This Pandemic is Trauma for Us All

This Pandemic is Trauma for Us All

By Bettina Shultz-Jobe and Kate Naylor


We, at Natural Lifemanship, are seeing so many memes and posts encouraging people to take advantage of this dramatic change of current life – to see the meaning in it, to relish it, to consider it a gift.  While this is certainly not easy, many can find these sentimental reframes encouraging and inspiring, and through mindful practice can find a sense of calm about having nowhere to be besides at home with a partner, spouse, or children.  These feelings can win out over bouts of fear and anxiety. This is a good thing. That said, to experience the pandemic this way is a complete and total privilege – it is, indeed, a gift.  


Make no mistake, what is happening in our country and across the globe right now is trauma for all of us.  How we support each other through this will make a difference in how traumatizing this year will be for us and those around us, certainly.  But there are some (many, in fact) who are not encouraged by said memes.  Many will not be able to make rent April 1st.  Many can no longer afford to feed their children.  A record 3.3 million Americans applied for unemployment just last week.  Many are terribly ill and unable to get adequate medical care.  Many are experiencing toxic and chronic stress because their survival is in question.  To these people, the pandemic is not about leaning into a slower, simpler life. To many, what has happened so quickly in our country, is, in no way, a gift.  


Here’s the thing, whether you are in the very privileged category, the category devastated by the fallout, or somewhere in between, this is trauma.  We all owe it to ourselves to acknowledge it, at the very least, because minimizing the profound effect this is having on us all, will only make it that much harder for us to truly seek the connection needed to collectively heal.  


Our simplest definition of trauma is when the things we sense (see, hear, taste, smell, touch, feel) are unpredictable or arrhythmic. A trauma (or traumatic situation) becomes traumatizing when our bodies and brains adapt to tolerate the arrhythmia in our world – this is what it means to embody the trauma.  The more powerless, alone, and responsible we feel, the greater the survival concern, the more likely it is that a trauma becomes traumatizing.  In short, trauma has the power to change us, but what is traumatizing to one person may not be to another.  


We often think of war veterans and PTSD when we think of trauma, but trauma can result from many aspects of life.  Financial uncertainty, housing and food insecurity, dramatic relationship changes, chronic stress, and like now, natural disasters, can all be potentially traumatizing. Changes often look like heightened vigilance with increased anxiety, or the opposite, increased dissociation with a sense of “checking out” too often.  These changes affect our ability to function well in daily life – we are so anxious or checked out that we are unable to do things considered “typical”. We all have different thresholds for how much trauma changes us; our thresholds are influenced by how healthy things were before the trauma – our genetics, our intrauterine experience, our childhoods, etc.  


The good news here is that we can do things to build resilience to trauma and we can heal from trauma.  In this pandemic specifically, we know the trauma is happening and so we can take action now and throughout, to support ourselves and each other.  Many will be able to experience this time as a period of growth and transformation.  Nevertheless, it is safe to say no one will come out of the pandemic unchanged – but how much we change will vary greatly, based on how hard our history has been and how severe our current circumstances are during this time.  Some of us will spend more time at home, get creative about work and child-rearing, and perhaps learn to live with a little less. But some of us will lose businesses, livelihoods, even homes.  Some of us will experience significant health issues and perhaps even deaths. Many families will experience abuse and neglect. All of us will experience grief. What makes the same event hard for one person and devastating for another is complicated – It is vital that we acknowledge both are happening. Our realities of this pandemic should not disappear in a sea of “silver linings”.  


Some of us need to remember, without shame, that to be home and well with family, is a privilege.  To be able to work from home and care for children, is a privilege.  To have a partner, and to have them also be able to work from home, is a privilege.  To be able to buy food, even in fits and starts, is a privilege. For our children to feel safe at home is a privilege.  To be able to make the mortgage payment despite work adjustments and financial shifts, is a privilege. To be well, not in need of emergency medical care, not in need of hospitalization, is just good luck. To those who experience so much privilege, it is your job (at the very least) to hold space for those who don’t.  To remember, to do what you can to help, to acknowledge and speak up.  


