Disorders of Connection

Disorders of Connection

In his latest book, The Divine Dance, author Richard Rohr quotes a psychiatrist friend of his as attributing most non-physiologically based mental illness to being disconnected from intimate relationships.  While he acknowledges biological and genetic underpinnings to the development of a mental disorder, in his view, “loneliness is what activates it.”

Maia Szalavitz echoes this idea in her book on addiction titled Unbroken Brain where she points out that addicts in treatment programs that emphasize supportive, empathetic relationships where they are treated with respect and dignity have higher recovery rates than those in “tough love” programs based on more shame-based, punitive principles.

We have a natural need for bonding and connection

In his exploration of what causes some people to become addicts when exposed to drugs and other to remain recreational users, Johann Hari notes in his Ted Talk: “Human beings have a natural and innate need to bond, and when we’re happy and healthy, we’ll bond and connect with each other, but if you can’t do that, because you’re traumatized or isolated or beaten down by life, you will bond with something that will give you some sense of relief. Now, that might be gambling. That might be pornography. That might be cocaine.  That might be cannabis, but you will bond and connect with something because that’s our nature. That’s what we want as human beings.

Research consistently shows that people with strong ties to family, friends and community live longer and have better psychological, emotional and physical health than those who are isolated.  They also report less depression and anxiety, a more positive self view and a greater sense of satisfaction with their life overall. Loneliness is not only a difficult experience emotionally, but often results in our making choices that negatively affect our psychological and physical health as well.  We may turn to addictions like alcohol, drugs, pornography, and gambling to fill the emptiness we feel inside.  Environmental stressors may pull the trigger on a pathway we are genetically pre-disposed to, like an eating disorder, that gives us the illusion of control and self-protection from rejection or other relational wounds.


Attachment and coping measures

Based on our early attachment experiences in childhood, when we are upset or frightened we either move towards or away from relationships for comfort.  If our needs were consistently met in nurturing ways by attuned caregivers in infancy, we view the world as a generally trustworthy place and expect to find support when we seek solace from others.  If we experienced neglect, abuse, or mis-attuned responses such as being ignored when upset or stimulated when fatigued and in need of rest, we learn that relationships are not a source of safety but of confusion or harm.  Our needs may be invalidated or negated in ways that leave us unsure of the accuracy or importance of our own feelings, wants and perceptions.  We become filled with shame, self doubt, and insecurity and seek ways to soothe and regulate our emotional distress since co-regulation with caregivers is not a reliable option.

Children have limited resources to turn to for coping measures.  Often food is one of the options available and rather than our eating being regulated by hunger and fullness, we start using food to change our emotional states.  Restricting can lead to a sense of euphoria and power.  Bingeing can lull our senses into a state of numbness and help us detach from painful feelings of shame or fear.  Instead of responding to physical cues of appetite and satiety, we eat (or don’t) in response to emotional cues.  Again, moving towards safe relationships can be a powerful interruption to these established emotional eating habits.

Having a positive relational exchange releases oxytocin, known as “the cuddle hormone.”  Oxytocin has been shown to regulate appetite, decrease hunger and increase positive feelings of well being.  This release has even been documented in humans who spend time with animals.  Petting a dog or cat can lower heart rate and blood pressure and release chemicals in the blood stream like oxytocin that decrease our craving for food and interrupt the emotional eating pathway.

Likewise, reaching out to a friend for support instead of reaching for that bag of chips or carton of ice cream can fill the void in a way that food never will.  This involves risk.  Food does not reject, criticize or ignore us.  It is generally available and delivers consistent taste, texture, and “results” in terms of the sedating or numbing effect we are seeking in that painful moment.  A friend may not respond, or respond in a way that feels unhelpful, which only adds to our distress.


Investing in healthy relationships

Building a strong network of supportive, caring relationships requires an investment of time and energy and a willingness to experience relational wounds and repairs on an ongoing basis.  Having this network, however, will increase the chances of a positive response to our bid for support and decrease our dependence on ultimately self-destructive and unsatisfying coping methods that only temporarily distract from our pain, rather than becoming a source of healing and recovery.

Healthy relationships are an important part of building resilience to life’s stressors as well as for recovery from addictions, disorders and trauma.  People who have developed an insecure attachment style due to early childhood abuse or neglect, or whose ability to trust has been damaged by trauma, may have difficulty building the positive types of relationships that promote healing and recovery.  

