Finding Heart and Soul Connection In A Barn

I found my heart and soul connection in a barn.

    Hear this post on Therapy Chat Podcast  !

  Hear this post on Therapy Chat Podcast!

Note: this was originally published in 2016 and updated with information on the June 2018 2 day Authentic Self Retreat I'm hosting with Charlotte Hiler Easley, LCSW in Lexington, Kentucky. Register here! 

Yesterday I had a new experience which was a game-changer for me. I've been saying for at least 10 years that I want to take horseback riding lessons. I talked about it on an episode of Therapy Chat earlier this year, vowing that I would make it happen.

Image credit: Eduard Syslynskyy/Shutterstock

Image credit: Eduard Syslynskyy/Shutterstock

I've ridden a horse maybe 5 times in my whole life, all between the ages of 10-13 years old. For a time I was obsessed with them, as many children are. I grew up in the city but close enough to rural areas that there was one horse farm many of us knew to visit. 

Recently as I've learned more about equine-assisted therapy and the benefits of spending times with horses, I've become determined to increase the amount of time I spend with horses. I'm now 44 years old and my body has changed quite a bit since I was 13. I think it's safe to say that my heart hasn't changed much, if at all, though, as I learned through this experience. 

Before I tell you what happened, let me give you some information from Equine Assisted Growth And Learning Association, also known as EAGALA. From their website, www.eagala.org:

 

 

How Does Equine-Assisted Learning and Growth Work?

  • Horses are bigger and stronger than us. They are powerful creatures, and being around them can feel intimidating, which creates an opportunity to get up close and personal with our fears.

  • Like humans, horses are social creatures who live in herds. They have a social hierarchy in terms of how they relate to one another in the herd. Working on how we relate to horses is a way to work on how we relate to other humans and ourselves.

  • Because horses are prey animals, they rely on non-verbal cues to stay alive. Their lives depend on accurately reading these cues. Humans are predators. Yet for some reason horses are willing to interact with us anyway, if we let them know we are safe.

  • Horses know when what we are saying and doing don't match what we are feeling and sensing, even though we might not know. They reflect back to us what we are feeling and sensing, or the incongruence between our feelings, sensations, words and actions, even (especially) when it's outside of our conscious awareness.

The Shadow...Again?

Horses can bring our Shadow to our awareness. Yes, the Shadow again. As a wise person told me, once the Shadow is out in the light you can't ignore it anymore. I am finding this to be true again and again.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, check out these episodes of Therapy Chat podcast: Episode 53; Episode 38 with Renee Beck, LMFT; Episode 40 with Lourdes Viado, MFT, PhD; Episode 42 with Keri Nola.

So this is what happened yesterday. I went to a workshop on learning with horses. I gathered in a barn with a group of two other women, the instructor and the horse trainer. I really didn't know what to expect, because I haven't done anything like this before, although I have heard about it from fellow therapists. The whole experience was on the ground, not on the horses. 

We were introduced to two horses, a darker colored one and a lighter colored one. I felt super vulnerable and nervous. I wanted to know what to do and not to do, and how, and what was going to happen. I told myself to sit with the discomfort, knowing that this is where growth happens. Part of me wanted to relax, be in the moment, let go and see what happened. Part of me wanted to know, to check whether or not I was doing it right, if I was okay, to understand, to know why. These parts of myself battled for that entire two hour period. 

When we walked up to each horse I had lots of thoughts. I wondered how to touch the horse, if it was okay to touch him, and whether he would hurt me. I was acutely aware of how large and heavy he was, and that he could kick me, bite me or step on me if he felt like it. Then, I went a little deeper into my emotions. I suspected that he didn't like me. I felt self-conscious about being uncomfortable and worried who could tell. I was pretty sure he could tell, though he didn't say anything. I felt his soft, velvety coat and tangled mane. I noticed that he was beautiful and he looked like he had been through some things. I decided maybe he wasn't judging me as harshly as I was judging myself. This all happened in a span of maybe 2 minutes. Feeling a little softer toward myself, I approached the other horse.

One of the other women was standing with the horse, and I felt protective toward her time with him. I held my hand out to him, wondering if he was okay with me petting his nose. He gently nuzzled my hand. I didn't know if this was what they always do, or if he liked my touch. I awkwardly stood there for a few seconds, continuing to let him smell my hand and nuzzle it.