So what can we do, individually and collectively?  It is tempting to avoid this question because of the deep sense of powerlessness it can bring.  Our stomachs drop, throats clench, and we become buried in scary news about the realities we are facing and then feel completely overwhelmed.  This is us experiencing the beginnings of trauma – our body and brain are experiencing fear and powerlessness. If we continue on this path, our brain and body will begin to habituate to these sensations and feelings until they become the new normal.  Fear and overwhelm will no longer be a state we are in, but a trait we carry with us always (this is what it means to embody trauma). 


We need to pause.  Put down the news. Move our bodies and breathe deeply.  Look or go outside and notice the movement of the trees and the way the light slants across the ground.  Remind our brains and bodies that we are safe, at least, in this moment. When our body begins to relax, our higher self emerges again and we remember that there are things we can do.  We can notice others in their struggle, we can listen, we can care, we can connect.  Some of us can donate money.  Some of us can give of our time – to make something, to support someone, to give something away, to learn more about what others are doing to help and join in. In this way, we feel empowered in the face of fear.  We can move through this time and not be traumatized.  We will be changed, but we don’t have to be traumatized.  Not everyone will be so lucky, but we can build a place in our heart to remember that.


Even though we are separated into our homes, we are not separate. Connection can happen at any distance, but it does take practice. We can be stronger after this – but for that to be true, those of us lucky enough to feel empowered owe those of us who don’t.  For that to be true, we must come together in community. We must move together. Sing together. Dance together. Those of us who are stronger must set the pulse – set the rhythm. We must bring those struggling among us into our rhythm and our fold. This is why NL is offering so many community activities online during this time of global trauma.  We need each other.  Join us. Join us as we seek to find rhythm together.  Join us if you are strong – we need you. Join us if you are in need – we’ll carry you.  Join us if you believe that trauma has the power to connect us all and make us stronger.


Check out the many ways that NL is here to support YOU (at no cost) during this time!

Want to become part of the best community ever, gain access to hours of rich online learning content and more?!!    Check out NL membership.  

Join our mission and our legacy by contributing to the NL scholarship fund.  Supporting even one practitioner in this field has a powerful and exponential impact!

Repairing Relationships When They’ve Gone to Pot

Repairing Relationships When They’ve Gone to Pot

Currently, many of us parents are taking the meaning of “work/family balance” to an entirely new level.  Our children (and maybe spouses) are home and we are searching for innovative ways to continue to support our clients and pay our own bills.  Additionally, we are part of a global crisis that affects us all in various ways.  Anxiety is high and there are no easy answers – this is messy!  Literally and figuratively – seriously, earlier today our five-year-old was sitting on top of a mound of laundry playing ABC mouse.  I started to tell him to get OFF of the CLEAN LAUNDRY, but then it occurred to me that there was nowhere else to sit.  Our laundry has simply taken on a life of its own around here!  I just took a deep breath and headed into our bedroom for our weekly, virtual staff meeting.   Deep, deep sigh. 

Each day this week I have been reminded of something that has saved us time and time again in the Jobe family.  We so strive to be the kind of family that engages in calm connection.  Connection before correction.  Relationship and connection before and above all else. . . AND we’re human.  Shoot!  I am just so darn imperfect – just ask those closest to me.  I’m passionate.  I’m direct.  I’m sometimes loud.  I sometimes struggle with anxiety.  I can be controlling at times, and I hope that someday my children will use the words “fierce love” to describe me.  As a recovering perfectionist connection not perfection is my mantra.  A commitment to repair has kept our loving family intact.  We regularly practice something we call do-overs – the opportunity to make repair in our relationships.  The opportunity to practice doing the right thing.  I hope to breathe a bit of life into what we mean by do-overs with this personal story.

To read more about do-overs read this blog by Reccia Jobe and Rebecca Hubbard. Do-overs Part 1: Building new pathways in the brain by intentionally practicing something different

