Mutts mirror us.
My therapist has only given me three pieces of advice during the entire time that I’ve met with her (mostly just listens and asks thought-provoking questions):
- Consult with your physician about taking anxiety medication.
- Meet with the kindly lady chaplain whom my therapist knows, so I would have an additional social-emotional support during the week.
- Volunteer at the local animal shelter since she noticed I seemed much calmer when discussing my experiences interacting with dogs.
Over the last year or so, I’ve completed Items 1 and 2 on the above list, but was still trying to find time to address Item 3: Volunteer at the local animal shelter. I finally made the drive out to the country today to find the animal shelter and loved the experience of socializing and walking with a dog. I found myself making casual conversation with Priscilla as we walked, saying things such as “Oh you like those trees, huh?” As I walked around the green space with her, I was reminded of something my therapist said a while ago, “Dogs mirror us [our emotional states] — that’s why they’re comforting to people who experience anxiety.” She reminded me that if I ever get a dog, to find one that’s mellow, not nervous, probably because people tend to pick dogs that share their temperaments (e.g., hard-core runners who adopt greyhounds) .
The universe has a strange sense of humor. When one of the shelter managers handed me Priscilla’s leash, he told me, “She doesn’t like to get too close to other dogs, but she loves people.” Priscilla is such a sweet dog; like most dogs, she loves to have someone scratch her head, stroke her back, and rub her belly. I noticed how fearful she was of other dogs when we reached the edge of her comfort zone. I’ve felt a similar fear response myself: She froze, and her tail pointed straight behind her. Poor dear. In those moments, I said calming things and found myself identifying with her anxiety. Mostly we just walked around the trees, as I jabbered on and she sniffed interesting things, and as we avoided the other dogs. When it was time for me to return Priscilla to her kennel, she appeared increasingly fearful, the closer she got to the other dogs. Every few yards, she paused for a minute and indicated that she wished to be petted. Then I guided her back toward the kennels.
Apparently I can visit the shelter multiple days a week to volunteer, so I will probably see Priscilla and dogs like her in the coming weeks and months. It was strange for me to think about how Priscilla felt just as uncomfortable around other dogs as I feel around people sometimes. In a way, the experience of being with her through that fear of others was vaguely comforting because I felt understood. Priscilla got it somehow, which was wonderful since it’s so hard to explain clinically significant levels of anxiety to those who’ve never experienced them before.
Having an anxiety spectrum condition is like being in a club that you never really asked to join, but you deeply respect and hear the stories of its fellow members anyway.