Updated: Nov 2, 2020
I spend most of my time surrounded by animals and I always find it fascinating to compare what animals seem to experience with what we experience.
These days, there is more and more talk about growing anxiety as people have to find ways to deal with the coronavirus, lockdowns and the economic downturn that ensues. But animals too experience dramatic changes in their environments, from being separated at a young age from their mothers and changing surroundings as they are sold from one owner to another.
Here are a few things we can learn from animals when it comes to understanding anxiety:
#1 Anxiety is natural, and it is useful
Most, if not all, of the emotions we feel have an evolutionary purpose and anxiety is no exception.
Anxiety, similarly to fear, anger and stress, is there to keep us safe and to prepare our bodies and minds for action in the face of danger. When our brain picks up on something that threatens us, it sends a message (the emotion) to our body to act. That message can be anger (fight response), it can be a flight response (fear) and it can even be a freeze response.
Anxiety, similarly to fear, anger and stress, is there to keep us safe and to prepare our bodies and minds for action in the face of danger.
There is a tendency to conflate fear, stress and anxiety but these are not the same. The main difference between anxiety and the other two is that, with stress and fear you know what the cause is. With anxiety, you don’t.
Another aspect of anxiety is a general feeling that you don’t have control over the situation. In a rather dramatic way, the writer Stossel described anxiety as “apprehension about future suffering — the fearful anticipation of an unbearable catastrophe one is hopeless to prevent.”
But the body and mind, over millions of years of evolution, have developed anxiety precisely as a way to prepare us and get us ready to act against a threat that is unclear or even unknown. If you think about it in those terms, anxiety is, indeed, a pretty useful tool.
For instance, if you observe a horse in a new environment or if you separate a horse from his herd, you will see signs of anxiety. This is his body’s way of preparing to deal with potential threats. If he didn’t have anxiety, he would be less equipped to survive.
#2 Anxiety is an issue when it becomes dysfunctional
With animals, when we see signs of anxiety in what should be a safe, relaxing place, we know that anxiety has become dysfunctional. It means that the brain is perceiving a potential (unknown) threat where there shouldn’t be any.
This is the same with us. When we are unable to relax (or sleep!), when we feel constantly on edge, these are usually signs that our anxiety is not working properly.
A note on trauma
Anxiety often becomes dysfunctional as a result of a trauma. A trauma is basically something that we weren’t prepared for that threatened our sense of safety. It is traumatic because the body and mind will then spend an undue amount of energy trying to keep us safe, having failed to do so at that specific instance.
Researchers have found evidence of anxiety disorders in animals too as a result of traumatic events. Some very sad examples include elephants who saw herd members being killed by poachers (apparently, they can even have nightmares) as well as monkeys who were tested on in labs.
Dysfunctional anxiety is particularly problematic because the emotion is designed to keep the mind and body in a high state of alert, something which we cannot do for a prolonged period of time. And if we do, it takes a serious toll on our body as well as our mind.
Dysfunctional anxiety is particularly problematic because the emotion is designed to keep the mind and body in a high state of alert, something which we cannot do for a prolonged period of time.
Dysfunctional anxiety can also seem very difficult to overcome because of its purpose to keep us safe and the fact that the cause is often unclear.
In other words, anxiety can quickly become a self-reinforcing and exhausting cycle we struggle to get out of.
#3 Anxiety manifests itself in unusual ways
As we saw above, dysfunctional anxiety keeps the body and mind in a heightened sense of alert and danger, something that our body and mind were not designed to handle over prolonged periods of time.
As such, anxiety can manifest itself in unobvious ways. One example is self harm. I have personally seen horses and dogs bite and chew themselves to the blood in anxiety. Other not-so-obvious signs include aggression, destroying things and, something that vets often talk about, disobedience.
Again, it is the same with us. We may “act out” our anxiety by being aggressive, short tempered, by isolating ourselves or by harming ourselves. In fact, the body and mind will find any way they can to deal with and release the constant pressure that is being built up by constant anxiety.
#4 It can be overcome
Having worked with rescued animals for a few years now, I can say that it is definitely possible to overcome dysfunctional anxiety - and that without medication.
Because so much anxiety comes from a sense of powerlessness and a sense of danger, one of the key ways to overcome it is by learning how to take over control again - or at least overcome our belief that we are not in control and overcome our belief that we are in constant danger.
For that, it is also important to understand what is fuelling our anxiety.
If this is a topic you are interested in, and if you would like to work on your own anxiety or help others around you who suffer from it, I invite you to join a FREE webinar I will do on the topic.