The Natural Lifemanship model of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy focuses on helping people develop secure, attuned relationships.  Experiencing a strong therapeutic alliance with a qualified therapist can help someone learn how to have secure attachments and create connected, attuned relationships outside of the therapy office.   Equine assisted therapy focuses on building this connection with a horse and then transferring the principles to human relationships with greater confidence of success.  

If you feel isolated or stuck in unhealthy relationship patterns, go to www.naturallifemanship.com to find a qualified therapist who can help.

If you work with clients around addiction, check out our Disease of Disconnection course, a trauma-informed understanding of addiction to reveal the underlying factors that create and perpetuate the addiction cycle.


Living What We Teach

Living What We Teach

Today is August 7th.  August 7th, 2010, Tim and I were married.  We had a sunrise wedding at the family ranch in the Texas Panhandle.  It was outside on a plateau, overlooking a beautiful canyon, so sunrise was about the only time of day we could lessen the chances of enduring the kinds of winds that blow houses over the rainbow!  


We did our first dance horseback to the song “I Run to You” by Lady Antebellum, and I almost fell from Zeus, my trusted steed!  We shared a communion of coffee and homemade biscuits with friends and family during the ceremony.  We then had tequila sunrises and a delicious chuck wagon breakfast, prepared by a dear friend.  The day was perfect!


It is practically impossible to think about our wedding and engagement, without thinking about our business, our first “baby.”  The weeks prior to our wedding we built a website, with the help of my brother in law, and started a business.  We simply can’t separate ourselves or our relationship from Natural Lifemanship and the idealized belief system at its foundations.  


A few years ago, Tim and I wrote the statement you will read below.  Natural Lifemanship has grown well beyond the two of us, but these beliefs are the hands that continue to hold us personally and professionally.  They are still the touchstone of Natural Lifemanship’s principle-based and process-oriented model of therapy.  


We are terribly imperfect at practicing what we believe and what we teach.  Tim and I are quite complicated human beings, with all kinds of baggage, and a fly on the wall would attest to how inadequate our best is in the hardest of times. Actually, our closest family and friends can attest to this wholeheartedly, I’m sure.  


We are so very different from each other, and there is a rub that doesn’t work each and every moment but does seem to work out most days.  So much has changed for us in the last 7 years, but what we believe has not, and our daily choice to try our darndest to care more about relationships than anything else remains.  


The statement below is what our certification students agree to before they complete certification in Natural Lifemanship.  Today, Tim and I reflect on how these beliefs have affected our relationship, our mission, and our passion, and feel blessed to be part of a community that chooses to attest to such a statement. . . and humbled by the many people whose work and heart have contributed to our mission. . .  and by each moment’s grace to change, grow, and, above all, connect.     


NL Ethics and Beliefs Statement:

As a person certified in Natural Lifemanship I attest to the following:  I believe the most important thing in life is connected, attuned relationships with self and others (including relationship with animals, my Creator as I understand him or her, nature, the universe, etc.)  All of life’s healing happens in the context of attuned relationships based on trust, mutual respect, appropriate intimacy, and partnership.  I believe strength is found in vulnerability, and that conflict in relationships can be opportunities for growth that can strengthen the relationship.  Therefore, regardless of the task or activity, a connected relationship with self and others is always the goal.

I believe that a partnership can happen when each party seeks to control themselves only, and true partnership happens when each party appropriately controls themselves for the good of the relationship.  I believe that if it’s not good for both, it’s eventually not good for either and that a one-sided relationship is damaging to both parties.  

Regardless of what is going on around me, it is possible to control what is happening inside of me.  Relationship with others, quite simply, flows out of the relationship with self (what we sometimes call regulation or my way of being in the world).  Therefore, WHO I am is more important than WHAT I do.  I realize that I can’t teach someone to do something I can’t do.  Likewise, I can’t teach someone to live a life that I don’t live.   As a result, personal growth becomes the foundation for ethical therapy.  The most important thing is to do my best to do what is right for my client.  I understand that what is best may not be what is easiest.  In order to do what is right for my clients, I have to know myself – my biases, my blindspots, and at the moment, I have to be connected with my own reactions and impulses so I can filter them.  Only then can I do what is actually, truly best for my client.  The team approach in NL affords me the opportunity to model a relationship where the NL principles play out and provide a space for the therapy team to notice and discuss biases and blind spots.  It is, therefore, my ethical obligation to foster a healthy relationship with my therapy partner.  Clinical consultation is a regular part of ethical practice, especially if I am working alone in therapy sessions.  

