I wrote this blog a while ago when Bella was still a pretty small puppy. She has now overcome her anxiety about the car. In fact, she very readily jumps into the car because she knows that for the most part, going in the car means going somewhere fun – the beach, work, etc. But I wonder if Bella’s experience with anxiety might just help some clients to learn about anxiety management.
Bella is the therapy dog at Broulee Psychology and she has a bit of a problem. She gets anxious about going in the car. Now I know where this stems from – we picked her up from Newcastle when she was a wee little pup. This makes for a seven hour drive home to the far south coast and it was a particularly hot day (in the 40s I believe). Poor Bella vomited the whole way, which is not too uncommon for a puppy, but did not make for a very good first experience with cars. Her car sickness is improving as she gets older but she still does not like the car.
Now how does this relate to people anxiety? Well, it relates in lots of ways! To start, if Bella was able she would avoid the car all together as she does not like it and it makes her anxious. She often drags her back legs when it’s time to get in the car and sometimes I have to lift her up to get in. Usually once in, she is fine and loves arriving at our destination – even if it is just a visit to the vet for vaccinations! She loves it all!
Being a therapy dog means lots of car trips. She has to go in to the car for the usual trips to the vet and dog obedience but she also has to go in the car to the clinic and for fun trips to the beach. She is in the car most days. If she did not ever go in the car her world would be very small, confined to home and she could not work as a therapy dog. This is fine for most dogs but not for Bella the Therapy Dog! Also, if we avoided taking her in the car her anxiety would get bigger in relation to cars. This could make the annual trip to the vet very difficult as she got older and bigger!
This is similar to many of my clients who experience anxiety – they want to avoid what makes them anxious. This means that they avoid the anxiety but there are some pretty negative consequences too – their world gets very small and they might miss out on some pretty fun experiences. Also, when people avoid things that make them anxious, their anxiety gets bigger in the long run.
So what do we do about Bella’s anxiety? Well, we keep exposing her to the car and make it as positive an experience as possible. Bella goes in the car most days and we give her treats along the way. We try to keep car trips short so that she does not vomit and she gets very excited by the outcome of the trip – usually the beach or seeing people when out and about.
This is also similar to people anxiety as we do what psychologists call ‘exposure therapy’. This means that we help clients expose themselves gradually to what makes them anxious. Over time, we gradually increase the anxiety provoking experience until people get used to the experience and they are managing their anxiety. This is no easy feat but it is often quite worthwhile depending upon the anxiety presentation. Imagine being completely confined to your home for fear of anxiety. This makes for a very small world.
The other similarity is that often our anxiety or other mental health presentations tend to stem from something – either a single event (such as with Bella) or an upbringing or a series of events. Knowing the origin sometimes helps with our treatment, in particular with people. This is why psychologists often want to ask lots of questions initially so that they can have a really good picture of what has been going on and for how long.
Bella is improving over time with getting in the car. She is still not happily jumping in like Bronte (her older sister) but I am hoping that she may do soon, particularly as she gets bigger and harder to lift. We will just keep exposing her and providing lots of positive reinforcement. Sometimes learning to manage anxiety can be slow and take time – very similar to learning to manage people anxiety. In the meantime, we should go easy on ourselves and be patient.
If you feel like your anxiety is overwhelming and you are struggling to get on top of it, working with a psychologist can help. And who knows, maybe you and Bella could work together in session to learn the strategies. Bella is a very good listener and she loves a pat. Bella works with clients at Broulee Psychology to help make them feel more comfortable and at ease during their therapeutic work with the psychologist.