My newly rescued terrier Dewey is, in almost all ways, an excellent dog. He’s energetic, inquisitive, friendly, and affectionate. But when we’re out walking and he spies another dog, he turns into a whirling, barking Tasmanian Devil. Luckily he weighs only eighteen pounds—any bigger and he’d knock me off my feet. Still, the prospect of a surprise canine encounter made me dread our daily outings.
So I signed up for a Distracted Dog class. I already had been working on undoing some of the bad habits Dewey had acquired over the seven years of his life before coming to us. He’s learning how to wait for his food, lie down instead of jumping up and begging, and walk on a leash without pulling. The challenge now is to keep his attention on me in more stressful situations.
Before the first day of class, our instructor asked us to send her a hierarchy of our dog’s top five distractions, much like the hierarchy of anxiety triggers used in CBT for exposure and response prevention. At the top of Dewey’s list was “seeing another dog approach while on a walk.”
In treating anxiety, I help people stop avoiding and start approaching what they most fear. I needed to apply the same mindset to changing my dog’s (and my own) reactions to the stimuli that send him into a frenzied display of doggie frustration.
So, instead of anxiously scanning the environment for other dogs in order to do an about face before Dewey spots them, I’ve started looking for ways to practice building his self-control. As a result, I’ve observed a dramatic change in my own (if not yet Dewey’s) emotional reaction. I’m excited instead of tense when I see neighbors out walking their dogs. I now interpret a potential trigger not as a threat to steer clear of but as an opportunity to seek out.
If I were drawing only from my personal experience, my method wouldn’t carry much weight. But the results of several research studies support my anecdotal evidence. Saying, “I feel excited” instead of attributing physical arousal to anxiety—a technique called “anxious reappraisal”—can improve singing, test-taking, and public speaking performance by putting people in an “opportunity mindset” even though the physiological markers of anxiety such as increased heart rate and cortisol levels remain elevated.
In fact, you don’t even need to tell yourself you’re excited; just believing that anxiety can improve rather than impair performance helped test takers score higher on the GRE. It’s a trick actors often use to cope with stage fright. Those who are successful don’t necessarily feel less nervous. But they’re able to view the fluttering of their hearts and rumbling of their stomachs as feelings that give energy to their performance.
Confronting anxiety is hard. You can’t make progress unless you’re willing to face the situations you fear. But changing the way you think about arousal might make it a little easier to rise to the challenge.
The people I treat for OCD hate it when someone says, “I’m so OCD!,” usually as a way of explaining pickiness or excessive neatness. I do, too. Not only does the comment minimize the severe suffering a person with actual OCD experiences; it also perpetuates a number of prevalent misconceptions about the disorder.
These myths do a disservice to those in the grips of OCD. Let’s set the record straight.
My dog Baxter died last week. At fifteen years and nine months old, he had reached the end of his time. He was the canine equivalent of a human nonagenarian. But, still.
No matter how expected, the loss of a loved one always delivers a sucker punch to the gut. It knocks the wind out of you and leaves a cavernous hole. When I come home to the empty mat by the garage door where Baxter always waited for my return, I feel his absence. When I’m doling out food for one dog instead of two, I feel it. When I’m chopping cucumbers for a salad and, out of habit, drop the ends on the floor for Baxter (whose longevity quite possibly was related to his voracious consumption of vegetables), I feel it. And when I see his unoccupied bed in the corner when I wake up in the morning, I feel it.
My nine-year-old Aussie Freddie also feels it. Herding dogs need jobs, and his was to shepherd Baxter around our property to make sure nothing untoward happened. Baxter once killed a bunny, and instead of partaking in the hasenpfeffer feast, Freddie circled the carnage barking while Baxter gleefully eviscerated his prey. Whenever I let them out, Freddie body blocked Baxter to control his access to the yard . Now he stands on the deck looking back, waiting.
I’ve heard some people say they would never have a pet because they couldn’t bear the pain of losing it. But protecting yourself from strong emotions, like sadness, only sets you up for more problems in the long run because experiential avoidance prevents you from learning you can withstand the inevitable pain and difficulty of living. And, by too carefully protecting yourself from feeling bad, you also risk limiting the full range of human emotional experiences–like joy and love–that makes life worthwhile.
So I’m embracing my sadness. I’ve made Baxter’s picture the lock screen 0n my phone so I can remember him when I text or send an email. The lump in my throat comes up every time. I welcome it.
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