depression, anxiety, aggression or anger.
Instead of fighting the bear, we lash outward with verbal abuses filled with anger, judgments and hurtful statements. We fidget, tap our fingers, shake our legs, click our pens, twirl our hair, and develop self-defacing nervous habits.
Although we may not be aware of it, our pets are sensing and processing our energy.
Our dogs will display their stress in behaviors of aggression like growling, barking or biting, or fear like hiding, pacing, panting, yawning, chewing (on objects or themselves), over or under grooming, or indiscriminate urinations, like those dogs that urinate submissively and cats that will urinate on your bed or clean laundry.
The Effects of Stress
These tendencies are created by the internalization of stress. If the underlying cause is not addressed and rectified then it will lead to deeper states of disease. This is when we see the physiological manifestations. It is well known that there is an inverse relationship with the hormones of stress and the immune system. Meaning, as cortisol levels go up, the immune system weakens.
Some health conditions associated with stress are vomiting, diarrhea, heart burn, gastric reflux, loss of appetite, too much appetite, heart conditions, arrhythmias, hormonal conditions affecting the adrenal glands, allergies, asthma, opportunistic infections such as increases in bacterial or viral pathogens, accelerated aging and premature death.
Stress is not just a word, it is a phenomenon that is associated with a multitude of layers, processes and interactions between the body, the mind, the environment and each other. Understanding it can be complex, but the solutions can be simple.
The next article will discuss the different modalities for de- stressing. Check it out!