  A few weeks ago we had a small Super Bowl party at our house after a long day of teaching one of our Fundamentals Trainings.  This means. . . I had just spent two days teaching about regulation and connection and healthy relationships . . . Then I went home. . . and started preparing dinner with our guests.  Within about 15 minutes of my return home, while my back was turned and I was chopping an onion (or something) I heard my 5-year-old scream.  The shrill scream of a child in pain.  I felt fear and the action I took was reflexive.  I experienced the kind of fear that is cued by something in the environment – my child’s scream and the realization that he was stuck in a kitchen pot (YET AGAIN!  He and his sister had been stuck in said pot several times over the last week) and in pain as one of our guests tried to pull him out!  This fear caused a rush of adrenaline with increased heart rate and respiration as my body naturally and immediately prepared for flight or fight.  (Here you can visit a great blog about the difference between fear, anxiety, and panic and what we can do.)  I did both flight and fight.  I reflexively ran to my son, grabbed him by the shoulders, and screamed “I have told you to quit putting your body in this pot,” and then I safely picked up his folded body and gently shook it until the pot fell off.  He was, indeed, physically safe, but I had greatly compromised his emotional safety – I had done damage to our relationship.  With wide eyes, he ran to his room immediately and then started crying.  At first, I went back to cutting an onion (or something) and then I felt an unconscious breath come into my body followed by a huge wave of guilt.  When I went into Cooper’s room he was crying.  I sat down on the bed next to him and asked if he wanted to tell me what he was sad about.  He said, “You scared me (then there was a pause) and embarrassed me too.”  I looked into his tear-filled eyes, put my arms around his little 5-year-old body, and said, “Oh sweetie, of course you were.  I got really scared and then I yelled really loud. . . and I did that in front of our guests.”  He interrupted me and said quite pragmatically, “Yes Mom you were out of self-control.”  I inwardly chuckled just a bit and suggested a do-over.  I said, “You are right.  I was out of self-control.  Do you think we could have a do-over?”  He happily agreed to this – he’s done plenty of do-overs so he was thrilled for this one to be on me.  

We went to the kitchen and I apologized to our guests and explained that Cooper and I needed to have a do-over.  I went back to the counter and pretended to cut something.  Cooper got in the pot (partially) and screamed in pain.  I went to him quickly, but this time I gently grabbed his shoulders and I said with warmth, kindness, and assertiveness, “Cooper please keep your body safe.  I don’t want you to get hurt because I love you so much.  This is why I have asked you to stop putting your body in this pot.”  I had a second before this interaction to think about how to best have a boundary and, in this case, kindly set one.  I try very hard to request what I want – in this case, for Cooper to keep his body safe – instead of focusing on what I don’t want – for him to stop putting his body in this darn pot!  Here’s a blog on this subject.  I then gave him a little kiss on the cheek and helped him out.  We had a quick discussion to review why it’s important that Cooper keep his body safe, and he made a commitment to never get in the pot again.  (By the way, it hasn’t happened since.  Fingers crossed!) 

We then continued with our little party.  Repair is more than an apology.  Repair has to be experienced.  We need to practice doing the right thing.  Practice does not make perfect, but it is required for improvement and growth.  We have to try.  We have to show up.  We have to be willing to make mistakes.  AND we have to learn to revel in the repair.  Embrace it.  In NL, this is what we mean by creating brave spaces.  Maybe while we’re at home during this time we can commit to practicing repair – there simply isn’t a shortage of opportunity for most of us!  Practice the kind of repair that moves beyond an apology, and means that we go back and try again.  This kind of repair requires grace and a commitment to connection from all involved – grace that provides space for do-overs, repair, and real healing.  Deep, complete healing and profound, transformative connection.  Y’all, we’ve got this!

Here is another one of our blogs that might be of interest to you during this time:

Is There a Difference Between a Tantrum and a Meltdown?

Cucumbers and Toilet Paper in an Age of Anxiety

Cucumbers and Toilet Paper in an Age of Anxiety

I think most of us are familiar with the sensation of panic: Whether it’s a brief moment of panic like when you realize you forgot an important date – like your anniversary or your mother’s birthday or a critical deadline at work; or a sudden, heightened moment of panic when you fear something horrible is about to happen, or when something frightening is indeed happening.

I remember back to a time in my early 20s when I was in charge of a produce department at a small collectively owned food coop in San Francisco. I was charged with buying the produce which meant I started work at 4am each day by driving the store’s ancient pick up truck to the produce warehouse district in San Francisco to pick up enough food to get us through each day or the weekend, tops. As anyone familiar with San Francisco can imagine, we didn’t have a whole lot of space in our little store. Certainly not enough space to store weeks or even days worth of inventory. I confidently accepted the position based on my qualifications of having worked on an organic farm. I knew how to plant and harvest vegetables – how hard could it be to buy and sell them?

