With so much loss associated with the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s easy to understand why a significant number of mental health issues started rearing their ugly heads in 2020. The good news is, horses are a healthy coping mechanism for dealing with it all. In this two-part blog, we get some meaningful advice from Psychologist Vanessa Goodchild, for navigating the world we currently live in.
BY JENN WEBSTER
The western lifestyle ideal is sometimes at odds with the concept of mental wellness. While the notion of the tough, cowboy-type is romantic, it doesn’t always bode well with modern society’s embrace of safe spaces and open-mindedness. The year 2020 was filled with so much uncertainty and when you pile that on top of pre-existing problems, it has been very difficult for some to get back on the horse, so to speak.
Even with our beautiful landscapes and spacious country abodes, rural people are not exempt from anxiety nor depression. In fact, some research suggests the prevalence of depression is slightly higher in residents of rural areas compared to that of urban locales. Adverse weather conditions, lengthy distances from support or medical attention and long-term stress can all play a role. Add that to the social distancing measures, fear and the financial strain of 2020 and there’s a lot of turmoil with which to deal. As such, we’ve enlisted the help of Vanessa Goodchild, a Registered Psychologist and the owner of Solace Psychology in Edmonton, AB. Goodchild is very aware of the nature of the inverted world we are currently living in and the strain that has caused many people.
“Any change can be stressful but with Covid-19, we’re dealing with a whole other layer of stress no one has really had to navigate before,” says Goodchild. “Stress can tie in with depression. And our stress can result from our own responses to challenging situations – not necessarily from the situation itself. So it all depends on how we perceive our ability to handle hardship or challenging situations. Our perception is the biggest thing. We all have stress right now, but it’s our perception of it that can breed hopelessness and fear about the situation.”
The good news is, it’s scientifically proven that horses (as do many pets) help release oxytocin in humans, a hormone responsible for easing stress. That’s why even just the simple act of petting a horse may make you feel happy or more secure in the world. Therefore, it begs the question – are horse people at an advantage when it comes to feeling happier? Could this be the reason many people have seemingly “clung” to their horses, as opposed to letting them go? While we understand everyone’s circumstances are different and horse people can struggle with anxiety and depression just like the rest of society, we do know there are many benefits to being part of the “horse world” that may be more important than ever.
With Goodchild’s help, we offer some tips for easing the distress of this year, finding balance or even simply reaching out to others who may be struggling.
HOW REAL IT IS
“One in five Canadians will suffer from a mental illness in their lifetime,” says Goodchild.
“With depression there is certainly a biological component to it. You have a higher chance of getting depression or anxiety if your parents faced it,” the psychologist explains.
“Then there’s a psychological component: finances, debt, isolation (before isolation was required) – many of the things farmers or rural people are already dealing with. The more stressors you have and the less able you are to cope with them, plus less social connectivity, equals more chance of depression or anxiety.”
Goodchild also explains that brain chemistry and our environment can play another role in contributing to depression and anxiety.
“When we do the things that we love to do, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin are released. These are what we call ‘happy hormones,’” Goodchild states.
“People with depression have reduced levels of these hormones / neurotransmitters. Research shows that coping with depression means to have a mix of therapy, medication and exercise! Any kind of movement releases dopamine and serotonin. We get an endorphin rush from it, we feel productive and accomplished. And it helps with fatigue and motivation,” she says.
Conversely, we feel less motivated and more fatigued with depression. This is why our hobbies and doing things we love to do is so important.
“If a person is struggling with anxiety or depression, they need a healthy way to cope. It’s unfortunate that depression is so common among Canadians and what’s worse is how often it gets overlooked. So I always ask my clients about their coping strategies. How do they unwind? How do they deal with stress? How do they engage in the things they love to do?
“Getting sunshine, being active, connecting with horses and animals – those things can be really healing,” Goodchild says.
“Additionally, horses can tune into your nervous system. When you’re riding, a horse can sense your energy and tell if you’re nervous or relaxed. Horses can attune into your emotional well-being,” the psychologist explains.
The process of owning or caring for a horse also requires much responsibility. When you have horses, a lot goes into it – it’s not just about riding. Goodchild explains that caring for a horse can add to a person’s productivity.
“It requires a person to care for and nurture their horse, to show love and gratitude. It gets you out of your house and out of your work mindset. Plus for many, riding is an escape and a stress-relieving activity.”
Horses may also be a means of socialization, if you board at an outside stable or barn. Of course with lockdown restrictions in place to help mitigate the spread of Covid-19, many barns were forced to shut their doors to anyone who was not an essential caretaker of the property early in 2020. For anyone dependent on their time at the barn for exercise and as a way to relieve stress, this in itself could be very detrimental to a person’s well-being.
While it is possible to properly social distance during riding, immune-comprised or high risk individuals may choose not to partake in public barn activities at this time. That’s why it’s important to get creative about your riding activities, either by exercising at home or staying in contact with your fellow equestrians through FaceTime or phone calls. Or by trying to maintain connection in other ways. Some barns have even offered FaceTime calls for owners, with their horses – to help ease the uncertainty about an animal’s care and current health status. Worrying about a horse you own or care for, while trying to uphold social distancing measures is just another source of stress.
“Just because we’re social distancing and isolating doesn’t mean we totally have to disconnect from everything and everyone we love,” says Goodchild.