Lessons From my Dog

I just picked up my dog to help her to the couch. Her reaction to me is the same, every day, every time. She turns her back to me, hunches herself up, and puts her head down. Her reaction, it breaks my heart. It’s as if she is expecting me to hit her, hurt her, or punish her. I whisper in her ear as I gently stroke her back. “Remember my sweet girl, nothing will ever hurt you here. Here, there is only love. Only love, Only love.” She lived her first six years of life in a wire cage, absent any human touch, love or kindness. She has been with us now for longer than she was in that cage. Everyday of her life with us has been spent being loved, gently, warmly, and patiently. Held and comforted, kept safe and warm, cuddled and cared for, reassured and reminded. Yet her reactions are so engrained in her brain, that I can’t undo the damage. She knows she is safe and loved. She knows she can relax and play. She settles into her bed, feeling it’s softness and warmth, nestles in beside me, smelling the familiar calm of her momma, hears my gentle voice, and her fear abates. But that fear, that sadness, that unpredictability… it’s never going to completely heal.

Sound familiar? It does to me. When we, or any living creature, are exposed to similar conditions fear becomes hard wired in our brains. Our cortisol levels are abnormally high, all the time. We become hyper-vigilant, always waiting, always on guard, ready to fight or flee. My dog is at the mercy of her environment and us, to rewire those connections. Although there have been big improvements, the residual effects will remain.

For me, for us, we have the benefit of conscious thought (although sometime I wish I didn’t). We can work to rewire our brains. And when I say work, I mean WORK! There are a number of strategies that can help with this re-wiring. I am not a therapist or a psychiatrist, but I am a person with mental illness and chronic pain. Some of the strategies that I have found the most helpful for me are also the ones that I thought, initially, were the most ridiculous. But I tried them anyway, what could it hurt, right?

Mindfulness is one technique I use. Remaining in the moment, whether good or bad, and just letting myself sit with the emotion, acknowledge its existence, thank it for it’s purpose and then asking it to leave. The asking it to leave part is the hardest. That’s where the mindfulness comes in. I shift my focus to the sensory information that is going on around me. Smells, sounds, sensations. It changes the direction of the hardwired negative thoughts and interrupts the signals to something else that is neutral or positive. Our brain reads everything going on in our bodies 30 times a second, every minute, every day. So if you spend all of your time thinking negative thoughts, or thinking about pain, that signal is getting hardwired, stronger and stronger every second. If we stop that signal, even once a day, we are working to not only, decrease the strength of the negative signal but to also begin rewiring a new, more positive signal.

I’m still in a state of mind where the negative signals far outweigh the positive. I try to talk to myself in the same way I talk to my little pup in order to remind myself that I am loved, I am safe, I am protected, I am okay. But I have to also keep in mind how long I have been building those negative connections and that it’s probably never going to completely go away. Just like my little pup. And it isn’t easy. Some days it just feels like too much work. But tomorrow is another day and I can start again and keep practicing. Some books that have been helpful for me are “Neuroplastic Transformation – Your Brain on Pain” by Moskowitz and Golden, and “Thoughts and Feelings” by McKay, Davis and Flanning. And of course, the Internet has mountains of information related to neuroplasticity and changing your brain.

Peace, Love and Healing to All

~Till I Collapse~

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37 thoughts on “Lessons From my Dog

  1. I was sorry to read about the past suffering of both you and your dog. My guide dog, Trigger thinks that everyone is his friend because most people love seeing him around. I work in central London and I am bombarded with kind offers by colleagues to take him for a walk every lunchtime. This is great for him as Trigger can have some time as a non-working dog (not on his harness). He often comes up to me wanting strokes and cuddles so I was saddened to read about the opposite reaction of fear by your dog flowing from her past treatment. As regards we humans, I find going for a walk is a good way to get things into perspective. It certainly isn’t a “cure all ills” remedy, but strolling in beautiful places is very relaxing. Kevin

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your reply. When I first entered my job, 17 years ago, my mentor was a woman who had a guide dog. Not only did I learn so much from about how to do my job, but I also learned a lot about guide dogs. They are so incredibly impressive!. And yes, walking with my dogs is one of my stress relievers. I love being out in nature! ❤

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  2. A terrific post and I have seen that reaction from a rescued animal before and you are right despite our own love and kindness they still have that ingrained fear that never leaves them. The same for many children who are taken into loving homes but cannot leave behind the abuse. Reading between the lines though it is clear that when she is relaxed and in touch with you she forgets for that moment and surrenders to your touch.. and you receive the same from her.. what a great thing you have done to give this. The rest of the post is also excellent.. thank you.

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    1. Thank you so much. It’s amazing how much love and healing we can give and receive from dogs (and other animals). I also have 3 other dogs, 3 goats and 3 chickens and no matter what’s going on, they brighten me… and that gives me strength ❤

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  3. The blogging community is a great support to those of us who have endured much pain in life, just as we are a support to others in pain when we share our experiences. This is a lovely and thoughtful post. Much appreciated. xx

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I have PTSD too and also find it very hard to really be relaxed. I don’t feel like it will ever go away. The mindfulness practice does help but it’s very hard to do. I used to get mad at myself for finding distractions that would take my mind away for a while. For some reason, I thought I had to feel bad all the time. I’ve realized though, that those distractions are good for my brain and are helping with that re-wiring. Since I have been diagnosed with RA, it’s even more difficult to find things to do that totally take my mind away. Keep practicing, our hearts deserve a break and I hope you can find some peace, even if it’s only brief. Be on the look out for it, so you can congratulate yourself for every moment you are able to even slightly relax. Love to you my friend ❤

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        1. Rheumatoid Arthritis. I’m going to go take a shower now and challenge myself to be mindful of the process and not focus on negative thoughts. Today I am in a lot of pain and my anxiety level is super high. Is there an activity or chore that you can do today that you can turn into a mindfulness practice?

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          1. I sometimes do that and fund it effective. Like cleaning the floor on my hands and knees but physically I’m wrecked today myself 😢😴 I will probably perk up after I’ve eaten. RA is nasty from what I’ve heard of it. 😑 Hugs xxx

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            1. It’s so hard to fight mental illness and chronic pain. It’s a mighty foe and I hate it. Maybe you can practice mindfulness when you are eating? I hope that you do perk up today and have some moments of peace. Hugs to you too. Stay strong ❤

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        1. I hope it’s ok… don’t mean to push my ‘solutions’ on you. We get enough of that. You know yourself better than anyone else so you need to do what’s best for YOU! I made it through my shower and did the mindfulness practice, but it was hard! The minute I stepped out of the shower I found myself thinking about my trauma filled childhood!!! Gaaaaaa!! 😉

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  4. Aww, your sweet doggy. I have a cat who has signs of PTSD, as well. I guess God puts us together with the furbabies that we’re meant to have. My husband & I both have PTSD, so we understand when Oli freaks out for no apparent reason. He seems to be losing his sight, now, too, so he’s even more skittish. But we love them, don’t we.
    I’m convinced that animals were put on the earth to teach us (especially we damaged ones) how to love and receive love. I don’t know how people can live without a critter companion!
    I like your blog & I’ll be back! 😃

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh yes. My animals are my life savers. We do love them so, and we have all rescues. I think that, in helping them heal, it also helps me heal. We also have three other dogs, one cat, four goats and three chickens. They make me happy 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh so many!! I’m jelly! We have 3 cats & the neighbors hen comes over for me to give her cat food. I want a couple of pygmy goats and a dog or several! You are a woman after my own heart!

        Liked by 1 person

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