I will never forget one day during my first week as a produce buyer. I returned to the store after my trip to the wholesale market that morning only to be met with the incredulous look of my produce-buying predecessor, who inquired with raised brows, “you bought how many cases of cucumbers?? And you bought zero cases of….????” Fill in the blank with any essential produce item besides cucumbers and it’s likely I didn’t buy it that day.

In this scenario the sense of panic I experienced occurred after the fact and was tied with the realization that, 1) I messed up and, 2) that I didn’t, actually, have a clue as to how much of anything I needed to buy each day. I had no experience upon which to base this knowledge. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and once I knew what I didn’t know, this caused some minor panic and anxiety. Would I even be able to do this job well?? Not knowing how many cucumbers we actually needed to get through the day, my rather blind decision to purchase way too much was also based on fear – the fear of running out. Of course, there is no greater teacher than the humility of recognizing how little we actually know, so I actually went on to enjoy a long and reasonably successful first career in the produce industry.

For our species, all variations of panic and anxiety have one thing in common – they are a byproduct of the evolved human brain. In a recent NY Times article entitled, “A Brain Hack to Break the Coronavirus Anxiety Cycle,”author and psychiatrist, Justin Brewer, MD, gives a wonderfully parsimonious description of the difference between fear and anxiety (together with its close relative, panic). Fear helps us survive. It is a conditioned response in which we learn to avoid life-threatening situations. The more primitive areas of the brain allow us to experience fear and thus survive as a species. Fear is tied intimately with the flight or fight response we share in common with other mammals. The wonderful thing about fear is its immediacy. It is triggered and we react. The reason fear has helped us survive is that it bypasses the thinking part of our brain. If we stopped to think about what we are afraid of, our reactions may come too late. It has to be immediate, and once the danger has passed, the fear subsides as well.

Anxiety (and panic) on the other hand, is a product of our prefrontal cortex – the most recently evolved layer of the human brain responsible for abstract reasoning, creativity, and planning. While our bodies are responding appropriately to a fear response, our prefrontal cortexes are busy cataloguing the experience in our memory banks and assigning meaning to it. The prefrontal cortex is like an executive director (literally responsible for executive functioning). It processes various sources of information made available by other regions of the brain, searches the memory banks, and it makes predictions about what will happen in the future. Importantly, as Brewer states, “If information is lacking, our prefrontal cortex lays out different scenarios about what might happen, and guesses which will be most likely. It does this by running simulations based on previous events that are most similar. Enter anxiety. Defined as ‘a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome,’ anxiety comes up when our prefrontal cortexes don’t have enough information to accurately predict the future. Without accurate information, it is easy for our brains to spin stories of fear and dread.”

I’d like to pause for a minute to draw our attention to these two distinct experiences of fear: 1) there is fear that is cued by something in the environment – something we’ve learned to avoid – like touching a hot burner; and 2) there is fear that is cued by our very own thought processes, which spin stories of fear and dread when there is not enough reliable information with which to make predictions. Both types of fear are experienced in our bodies as different felt sensations. The first type of fear may cause a rush of adrenaline with increased heart rate and respiration as our bodies naturally and immediately prepare for fight or flight. The second type of fear – that associated with anxiety – causes an increase in cortisol and a more general and pervasive sense of nervousness and unease.

In the state of anxiety, our rational mind is stuck, like the little spinning wheel on our computer screens, overwhelmed by processing demands and not able to respond appropriately or function.

To make matters worse, anxiety is contagious. Brewer goes on to say, “our own anxiety can be cued or triggered simply by talking to someone else who is anxious.” Our unease triggers another’s unease. This is also evolutionary. We are social animals, after all, who take our cues for safety and for danger from other members of our species.