I believe animals are sentient beings, who have relational and thinking capabilities, and can be capable of partnership if given the chance to develop.  I believe that a good principle is a good principle regardless of where it is applied.  Therefore, all NL principles apply equally to relationship with self and others.  The relationship between horse and human is a real relationship in which relational patterns emerge, just like in any other relationship.

When NL certified, I become part of a community of individuals who are deeply committed to connecting with self, connection with others, and who strive for connected relationships the way it was intended.  As such, this community of practitioners strives to foster relationships that bring about healing for self, others, and the animal partners with which we work.

Six Signs Your Horse May Be Dissociating or Submitting Rather Than Choosing to Cooperate

Six Signs Your Horse May Be Dissociating or Submitting Rather Than Choosing to Cooperate

Many equine professionals have a difficult time identifying the difference between compliance/ submission and cooperation in a horse.


This is an important skill to develop for your work in the Natural Lifemanship model, whether you are practicing TF-EAP, teaching riding lessons, training your horses, or coaching a client in professional or personal growth and development. If you’ve been to a Fundamentals of Natural Lifemanship training, you may recall your trainers talking about the difference between compliance and cooperation. You may have experienced the difference in your round-pen work with the horses at your training.


Neurobiologically, in both humans and horses, the difference between compliance and cooperation is dependent on which part of the brain the behavior or action is coming from. If the action is done out of alarm, fear, or terror, it is originating in the lower regions of the brain, and is, therefore, compliance (I can’t escape this pressure or fight it and remain safe, so I must submit to it in order to survive).


Remember that compliance is an adaptive survival response. Cooperation is a whole-brain resilient response. Cooperation happens when the lower regions of the brain are regulated and the higher regions of the brain are able to communicate and respond appropriately. The horse makes a choice to cooperate, rather than doing what you’ve requested because he feels he must to survive.


In order to help you identify when dissociation or compliance is happening with your horse in your TF-EAP sessions or with your work with him, I have compiled a list of 6 outward signs you can observe that may indicate your horse is complying, submitting, and dissociating. This is not an exhaustive list, and is not meant to stand alone.


Please don’t walk away from this list believing that any time a horse shows any of these signs, it means he’s dissociative. Use your, your mental health professional’s, and your client’s discernment in understanding what is happening in the horse within the context of the relationships at play. This list assumes observation of a horse in good physical condition with no known health problems (horses with chronic pain or health problems are likely to be dissociating from this pain on a regular basis).


1. Your horse’s body looks relaxed, eyes may even be softened and closed, but the jaw is tense and tight. He may show excessive licking and chewing, sometimes exaggerating these movements.

2.  Right before the horse did what was requested, the horse was resisting (running or fighting) and began licking and chewing during the resistance right before he did what was requested.  Imagine a horse running around a round pen when you are asking for attachment. He runs and runs, begins licking and chewing while running, then suddenly turns towards you and starts walking toward you. That’s compliance, not cooperation.

3.  Your horse is complying with your request but is showing other signs of discomfort or tension such as: rapid breathing, wide eyes, whites of eyes showing, tightness in jaw, tightness around pole and ears, stiff and/or jerky movements, or head held very high with a tight neck.

4.  Your horse does what you have asked, then as soon as the request or pressure is released, he moves away from you as quickly as he can.

5.  Your horse does what you have asked, but when you change the request or change the pressure (increase or decrease) he doesn’t seem to notice. He may even appear to be falling asleep at this time.

6.  Your horse quickly starts falling asleep while standing up to the point that he is losing balance, his knees are buckling, and he is falling to the ground, sometimes hitting his nose on the ground before he appears to notice what is happening. His knees buckle and he may even rest on his knees with his rear still up and eyes still closed for a few seconds before either falling all the way down or jerking his eyes open and head up before standing back up. This can look and feel like your horse has fainted or passed out.


This one is seen less often because it is a more extreme form of dissociation for a horse. In my experience, this can be a good indication that this horse has a very strong pattern of dissociation and had likely been acting in a state of compliance and submission long before you observed this behavior.


Reccia Jobe partners with therapists to offer TF-EAP.  She also does equine assisted personal development and life coaching.  For more information visit www.pecancreekeap.com


To learn more on this subject join us at Interconnected 2020 October 21st – 25th – a virtual conference hosted by Natural Lifemanship – and participate in the following workshops: 

Hidden in Plain Sight:  The Signs and Symptoms of Dissociation Parts 1-3

Consent and THIS Horse Parts 1-2