I learned a new term this week: “trigger-stacking.” I wasn’t attending a professional conference or catching up on my journals. I heard the phrase from a veterinary behaviorist.
Six months ago we adopted Clifford, a three-year-old Australian Shepherd who had been a stray in rural New Jersey. Let’s just say the adjustment has been very rough.
During the three-hour drive from New Jersey, he draped himself across my lap, instantly claiming me as his ”person.” But he has what the Aussie rescue groups euphemistically call “a strong guardian instinct,” causing him to be overly protective of his turf, his food, his toys, and…me. So from the moment he entered our house, he treated my husband as an enemy invader.
Whenever my husband crossed a threshold into a room I was in, Clifford launched a canine air-missile strike. We began to feel under siege, on constant alert for the next attack.
Fast forward six months. Thankfully, through a combination of medication prescribed by the veterinary behaviorist and lots of counter-conditioning—which derives from the same learning principles underpinning the treatment approaches I use for anxiety—we now have a much more relaxed dog. I’ve stopped my Google searches for “Farms that Take Unadoptable Animals,” and Clifford has gradually been forming a tentative bond with my husband. We’re cautiously optimistic.
But because behavior modification isn’t linear, the aggressive displays we’ve been working so hard to eliminate will occasionally resurface. And even though I should know better, I was disheartened one day last week to observe a spike in Clifford’s territorial barking along with his refusal to come back into the house after he went out in the yard while I was at work. He stood on the deck for two hours, nervously casting glances at my husband, who tried to lure him back inside with a smorgasbord of tasty treats. Even steak couldn’t entice him.
After reviewing the behavioral log I keep to remind myself of Clifford’s progress (a practice I heartily recommend, by the way, if you’re working on changing your own behavior), the cause of his regression became clear: trigger-stacking.
I identified three major triggers, each of which individually heightened Clifford’s arousal and, cumulatively, pushed him over the edge: 1) A stressful visit to the vet for a vaccination the previous day; 2) Loud noises overhead while workmen repaired our roof; and 3) Repeated invasion of his territory while my husband walked in and out of his office moving books.
In hindsight, it makes perfect sense. But at the time, I had trouble convincing myself we weren’t back to square one.
When you experience an uptick in the anxiety or compulsive behaviors you’ve been working hard to manage, you might assume a setback means you haven’t made progress. Not so. A bad day at work, a fight with a partner, a sick child, a sleepless night—any one of those triggers might be manageable alone but in combination might just be too much to handle without reverting to the coping behaviors you’ve been trying to change.
So when you suffer a setback, don’t view it as a relapse. Instead, ask yourself if you’ve been facing more triggers than usual. Cut yourself some slack—but don’t make excuses to justify avoidance–by taking on lower intensity challenges, if necessary, to keep yourself from slipping back into old habits.
And, then, start back where you left off, as we did with Clifford. For a week, he continued to balk at coming inside whenever my husband let him out in the yard. But a few days ago, the sight of his leash brought him back in the house. And, for the first time, they walked around the block together.
My dog Freddie died last month very suddenly and unexpectedly at the too-young age of 10. Chronically anxious and high-strung, he wasn’t an easy dog to live with. But he was intensely loyal, affectionate, fiercely devoted to the family, and so smart he seemed almost human at times. In spite of–or maybe because of–his issues, we loved him dearly.
One of his most annoying habits was barking at the TV. We tried to train him to watch quietly–and watch he did, eyes fixed on the screen and head moving back and forth, taking in the action–but eventually we gave up, endured his loud objections during scenes containing sex and violence, and got used to relying on closed caption to fill us in on the dialogue he drowned out.
Over the years, as I wrote in a previous post, I longed to be able to relax in front of the TV with my dogs curled up quietly at my side. But as long as Freddie was with us, it never happened.
The night after Freddie died my husband and I sat down on the couch in the family room to catch up on the show we’d been following. We didn’t get past the credits before we had to turn it off. The quiet was deafening.
It was more than a week before we could bring ourselves to watch TV again.
A line from an old Joni Mitchell song comes to mind:
“Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Till it’s gone”
RIP, dear Freddie.
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.
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