So what can we do right now in the midst of this global pandemic and economic paralysis to ease our anxieties, and those of others? There are several things we can do, actually. But first, let’s start with the things that won’t work:

  1. When we are in a heightened state of anxiety, it will not work to try and reason our way out of it. Why? Because the very part of our brain that is able to reason is offline, or if you prefer a different computer metaphor, frozen like a spinning wheel. We need to reboot, which is something we’ll address shortly.
  2. Compulsively seeking out new information on social media will not work to ease our anxiety. Why? Because sorting out “real” or “relevant” information from noise and the echoes of a panic-stricken populace all require critical thinking and a well functioning prefrontal cortex. See #1. Further, the more we consume social media, the more vulnerable we are to social contagion. And finally, the way our anxious brains work is to take any new source of information and find within it the one iota of information that appears to confirm our worse fears. It’s so hard, I know, but please ask yourself how much constantly refreshing your Facebook and Twitter feeds are helping you sleep and think clearly right now.
  3. Stockpiling toilet paper and other goods will not put your mind at ease – although it will probably clutter up your house, considerably. Why? It will never be enough. We don’t know enough to know what is enough so we’ll never be able to experience the sense of safety and security that accompanies certainty. Our brain’s response to uncertainty is the problem, not a shortage of toilet paper. And there’s another reason – as we fill up our shopping carts with toilet paper, we are sending a signal to all the other shoppers around us that there is something to panic about, and they will start filling up theirs, too. See #2. Social contagion will continue to infect us and everyone around us until the dreaded toilet paper shortage is a self-fulfilling prophecy. On another note, I truly wish I owned stock in toilet paper companies right now.

What, then, are some ways to cope with this truly novel, ambiguous, confusing situation and the anxiety it produces, right now?

  1. Notice it. The first step is awareness. Awareness creates some wiggle room between stimulus and response. It disrupts the vicious cycle of uncertainty leading to fear -> seeking confirmation of fears -> picking up on social cues of others who are also experiencing fears -> acting irrationally based on fears -> cueing others to act irrationally based on fears -> which then heighten my own sense of fear. Repeat. We need to hit the pause button. Awareness allows you to see that button and gives you the opportunity to hit it. Each of us has some level of awareness but how we are able to access it at will and especially under duress is a function of practice. Mindfulness and meditation practices abound. If it works for you, it works. Just pick one and practice. Consider your trips to Walmart an opportunity to practice awareness of your own impulses. Notice. And when you notice, hit pause.
  2. Welcome it. Say what?!? Allow me to clarify. Welcome the feeling – the anxiety – not the situation. Why welcome something that we experience as so uncomfortable and unsettling? Two reasons. First, noticing – mindfulness – requires that we get in touch with the sensations in our body. If we’re always trying to escape those feelings, or we are simply being driven by them, we will be unable to be aware and to notice them enough to hit the pause button. Secondly, just the very intention and practice of bringing awareness and acceptance to the shifting landscape of felt sensations in our bodies involves neural activity that integrates the brain, building our resilience and our ability to calm ourselves when we are experiencing stress and anxiety.
  3. Connect with others. As human beings, we are social beings. While it is true that we take our cues for danger based on those around us, it is also true that we derive our sense of felt safety, security and belonging from others. How we connect matters. When I say how we connect, I’m not talking about whether we connect on Facebook or Instagram, I’m talking about how we attune ourselves to our needs and to others’ needs simultaneously. How we meet others’ needs and ask for our own needs to be met. When relationships are trustworthy, attuned and mutually rewarding, they give us incredible strength and resilience. They grant us the ability to feel safe and secure even while the world tumbles all around us. And the cool thing is, relationships not only CAN be built with social distancing – to some extent they actually MUST be built with social distancing.

At the Natural Lifemanship Institute, we teach people principles for building what we call “connected attachment” and “connected detachment” with a horse. These principles derive from human attachment theory and are equally pertinent to relationships with humans, which is why they are part of the Natural Lifemanship process. Attachment theory is based on observation of child-caregiver dyads, and how the child responds when the caregiver is with the child, then leaves temporarily, and then re-enters the room. After observing a number of these strange situations, attachment researchers categorized responses into “secure” and various “insecure” types of attachment patterns. Since these are formed when we are very young, they typically become our patterns of relating in general throughout our lives. This is too big a topic for this blog, but the point is that secure attachment – the desirable kind that leads to all kinds of good outcomes – requires a connection that endures physical distance and separation as much as it benefits from physical closeness. There is no secure attachment without connected attachment AND connected detachment. I’ve seen some memes circulating recently that advise “social distancing, emotional closeness.” Same idea.