Then something surprising happened. He tilted his head toward me and sort of snuggled up to my neck. I don't even know what to call it. Immediately, tears sprang to my eyes. I felt seen and understood, probably better understood by the horse than I was understanding myself, at least in that moment. I had the strange experience of a felt sense - when you just know something that is coming from within. Your inner wisdom, your soul, your wisest self, whatever you want to call it, it tells you something from within yourself. It's more than just a thought. The felt sense told me "he knows I'm sad."

Image credit: Melory/Shutterstock

Image credit: Melory/Shutterstock

One of the reasons it was weird is because I hadn't known I was sad until that moment. I felt apologetic toward the other woman standing there, because the horse was giving me more attention, and because I was fighting back tears, which is pretty uncomfortable any time, but especially in front of a stranger. At the same time, I was incredibly grateful to the horse. 

As Brené Brown says, "Vulnerability is courage."

All of that happened in the first 30 minutes of this experience. After that we alternated between activities with the horses and seated in chairs. But more strange things happened. During the time we were seated in our chairs as a group, the horses were free to roam this indoor space. 

We were talking and I was continuing my struggle between the parts of myself that wanted to avoid the discomfort of this new experience and the parts that were trying to be open and let it unfold. I'll point out that while this experience was new, that struggle is not. In fact, it is quite familiar, if I'm honest.

I practice mindfulness by checking in with myself many times throughout a given day. I notice what I am thinking, what I am feeling, what my body is holding. I frequently ask myself what I need, or what my body wants me to know. There is always an answer, if I listen. What I often notice is this struggle to know, to have the answers. It is something that pops up when I am in situations where I feel unsure. It is an attempt to avoid discomfort. I don't do it consciously, it is a defense that I'm sure developed quite early. I know I was always praised for being smart. This quality is one that I never doubted I had, and I received much attention, love and acceptance around being smart when I was a child.  

I felt very uncomfortable quite a lot of the time during childhood, so this defense (it's called intellectualization) served me very well back then and it has helped me many times since. But it does get in the way. I'm grateful for my intelligence, yet I need to ask the part of myself that wants to know to step aside quite frequently so I can stay in the moment. It's okay to be curious, as long it doesn't take me away from the current moment. 

The Most Powerful Moment

So now I'll get back to the most powerful part of the experience in the barn. After the horse snuggled up against me, while we were sitting in the chairs as a group, the horses moved around the barn. Slowly they moved toward us. Eventually, both horses came to stand behind me. While we talked, one by one they slowly crept forward until both horses were standing with their heads over me. I wish I had a picture, because to the others in the group I must have looked funny with one horse's head coming over one shoulder and the other horses's head coming over my other shoulder. They kind of crossed their heads in front of me.

It was so strange, with a result that I couldn't see the other group participants. The group leader noted that the horses could have stood anywhere they wanted, and for some reason they chose to stand over me that way. They remained that way until we stood to do another activity, and then when we returned to sitting, they did it again, just as gradually as the first time. I can't really say what happened, other than the horses knew I needed something. But that can't be all because I'm sure the other group members were having their own emotional experiences in their seats. Yet the horses gravitated to me.

I think the leader was suggesting that they knew I needed either comfort, protection or something. She didn't come right out and say it (I think she wanted me to figure it out myself). All I know is I was in love with these horses. I felt like they got me. I felt like we had a connection. I am laughing as I write these words, but I really mean it, and I still feel that way, even though more than 24 hours have passed. In fact, I've had more experiences of self discovery (what I like to call shifts) since doing that. I am eager to do more work with horses and see what happens. It was truly a magical experience.

Why Am I Sharing This?

Image credit: Rob Strok/Canva

Image credit: Rob Strok/Canva

You might be wondering why I'm sharing this. There are a few reasons. First, I want to document this magical experience for myself. Also, I want people to know that spending time with horses can be incredibly powerful, almost unbelievably so. Some things you just have to experience for yourself, and I hope this article will encourage some of you who are reading to try Equine Assisted Learning and Growth. Lastly, I'm sharing this because it's important as a therapist that I live the way I encourage my clients to do. I've been on a journey of personal growth - intentionally only for the past two years, but probably for my whole life.  

