Anxiety and Depression  |  Treatments

Animals, the Antidote to your Heart

BY MAUREEN HUANG

21 December 2020  |   6 min read

As a therapist who uses animal-assisted therapy (AAT) in my sessions, my therapy dogs have been a wonderful addition to the clinical setting, making therapy fun and engaging. Many clients enjoy patting or throwing a ball for the therapy dog to fetch while talking about their feelings and challenges in life. The therapy dogs are very sensitive to human emotions, and often step in to offer support by leaning in or putting their paws on them.

In a session with Alissa*, a teenager who was battling with depression and anxiety, she was involved with teaching Hope, my therapy dog, to run through a tunnel; it was a metaphor of her journey with depression. Step-by-step, she eventually succeeded in helping Hope run through the tunnel. With great joy, she exclaimed, “if Hope can find the light at the end of the tunnel and come out of it, so can I. Hope gives me hope.”

Indeed, just like Hope who eventually emerged from the tunnel, Alissa emerged as a stronger individual after working through steps to manage her anxiety and depression.

About AAT

Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) in the context of Counselling or Psychotherapy is similar to traditional talk therapy, but with a trained animal. Dogs, cats, horses, and even birds are common therapy animals.

The comforting presence of a warm, friendly, furry animal helps in establishing rapport  between the therapist and the client. Studies have found that the simple act of patting a friendly therapy dog helps to reduce blood pressure, heart rate and the stress hormone cortisol while increasing “happy” hormones, like serotonin and oxytocin — a chemical released in the brain which increases trust in humans.

These positive effects of AAT combined with psychotherapy contribute to the perception of a safe environment, the basis of honest conversations for effective psychotherapy. In the presence of an animal who is neutral and non-judgemental, clients feel less anxious and are better able to talk more openly with their therapist.

AAT is used in conjunction with talk therapy, where evidence-based techniques (e.g., Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Solution Focused Therapy) are applied to help the client develop healthier and more effective habits that can lead to an improved state of wellness. Thought patterns and behavioural inclinations that may hinder positive functioning are identified in the process of therapy, and clients are then equipped with actionable solutions to transform their state of mental health.

A therapist who is trained in AAT can tailor games and activities with the animal to help clients gain perspectives that are related to the challenges that they face. These activities act as a platform for behavioural observations that are drawn by the therapist, and extrapolated for in-depth discussions on underlying thought patterns.

This experiential approach is often more impactful than just traditional talk therapy alone, and the role of the therapist is to elicit key learnings that can be translated to life applications, helping clients lead happier, and healthier lives.

Who Can Benefit from AAT?

A full spectrum of individuals can benefit from AAT — not just those that are clinically diagnosed. In fact, prevention work done using AAT for the non-clinical population helps reduce the risk of these individuals succumbing to stress that can quickly deteriorate to a clinical diagnosis.

With the rise in awareness on the importance of mental wellness, more companies are turning to wellness workshops for their employees using therapy animals as an alternative to the traditional lecture-style wellness workshops. Individuals would be equipped with strategies to better manage stress and emotions, build resilience, and adopt a more positive mindset that would give them a leg-up in today’s uncertain and stressful environment.

One of my client shared, “When I think of seeing a counsellor or psychologist, I think of white walls and a very clinical setting. However, this broke the stereotype I had. Having the therapy dog around made me feel a lot more comfortable and relaxed. I used to have a negative stereotype of seeking counselling and was quite reluctant to seek help for my depression. However, after trying it, I realised that anyone can benefit from having a regular check-in to take care of one’s mental health and emotional well-being.”

Common Misconceptions

AAT is often misunderstood as simply a session where one gets to “play with an animal.” Instead, the difference between AAT and playing with a pet at home is that AAT is a goal-directed intervention whereby the human-animal interaction serves as a platform for a mental health professional to help clients with strategies to manage their mental health concerns.

People also often confuse AAT with Animal Assisted Activities (AAA). AAA is much more recreational in nature and includes visits by volunteers with their pet to hospices and children homes to bring them joy and cheer. Examples of AAA in Singapore, are those undertaken by non-profit organisations such as:

Counselling Practices that Offer Animal Assisted Therapy in Singapore

 

*Name has been changed for privacy.

The contributor is a certified Animal-assisted Therapist and the Director of Pawsibility.

Pawsibility is a counselling and psychotherapy practice in Singapore that gives clients the option of including Therapy Dogs in their sessions.

References

  • Beetz A, Uvnäs-Moberg K, Julius H, Kotrschal K. Psychosocial and psychophysiological effects of human-animal interactions: the possible role of oxytocin
  • Kosfeld M, Heinrichs M, Zak PJ, Fischbacher U, Fehr E. Oxytocin increases trust in humans. Nature

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