To sum up, these are indeed strange times. The experience of anxiety during these times is completely normal and biological. Our brains are simply doing what they are built to do – help us survive in the moment while also helping us predict and avoid future threats to our safety and well being. Our brains are taking in information from all around us, and especially from our social sphere, where we naturally look for cues of danger or safety. This is not a time where we can reasonably assess how many cases of cucumbers, or toilet paper, are needed. This is a time where we are invited to connect with ourselves and connect – perhaps differently – with others.

To connect with ourselves, we must practice awareness, get in touch with our bodies – including the sensations of anxiety – and practice ‘the pause’ before reacting or being overwhelmed by the torrents of spinning thoughts. To connect with others – we are being asked to exercise “social distancing”. What a perfect opportunity to practice connected detachment. Hold your loved ones inside your heart with intention each day. Send them loving kindness. Take the time to chat, talk on the phone, video chat and connect in new ways. Take a hike in open spaces with loved ones and practice the art of being connected while allowing at least several feet of physical space between our bodies. It builds an incredible sense of freedom and autonomy supported by a sense of closeness, shared experience and belonging. This is the very meaning of secure attachment.

Interested in learning more about what is meant by connected attached and connected detachment? Check out these blogs.

Is Life Great?  This Too Shall Pass.

Building Connected Relationships

But I Miss the Caterpillar:  My story of transformation and loss

Spiritual Intimacy Grows with Connection through Detachment

Attachment and Detachment – How Does this Really Look in Session?

Defining Relationship Logic®

Defining Relationship Logic®

Sara Sherman is the founder of and a coach at Discovery Horse

Our business, Discovery Horse, has been doing a large volume of work in our community in MN. As our circle of influence grew it became essential that I have a succinct definition of Relationship Logic (the ground component of Natural Lifemanship) that I could share in our conversations with the community. I grabbed some language from the NL website and wrote a few words of my own. The following is the result of that endeavor. I hope it can be as helpful to you and your communities as it has been to mine. There are 2 versions. The first is a little wordier and clinical.  I use this one for conversations with other mental health professionals and their agencies. The 2nd version is shorter and more easily digestible.

More in-depth version:

Relationship Logic® (RL) was developed by Natural Lifemanship and offers us a way to bring sound, consistent principles to the relationships in our lives. RL teaches that building attuned, connected relationships is always the primary goal from which other desirable outcomes follow. RL offers the neuroscience that empowers us to identify relationship patterns while maintaining the belief that our brains can change through new and healthy experiences. The ability to identify those patterns in a way that informs both compassionate understanding and a clear path to healthy change is an essential step toward healing, growth, and transformation. The principles we teach are the principles we practice and model in all of our relationships. We allow simple relationship principles to guide us as we work to transform these patterns. Behavioral patterns, especially those acquired in the early stages of development, are largely subconscious. They exist in the body and manifest as automatic reactions to situations we encounter each day. They become habitual. The way to change old patterns that no longer serve us is to practice something new. RL principles may be practiced in relationships with other people, and even within our relationships with ourselves, our families, animals, and communities. As these are practiced both during sessions and in daily life, new healthy patterns for relationships begin to replace old patterns that no longer serve us well. Connected and attuned relationships lead to healthy development; they contribute to healing at any age and enhance well-being.

Shorter Version:

Relationship Logic® (RL) was developed by Natural Lifemanship and offers us a way to bring sound, consistent principles to the relationships in our lives. RL teaches that building attuned, connected relationships is always the primary goal from which other desirable outcomes follow. RL offers the neuroscience that empowers us to identify relationship patterns while maintaining the belief that our brains can change through new and healthy experiences. The ability to identify these patterns in a way that informs both compassionate understanding and a clear path to healthy change is an essential step toward healing, growth, and transformation. The principles we teach are the principles we practice and model in all of our relationships. The way to change old patterns that no longer serve us is to practice something new. RL principles may be practiced in relationships everywhere; with ourselves, our families, our work teams, animals and communities. Connected and attuned relationships lead to healthy development; they contribute to healing at any age and enhance well-being.

Get started on your path with the Natural Lifemanship Institute.

Qualified to Counsel

Qualified to Counsel

The horse doesn’t know who the client is!  This is precisely why those of us offering healing services in this field, must make personal healing, growth, and insight a priority.  This is one of the most important articles we have ever released and makes it very clear what underlies ethical and effective therapy, counseling, and coaching.  Thank you Kathleen! 

