“light is to darkness what love is to fear, in the presence of one the other disappears.”
- Marianne Williamson
I often find myself lost in thought, quizzically pondering what drives some of us to gravitate towards more complex cases. What causes a professional to choose the arduous cases over others which often prove undeniably less taxing? Why is it that some professionals find themselves somehow fastened to these toilsome subjects, fixated even.
If one were to inquire, I’d imagine they’d receive an array of responses, each unique to the professional. A significant portion of us are drawn due to our desire to reduce the pollution in a vastly unregulated industry. Others find household obedience to be monotonous. Some of us have an emotional pull, idiosyncratic cases remind us of our own companions, their struggles relieved with the art of modern methodologies. Often our ambitions lie in the simple bestowal of the discipline to all who will listen, planting seeds in a modest but fecund garden. Some of us find these cases curiously therapeutic, relatable even. Several of us fall within multiple categories.
Several emotions human experience are arguably unfathomable for canines. Still, we share some basic emotional capacities. Concentrate on these four: happiness, sadness, fear, and anger, which are differentially associated with three core affects - reward (happiness), punishment (sadness), and stress (fear and anger). Now let’s shift our focus to stress. What are the effects of stress and fear physically? Under pressure the nervous system releases stress hormones including adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. Before we dig deeper, I understand that as consultants we have a need to operationalize behavior and the emotion eliciting it. Sure, we could dive into the theories of fear: Personality, adaptive-evolutionary, neurofunctional, modular, dimensional etc. but honestly, none of this matters outside of modification. I‘d like to focus on the comparatives from within, on our ability to empathize and express compassion for one of the emotional responses we share.
The continuous activation of a nervous system experiencing a stress response causes wear and tear on the body. The impact of single, yet detrimental exposure, or repeated exposure to stress and fear inducing triggers heightens our bodies responses. Heightened responses are a natural, necessary but often inimical adaptation. Fear is usually conceptualized as an adaptive but transient state, elicited through confrontation with a threatening stimulus. Anxiety is a more tonic state related to prediction and preparedness. Our bodies develop triggers to reduce reaction time in the future, ultimately serving as a survival mechanism allowing us to avoid dangerous situations.
What if the developed triggers aren’t rational? What if they prove to be maladaptive? What if they prove to cause more psychological harm than good? This is unfortunate, because we simply don’t control this process, not on our own. Our bodies naturally respond to what our mind perceives to be threatening. Threatening stimuli need not make sense to elicit a reaction, and the reaction is not something we control. An organism experiencing fear is not capable of controlling the reaction. I’m going to say this just one more time.
An organism experiencing fear is not capable of controlling the reaction.
One MIGHT find the ability to navigate their response to fear depending on the presentation, but we cannot simply control our body’s biochemical revision. The physical reaction will likely magnify our response, bringing us full circle. Seems exasperatingly cyclical doesn’t it?
What does this have to do with empathy or the inordinate drive for diving into multifaceted cases? Have you ever felt out of control? Have you ever felt like merely a passenger to your mind?
I’ve felt lost amongst my body’s reactions. Reactions I found difficult to process, impossible even. I’ve found these reactions to be involuntary and unwelcome. I’ve found their effect to be felt far outside of my own scope, we know all too well, behavior does not occur in a vacuum.
Have you had involuntary reactions to stimuli or environments? Environments that normally you could rationalize were of no harm to you? If you have, you know how numbing this can feel, how helpless and isolating. You understand the stress and the anticipation of awaiting your mind's next slingshot.
You begin avoiding triggers, potentially becoming volatile when compelled into their presence. At times you respond with abeyance and other times you combust with a flood of spontaneous exertion. If any of this sounds even remotely familiar to you, then you know experiencing such reactions is not something which we consider practicality in a “fix” for. Though I must admit, what a coveted mystique that would cast.
Some stimuli we continue to avoid. It’s important to acknowledge that avoidance is not feasible for all potential triggers and attempting to do so can greatly deteriorate quality of life, something we consider with canines as well. We are encouraged to develop the skills to tolerate environments and stimuli that may have previously caused negative reactions, and while these may help greatly, we aren’t “fixed.” We improve and we work every day to sustain and maintain. We often understand what we can, and cannot handle.
Does any of this seem kindred to the guidance you’ve implemented for a case yet?
Here is where the comparatives between the basic emotion of fear between human and canine begin to split. I know as a human what triggers I personally need to avoid. I’m aware of what is unhealthy and what is healthy. I understand what has become adaptive and maladaptive. I’m aware of my daily battle to stay under threshold. I try to be mindful, adjusting as needed. I’m human, yet still at times I find myself largely unsuccessful.
I certainly don’t share my experience with potential clients, or really anyone for that matter. By far, this is the most public platform I’ve lifted my cover. If any pet parents do happen to be reading, please understand that personal conflict with a traumatic event or fear inducing stimuli should never be even remotely contemplated as a valued factor in decision to hire.
Our companions need an advocate.
Our client’s companions need an advocate.
Let us not forget, our clients need an advocate too.
They need us.
They need you.
Having this experience does not by any degree of measurement make me, you, or any others more equipped to handle such cases, not slightly. For me, these cases do allow me to turn my own reflection and perspective into a positive and empathetic understanding of what are still vastly misunderstood emotions and corresponding reactions. My experience offers me a unique perspective accompanied by unyielding passion.
I’ve felt that moment where it seems the world has stolen the air from my lungs, left gasping and panicked, grasping for reality. I’ve seen the pain it can cause, a domino effect to those who care most for you. I’ve felt ensnared, a prisoner to my reactions. I’ve also felt triumph. Triumph in watching a fearful dog, mislabeled as aggressive, take their very first relaxed breath when given the space, tools and time to cope. These are powerful, undervalued.
Their entire body loosely Shaking off their fear, you can almost see it rippling off their coats.
Their eyes soften, glistening in the sun.
Their muzzles relax. Indescribable beauty.
There’s nothing like it.
None of us truly know what fear or trepidation feels like for a canine, but if my skill set, experience and empathy can breathe air back into the struggling lungs of your companion, if I can offer comfort to you, the humans who love them most, if I can serve as their advocate and your support during the process……..then maybe, I’m doing Ok too. Maybe my darkness becomes your light. Together, with the help of a professional, their world shines bright too.
I hope you never forget what fueled your journey. Your passion makes you exceptional.
Thank you, for bringing me light.
- Jenny Lea Wyffels, CPDT-KA, Fear Free