I believe we never stop growing and learning (unless we refuse to try), and that we must continue pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zones, because that is where growth happens.

I can't take my clients anywhere that I haven't been. The more I allow myself to be vulnerable and expose myself to new experiences allowing me a deeper connection with myself, the more capable I become of walking alongside my clients as they are on that journey. I have seen this to be true, and I know as my connection with myself deepens my skill as a therapist will deepen as well. 

Next week I'm taking time to venture deeply inward as I spend time with an intuitive coach in California to reflect on the direction of my business in the year ahead and do more Shadow work (gulp!). This will also be a reunion with some beautiful souls who live across the country and I am so honored that I will be spending time with them there. More is ahead, as I head to the beautiful Hudson Valley of New York in November for a retreat with horses and fellow therapists and other healers. I can't freakin' wait. Honestly, I have been bitten by the horse bug now and I can't wait for my next opportunity to spend time among these amazing creatures. And yes, I am still planning to take horseback riding lessons. It will happen! I'm currently exploring various locations to learn with horses in a different way. That will be a new arena (literally!) for me. I know what Brené Brown means when she talks about Daring Greatly. If you don't know what I'm talking about, check out her book by that name.

So that is the story of how I found my heart and soul connection, with two horses and with myself, yesterday in a barn. I hope it somehow inspired you to get more connected with yourself. Let me know in the comments!

If you're interested in walking together on your journey of personal growth, and you live near Baltimore, Maryland, get in touch with me. You can also follow my musings on social media. You'll find me on Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook. And don't forget my podcast, Therapy Chat

And, if you would like to have your own experience of deep connection with yourself and with horses, join Charlotte Hiler Easley, LCSW and I in Lexington, Kentucky June 1-2, 2018 for a retreat combining The Daring Way™ with relational equine assisted learning. Get all the details and register before May 10, 2018 for best pricing! 

Wholeheartedly,

Laura Reagan, LCSW-C

Therapy Chat Podcast Episode 26: Using the Body to Process Trauma

Welcome! My guest today is Lisa Ferentz, LCSW-C, who is in private practice in Baltimore and specializes in treating child and adult survivors of trauma, abuse, and neglect. She’s a nationally known author, speaker, trainer, and consultant. Click here or on the image below to listen to today's episode! 

What you’ll hear in this episode:

  • After 32 years in private practice, Lisa knows that trauma survivors use coping strategies such as eating disorders, addictions, self-mutilation, depression, anxiety, and relationship problems. 
  • Lisa does consulting work for clinicians in the US and Canada; she has written two books and has two more in process. Lisa is an expert on Dissociative Identity Disorder and consulting with her is a great way for clinicians who are less experienced in this work to help their clients most effectively.
  • Early in her practice, Lisa realized how important it is to approach her work from the viewpoint of being a good student and learning from your clients.
  • In the exciting world of therapy today, incredible connections are being made between trauma and the impact on the brain.
  • Lisa advises that clinicians be more aware and mindful in working with the body in trauma work.
  • Lisa explains “dual awareness,” meaning being aware of what’s happening in both the client’s and clinician’s body during therapy.
  • Lisa explains the “vasovagal zone” of the body and tracking sensations in the area that houses 80% of emotions.
  • Trauma is stored visually and viscerally, and can present with actual physical pain, such as:
    • Limb pain
    • Fibromyalgia
    • Chronic migraines
    • Stomach/GI upset
    • Fatigue 
  • One technique is to start with the body and work your way into words to deal with trauma.
  • Movement and expressive arts can also be used in trauma therapy.
  • Simplistic art therapy strategies can open the door to visually-based modality when a client is unable to communicate with words.
  • Lisa uses drawing, collaging, and sand tray art so a client can SHOW their narrative, share a memory, or process an emotion.
  • Clinicians have to refrain from interpreting the client’s art for themselves.
  • Lisa explains the stigma associated with borderline personality disorder as opposed to identifying the same client as a “trauma survivor.”
  • Lisa introduces her books: Treating Self-Destructive Behavior in Trauma Survivors: A Clinician’s Guide and Letting Go of Self-Destructive Behaviors: A Workbook of Hope and Healing. One is for clinicians and one is for laypeople.
  • In treating trauma survivors, you have to give them new tools to replace self-destructive behavior—other ways to self-soothe and regulate their pain.
  • Lisa explains why she doesn’t like standard safety contracts because they introduce a power struggle between client and therapist.
  • “The goal is that trauma therapy doesn’t re-traumatize.”
  • Lisa gives details about her Institute in Baltimore, in its 9th year of offering certification programs in Advanced Trauma Treatment, working with expressive modalities and traditional talk therapy. The Institute offers ethics training and has graduated 700 clinicians. Her website includes a calendar of CEU training and the details about Trauma Certificate Levels 1 & 2.
  • Find out more about Lisa and her work: www.lisaferentz.com