– Bettina Shultz-Jobe, NL co-founder

Qualified to Counsel

By Kathleen Choe

In the course of my practice as a Natural Lifemanship Certified Equine Assisted Psychotherapist and Natural Lifemanship trainer, I am frequently asked a variation of the following question by those seeking to enter the EAP field:  “How do I know if I’m too damaged/broken/messed up/traumatized to be an effective counselor (or equine professional)?”  My immediate response is always how encouraged I am that they are even asking this question, as it reveals a necessary level of self-awareness and humility which are two essential qualities for being an effective mental health provider.  (It is the people to whom the question does not even occur that I actually worry about).  While graduate-level programs in counseling are supposed to serve a gatekeeping function to weed out students who may need to delay or re-consider entering the profession, and licensing boards are further tasked with protecting the public from mental health professionals who knowingly or unknowingly harm rather than help their clients, aspiring, as well as established counselors and equine professionals, may want to consider the following factors in assessing their readiness/continued suitability to offer mental health services to others:

  1. Personal Therapy

One cannot understand the unique experience of being a client unless one has actually been a client.  We are not objective enough to rationally and realistically observe ourselves and the impact our experiences, particularly those early in our childhood, have had on our growth and development.  The vulnerability of sitting in a waiting room after having filled out paperwork asking intrusive questions of a very personal nature, to see a stranger we have never met yet who will hear our deepest, darkest, most shame-filled utterances is an experience we need to keep fresh in our memories in order to meet our clients in that exposed, tender, sacred space with gentleness and respect for the tremendous risk these people are taking by even walking through our doors.  The most effective therapists I know have an established relationship with their own personal counselor whom they check in with at regular intervals, whether that means weekly, monthly, quarterly or yearly, depending on what they together determine is an appropriate level of support at any given time.  Horses quickly discern dysregulation in a human and do not discriminate between the therapy team and the client; your equine partner will react not only to your client’s incongruence but also to any unfinished work you have to do yourself as well.

  1. Understand your Attachment Style

Whether you practice counseling from an attachment perspective or not, your attachment style, or the way you relate to yourself and others, is heavily influenced and shaped by your earliest interactions with your caregivers in infancy, and will have a tremendous impact on how you respond (or react) to your clients, horses, and other members of your therapy team.  If you have an insecure attachment pattern that you have not recognized and done some work on understanding how it might influence your interactions with others (see point #1), you may get triggered by certain clients who activate coping strategies you developed earlier in life to keep yourself safe.  Whether you lean towards an entangled, dismissive or disorganized attachment pattern, the goal is to continue working towards an earned secure attachment from which you can relate to yourself and others from a centered, compassionate, grounded, non-reactive stance.  Cradled By Therapy is an excellent article on this topic.

  1. Understand the Concepts of Transference and Counter-Transference

Transference is when a client projects his or her feelings and perceptions onto the therapist, and counter-transference is when the therapist does this back onto the client.  Both occurrences are inevitable in the counseling process, but it is the therapist’s responsibility to recognize when this is happening (see point #1) and bring the transference dynamic to the client’s awareness to explore how this unconscious process is affecting his or her relationships outside of the counseling office while managing the counter-transference dynamic so that it doesn’t sabotage the therapeutic process.  When doing EAP there are even more moving parts as it relates to these concepts, as transference and counter-transference can also occur with the horse and within your therapy team.  Self-awareness is key as we help our clients recognize and unpack projections, as we contain and process counter-transference, and as we model a healthy relationship between the mental health and equine professional.

  1. Be Trauma-Informed

This applies both to yourself, your clients, the therapy team, and your horses.  Experiencing any type of trauma (and some would argue, who hasn’t?) does not disqualify a person from entering the counseling field, in fact, personal suffering can deepen our appreciation of and capacity for empathy for our client’s suffering.   We do not have to have experienced exactly the same types of trauma our clients did in order to have a baseline of understanding for how they have been impacted, as we generally share similar neurobiological wiring and responses to fear and pain as humans.  How our brains developed, and our personalities were shaped, however, will depend a great deal on the type of environment we come from (beginning in the womb), as well as our basic personality type, heredity, access to support, and ongoing life experiences.  Having a coherent narrative of your life up until this point, especially about your childhood experiences, is essential to having an organized attachment style and the ability to contain your own trauma material when necessary to work effectively with a client (see point #1).  The Natural Lifemanship Institute offers a variety of both live and online trainings with life-changing content concerning the science of neurodevelopment and the essential ingredients of trauma-informed care.

