A Horse Called Norman

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It might sound ridiculous but…

Could we ever consider the mental health of animals and whether they can teach us something about our own distorted thinking?

As we have become domesticated, so, to greater or lesser extent, have the dogs, horses and rabbits we work and play with. Do they suffer the consequences of having a brain designed to help with survival which sometimes forces into thinking patterns which are no longer helpful?

My daughter Anna has a horse called Norman. Now Norman can be a little, what you might call, highly strung. He will, for example, happily and calmly walk past the same, innocuous, bush five times before, on the sixth attempt, jump back, all bulgy eyed and quivering, as if a grizzly bear had just stepped out and wished him a good morning. This is a source of endless exasperation for Anna but, at some level, Norman is behaving perfectly rationally.

Making sense of the world

Like us humans, horses are constantly trying to make sense of the world through real-time interpretation of what their senses are telling them. Through natural section they have learned to be somewhat “risk averse” with regard to what to do when you come across something new, even if by “new”, Norman is just seeing a leaf move in, what he thinks is, a peculiar way. This is because horses keep themselves safe by living in groups and being able to run away and we defend ourselves by outsmarting our enemies. If, within reason, you assume that everything you cannot immediately verify as 100% safe, is going to kill you, then over time, it will be better for you. This is because every now and then, something that you cannot immediately verify as 100% safe is actually going to harm you and will go for your friend if they have a more casual attitude than you to things they can’t immediately verify as 100% safe.

Now that we live in a world which, on one hand, has exponentially more stimuli pummelling our beaten-up senses, but on the other, contains almost nothing which is going to leap out and eat us, we can sometimes struggle. Our brains haven’t had time to evolve to be able to, either collect and process all this information, or realise that a fight / flight reaction is not often the appropriate response in the modern world. Is it any wonder then, that a lot of us feel sensitised and on edge nearly all the time, and end the day exhausted to the point of burn-out after 14 hours of information overload and almost constant, inappropriate, adrenaline-fueled reactions?

It is not just involuntary fight or flight responses which can be exhausting

Imagine you see someone from Human Resource talking with your manager who gives you a weird look before she follows the HR colleague into a room and shuts the door. The reality is that the weird look is 99% likely to have nothing to do with you and the meeting is 99% likely to have nothing to do with you either. And in the 1 time in 100 when the meeting is about you, perhaps there is a 10% chance that the subject is, say, redundancy or your performance (assuming this is an issue). Would you find yourself ruminating on the worst case, despite being able to rationalise this as being something which has less than 1 in 1000 chance of being the actual scenario being played out behind the door? A lot of us would. It’s called catastrophising and it’s a pretty rubbish, although infuriatingly enticing, way of thinking. Catastrophising is just one of many “cognitive distortions” which we will be discussing in future episodes which are the source of so much unnecessary suffering in those of us “blessed” with an anxious mind.

These thought patterns are driven by a part of our brain which was pretty useful when we were wandering round in loin cloths at the mercy of a multitude of hungry predators, but now are not helpful and can, if not checked, lead to issues with anxiety, exhaustion and, possibly, depression. It is very liberating to understand that, whilst very unpleasant, an anxiety disorder can be thought of as an unhelpful, yet natural, reaction to an overstimulated brain still working in a primitive, albeit self-preservation, mode.

The next time you get overwhelmed with an obsessive anxiety, remember:

·       You are not going mad – those weird, spaced out feelings are probably due to a large shot of adrenaline helping the body and mind get ready for urgent, intense (and totally unnecessary) action

·       Although not pleasant, this moment has to pass, as the chemicals in your brain causing it will disperse, and reasonably quickly, so hang in there

·       Your brain is not malfunctioning, but working perfectly well, and as designed, in a way that is not helpful, but based on how we are wired to deal with perils which we no longer need to deal with (thank goodness!)

·       Rationalise whether you are in any actual danger (apart from the embarrassment of suffering from an anxiety attack which, almost certainly, no one will even notice)

·       Feel the experiences and understand them for what they are – the result of an over stimulated brain... and… relax…


The Podcast “Why The Long Face”

I talk to my old friend, the psychiatrist and renowned wit, Dr. Paul Keedwell about all aspects of mental health (focussing on depression in Season 1)


“Smoke Detector Principle” by Randolph M. Nesse

He talks about threat reactions being triggered in us too easily and the problems with treatments that suppress natural reactions. It’s pretty academic, but a famous paper on the subject.


“The Chimp Paradox” by Dr. Steve Peters

Much beloved by business types, which goes into great detail about how our fantastic, yet in many ways still quite primitive (literally) brains, sometimes fail to serve us well in our modern world.


George TaylorComment