I hope you enjoyed this episode, which was all about healing trauma. I'm so grateful that Lisa agreed to be interviewed. If you liked this episode, please visit iTunes to download episodes, rate and review! You can also listen on Stitcher and Google Play (available now in some areas). And for more of what I'm doing, please  sign up for my newsletter, and follow me TwitterFacebook, Pinterest, Instagram & Google+If you're a trauma therapist you may be interested in my new Trauma Therapist Community, forming now. Click here for the info. I look forward to connecting! 

Wholeheartedly,

Laura Reagan, LCSW-C

 

The Epidemic of Childhood Trauma

The Epidemic of Childhood Trauma - A Public Health Issue Which Is Preventable

On Episode 19 of the Baltimore Annapolis Psychotherapy Podcast I talked about a subject which is extremely important to me. It is an issue I talk about every day in my psychotherapy practice, as I specialize in helping people who have experienced childhood trauma. Many of us have experienced traumatic events in childhood and think "that was a long time ago, I should be over it by now," or "it happened before I was old enough to remember so it can't be affecting me so many years later." But whether or not we consciously remember traumatic events, they can still affect us. 

 

 

Click here to listen to this discussion in podcast form on Therapy Chat (formerly known as the Baltimore Annapolis Psychotherapy Podcast)!

CLICK ON THE IMAGE ABOVE TO LISTEN TO EPISODE 19 OF THERAPY CHAT!

CLICK ON THE IMAGE ABOVE TO LISTEN TO EPISODE 19 OF THERAPY CHAT!

And these effects are not only emotional - although the truth is that childhood trauma can have long-lasting emotional effects, including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Yes, you read that correctly - PTSD, which we usually associate with veterans who have experienced combat, can be caused by experiencing childhood trauma too. 

In additional to the emotional effects of childhood trauma, a large study has found a connection between childhood trauma and physical ailments as well. The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (also known as ACES), which was conducted beginning in 1987, found that people who had experienced childhood trauma had higher rates of suicide, mental health problems, addiction, autoimmune disorders, heart disease, lung disease, obesity and other chronic illnesses contributing to shortened lifespan than people who had not experienced childhood trauma.

The study also illuminated the fact that childhood trauma is much more common than most people realize. Sixty-four percent of adults have at least one traumatic event in their childhood history, according to the study. 

I'm passionate about intervening as early as possible to help people who have experienced traumatic events in childhood, which is why I decided early on to work with children as well as adults. It is never too late to work on healing childhood trauma, but the earlier the better. 

If you're in Maryland and you'd like some support in healing trauma click here to see if working together would be a good fit. You can also e-mail me at laura@laurareaganlcswc.com or call me at (443) 510-1048.

Want to hear more of what I have to say? You can sign up for my newsletter. I'm not one to bombard you with newsletters and clog up your inbox. I send them every so often when I have something to say that I think you might find useful. You can also follow me on TwitterFacebookPinterest & Google+

To listen to Therapy Chat, where I discuss trauma as well as mindfulness, psychotherapy, worthiness, perfectionism, self compassion and many related subjects, click here! Please consider subscribing on iTunes, Stitcher, iHeartRadio or Google Play if you like it!

Sources:

National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (n.d.). Effects of complex trauma. Retrieved from: http://www.nctsn.org/trauma-types/complex-trauma/effects-of-complex-trauma

Stevens, J.E. (n.d.). ACES 101. Retrieved from: http://acestoohigh.com/aces-101/

Stevens, J.E. (n.d.). Got your ACE score? Retrieved from: http://acestoohigh.com/got-your-ace-score/

United States Centers for Disease Control. (2014, May 13). Injury prevention and control: Division of violence prevention. Retrieved from:http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/