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Individuals with histories of adversity have a harder time recovering from mental illness, and substance abuse than those without. Therefore, it is critically important to address the trauma from past adversity when addressing youth and adults given the lifelong effects and the subsequent intergenerational trauma that is passed on without intervention. Thus, a vicious cycle of trauma, neglect, and all the societal consequences that results.
Adverse childhood events (ACEs) are negative experiences that occurred in childhood such as abuse, witnessing violence, or failing to bond with a caregiver. As an ACE score increases, so does the risk of disease, social and emotional problems. ACEs profoundly affect the developing brains’ ability to regulate and establish healthy, connected relationships. Secure attachments early on are critical for the development of an internal sense of connection. The health and vitality of everyone is directly related to the ability to connect in a healthy way with self and others. This requires a nurturing, predictable environment where individuals feel safe.
Our brains develop through rhythmic, regulated, and predictable sensory input from the environment starting in utero. An environment that primarily consists of regulated, predictable, in other words, an environment that has rhythmic sensory input (sensations are how we take in the environment), allows for the brain to develop in an organized fashion, resulting in the ability to feel safe, trust, and develop safe connections with others. Whereas an environment that consists of arrhythmic sensory input, that is, chaotic, unpredictable, and overwhelming, does not allow for safety, and healthy connections with others is impossible. The individual is predisposed to live in the survival parts of the brain, where safety is not available.
In a stressful situation the immediate response works well, however, if the trauma is ongoing this response results in always being in a state of high alert, ready for fight or flight, or freeze, and “checked out”. Overuse of the fight-flight-or –freeze portion of the brain results in the development of faulty coping mechanisms to relieve toxic stress and attempt to manage their lives. Thus, people can turn to what they have available which may be substance use and reliance on other stress management behaviors such as smoking, drugs, and over-eating.
Trauma interferes with the ability to form safe attachments (i.e., closely bonded relationships). the child growing up in a chaotic, unpredictable home develops the belief that people are dangerous or unsafe and that connection to another will do nothing more than hurt and disappoint.
There is an innate need in humans to seek attachment, comfort, and safety from their primary caregivers. When these attachment needs are not met consistently enough, the child (and later adult) will likely struggle in relationships with peers, romantic partners, parents, teachers, and other authority figures, reinforcing the child’s suspicion that other people are unsafe and that they themselves are unlovable
As prey animals, horses are most often prepared to fight or flee when they perceive danger. Their brain development is organized as might be that of a young human child who is living in a chaotic environment. Trauma-impacted human and equine brains organize around the need for constant vigilance and preparation to avoid threat – their nervous systems are in a state of hyperarousal.
Like Humans, Horses Seek Connection For Survival
Both horses and humans also seek connection for survival. Most of us know that horses live in herds, and one of the most destructive things we humans can do to a horse is to separate it from its herd, which is its central place of safety.
The goal of working with horses, according to the Natural Lifemanship Institute, is “to help our clients develop relationships in which they learn to ask for what they need from others in ways that respect others’ freedoms, and to respond rather than react. We teach our clients to build a connected relationship by asking for attachment from a horse as well as detachment, or distance, with connection.”
The NL model is specifically designed for children and adults with trauma-related mental health disorders with emotional regulation is core of healthy connected relationships to self and others.
Model of Trauma-Focused Psychotherapy
TF-EAP utilizes attachment theory to build healthy connections through relationship with horses.