Friday, November 25, 2016

Forcing A Square Peg In A Round Pen: PTSD, Security and Autonomy

To very briefly summarize, a horse is a prey animal who responds best to prey animal body language, is repelled by predator body language and has a set of motivations and desires that are the polar opposite of those of predators. Adult humans evolved as predators and our body language motivations and desires are perfectly in keeping with those of other predators. Except...

for people who have experienced severe trauma. Whether diagnosed with PTSD or not, severely traumatized people, entirely without recognizing it respond as prey animals. That does not mean that they are cowards. It means that in order to survive their entire response to the world around them changes.

Again, to oversimplify, predators have as one of their absolute supreme desires to achieve autonomy and experience excitement. Their prey, on the other hand, have as one of their absolute supreme desires to achieve security and experience calmness.

Without completely understanding these concepts it is impossible for one to understand how natural horsemanship can so radically improve the lives of those who have lived through extraordinary trauma. There are many books to be written and studies to be done on this transformation and one cannot do it justice in the limits of a blog post.

But rest assured, it is real. I see it in our PTSD program done in conjunction with the VA. I see it in the lives of people who have been touched by our horses. Most of all, I see it as I watch Ashley Edwards doing programs through Road to Repair.

I do not believe that interaction with the horses using natural horsemanship in either a structured program or an individual journey, by itself, will invariably lead to healing. In fact, this belief is damaging both to the individual and the future of these treatment breakthroughs.

One who develops a trusting relationship with a horse and uses the insights gained from that experience still has a prey animal outlook. As the quality of life improves the predator outlook, which is natural for humans and is not a pejorative term, strengthens.

And herein is the danger. As changes occur the desire for autonomy begins to replace the desire for security as a primary motivator. The desire for excitement begins to return. These are good things, great things--but unless the person has first found a sense of security then it will be impossible to lead a functional life. Autonomy and excitement will not produce happiness or peace unless one has first found the feeling of security that has been robbed from them. That step is an absolute prerequisite for happiness.

As the desire for autonomy strengthens the threat is that one will come to believe that becoming autonomous, in what ever way one defines it at that point in one's life, will be the solution to the pain created by trauma and abuse. And therein lies the root of wanderlust--the belief that "all I need is a change of scenery" or, as Jimmy Rogers sang "When a man gets the blues, he hops on a train and he rides."  It is at that point that the desire for autonomy causes the person to leave every bit of the support system that they may have developed to run away to seek "adventure". The result generally being another round of depression and a downward spiral.

Gram Parson's understood, "It hard way to find out that trouble is real, in a far away city, with a faraway feel." (Hickory Wind).

And if you think that I am condescendingly saying that those who have experienced severe trauma are so broken and their healing so fragile that they can never experience the pleasures of excitement and freedom--that autonomy is simply too high a goal for them to aspire to you sadly misread the point. 

Working the horses, migrating away from a prey animal's instinctive reaction to the world and seeking to be, and becoming, fully autonomous is well within reach.....

....provided that one, in making this migration, finds security first. That will require a life of consistency instead of chaos. It will require the person to be able to return to those who help provide that sense of peace and security. It requires the person to develop a schedule and manage time. It requires that the person take control of the events around them. 

Security has many features, but one its most important features is knowing that one has a tremendous degree of control over the events in their lives and that knowledge comes with the experience  of consistently taking that control and noting the outcome. Winning begets winning. 

When that sense of security is achieved autonomy and its enjoyment becomes possible. In chaos there is not security.

Think about this simple example. I know exactly where I will be sleeping three Thursday's from now. Now think about how many people who are caught up in an existence where they cannot make such a prediction with any degree of certainty--and I am not even talking about homeless people, just the enormous number of people living without any control over their future.

Working with horses can be the most important step in overcoming a Hellish existence that many people will ever take. But healing is a process.

People who are hurting bad often approach healing with three different beliefs:

1. It won't work for me.
2. It will work for me and it must happen immediately.
3. It will work if I put everything that I have into it, struggle, fight, refuse to give up, take one step at a time and refuse to pretend "that everything would be fine if only (fill in the blank )

Of course, only the third belief enables healing.

The horses are the door. You still have to be willing to walk through that door.

Makes for an entirely new 4-H "Healing's Hard, Horse's Help"


George W said...

A better term is probably "taught helplessness." My own experiences bear that concept out pretty well.
Stuck in a situation one cannot escape from, managed by people you cannot necessarily stand....and isolated from those things which might help. Extreme frustration does not help.

Learned helplessness tends to lend an air of complicity.... Taught helplessness hits the nail on the head.
(The paths out are the same... I am finding new ones even now.)

Dianne W said...

This is an extremely insightful post.