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  1. Know when to Refer

There may be clients you refer to other professionals when their particular presenting issues are potentially triggering for you or are outside of your scope of expertise and training.   We cannot be the “right fit” for all the clients seeking our services.  With the explosion of research and new information emerging daily about the origins and best treatment practices for various mental disorders, it is increasingly difficult to be a generalist in the counseling field any longer.  Our responsibility as therapists and equine professionals is to make sure each client gets the best help possible, and this may require referring to a colleague who specializes in a particular area.  This is particularly important in the field of EAP, as many clients seek this alternative form of therapy as a last resort. Additionally, in this field, making referrals can be difficult because often other programs that offer EAP services are not available. Nonetheless, understanding your limitations, working within your scope of practice, establishing clear social contracts with your clients, and setting realistic expectations for vulnerable populations is key.  There are also times when we simply cannot contain our own trauma material sufficiently to remain effective with particular client populations.  After my most recent assault, I stopped taking referrals for new clients presenting with this issue and was careful to seek peer consultation when working with clients with assault histories already on my caseload to deal with the inevitable triggers and counter-transference that surfaced during sessions to minimize the impact on my ability to continue to do good work. Of course, I sought personal therapy as well (see point #1).

  1. Practice Effective Self-Care

While therapists often preach self-care to their clients, they are notoriously poor at practicing this themselves.  I added the word “effective” because self-care can seem like an oxymoron as it is not always relaxing and soothing; it can be very hard work at times (going to the gym or the dentist come to mind).  Generally, the four areas I explore with clients are (1) Nutrition (2) Movement (3) Sleep and (4) Stress Management.  I challenge therapists to have a self-care plan in each of these areas. (If self-care is a challenge for you, see point #1).

  1. Seek Support

The counseling profession can be extremely isolating.  Even in a group practice or agency setting, counselors usually work alone in offices, spending hours each day listening to trauma-filled stories of people in extreme pain.  Due to confidentiality constraints, counselors cannot share the content of these stories or any other identifying information with others.  Supervision, mentorship, and consultation are all effective ways to seek support and input from colleagues in the field who can objectively offer guidance for difficult cases and validation when we feel overwhelmed or stuck.  Another powerful avenue is seeking support from a personal counselor (see point #1).  The Natural Lifemanship model of EAP involves a team approach to counseling by pairing a mental health professional with an equine professional to better serve the client (and equine!). Working as a team buffers some of the stress and isolation that solo practitioners may experience, providing opportunities for support during the session and debriefing afterward. The equine member of the team both offers (and requires) support as well!

  1. Pursue a Solid Education

While the capacity for empathy and a desire to help others are certainly necessary qualifiers for anyone interested in becoming a therapist, wishing to do good and being qualified to do so are very different things.  While effective therapists tend to have good intuition and discernment, these alone do not prepare a person to be a skilled and effective counselor.  There is a body of knowledge, including information about human growth and development, theories about personality development and how people change, ethics and laws governing the profession, etc. that provides a solid foundation for a would-be counselor to learn and integrate into their own personal style of providing therapy.  Most graduate programs require their students to participate in their own personal counseling (see point #1).

The desire to become a therapist is often borne out of a personal experience with trauma that we wish to help others avoid or overcome.  It is imperative that we not seek to heal ourselves by trying to help others heal.  We need to have done significant work on our own issues before we presume to help others with theirs.  This does not mean that we need to be “perfectly” healed.  Some of our issues may remain a struggle for a lifetime.  I believe the standard for therapists and equine professionals is “sufficient recovery” which means that our issues do not interfere with but actually inform and inspire our work with others.


Are you looking for a place where you can learn and receive all the things mentioned above in this article?

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When the future is uncertain, staying grounded becomes both necessary and transformational – for each of us, as well as our clients and horses. Our personal growth and healing impacts our professional growth and ripples out into the community.  Join us for this experiential and highly unique online event and participate in over 75 workshops that are trauma informed, somatic, movement, and attachment focused!

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