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Why Managing Anxiety Is Just Like Training a Dog

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For all who know me, you know I have a 2-year-old German Shepherd who I love with all my heart. His name is Ronin, and I literally couldn’t imagine my life without him. He’s fun, hyper, smart and an absolutely cuddle bug. Sure, he’s sometimes a little pushy with his love, but I’d rather take a paw to the face occasionally than have no dog at all.

When my husband and I first got Ronin, we knew instantly getting him properly trained was important. With a dog like him, not learning how to control him could spell disaster. It’s something we couldn’t afford to risk. We were first time homeowners, and the idea of our house being destroyed by our new dog was a little unsettling.

We spent probably four months in training with him, starting with puppy basics and ending with a graduation certificate from the 103 level class. We spent approximately four months in weekly, one hour sessions, and we saw so much progress in Ronin. The downside was, once we stopped going to training, we stopped working with Ronin outside of the class. Once we stopped working with him, we quickly realized that without us spending time each day training, progress slowed and it took quite a few tries before the skills resurfaced for him. Now, for the most part, he’s a well-behaved dog. There are certain things that set him off, but we have a pretty good handle on how to make him listen, even when he doesn’t want to.

So why did I bother telling you all this? Well, because if you think about it, managing anxiety is a lot like training an unruly dog.

How, you ask? Let’s talk:

Real progress is made outside of the therapy setting. As I’ve already mentioned, my husband and I spent a lot of time, money and energy training our dog. We went to once a week sessions for four months, working to make our dog as well-behaved as possible, but were told from the get go that working with our dog as much as possible outside the classroom would reap us the greatest benefits. If we ever skipped a week of training outside the classroom because we got busy, we immediately saw how Ronin’s progress fell backwards. It should come as no surprise that the same goes for therapy.

If you only work on yourself in therapy, progress can still be made, but it will likely be slow and cumbersome. You may even feel like nothing is being done, and you may give up because you think your struggles aren’t fixable. But the reality is progress in therapy is much more effective outside the session than it is inside the safety of the therapist’s office. Taking time each day to practice what you’re learning, to test your boundaries and to expand your horizons is crucial in making progress with your anxiety.

I can’t tell you how many times we would start training with Ronin and what usually took us five minutes took us 15 because he just wouldn’t listen, but we kept trying. When he finally got it right, not only did we feel amazing that we persevered, but the next day doing that same task with him was easier. It works the same way for your anxiety. It won’t always be easy, and there may be days where it’s harder to implement what you’re learning, but always take the time to work on you. The more you practice what you’re learning, the easier it gets to make a change, and that change has to come from outside the therapy setting.

When you feel yourself getting anxious, redirect and refocus the mind. One of the first tactics we learned in dog training was how to redirect and refocus a distracted dog. This correction had to be made at the very first sign of a spiral, which was sometimes a difficult thing to spot. Do it too soon, the dog learns that the good behavior is bad; do it too late, and the damage of the negative behavior is already done. The correction is usually done by literally redirecting the dogs attention by turning them around while on a leash and walking the other way. Learning how to pick up on your dog’s tendencies and initiate a firm redirection is crucial in making progress.

One of my favorite phrases when it comes to battling the irrationalities of my own mind is, “Distraction, distraction, distraction!” If you can pick up on the anxiety spiral as it begins to happen, you can redirect and refocus your mind on a more productive thought and activity. This is a task that is hard at first, but as you become more mindful and aware of your body, you’ll start to learn your own signs. As you pick up on this, you can start implementing your own firm redirection, allowing you to stop anxieties before they start, and maintaining a sense of inner peace.

For example, many people with anxiety have a tendency to panic Google for answers to their irrational concerns. If you find yourself having the urge to turn to Google, set up a plan to find a different activity, like reading, coloring or going for a walk. This immediate redirection at the first sign of an unhealthy coping mechanism keeps you from furthering a spiral, and allows you to start climbing back up the ladder instead of falling down it.

Don’t give your anxiety the chance to pull at your metaphorical leash; immediately stop that and move on to something else. The more you let the anxiety spiral, the harder it gets to pull it back.

You may have to teach yourself something more than once. I can’t tell you how many times I have had to relearn a simple coping skill in therapy, all because it seemed “different” from the last time I used it. The usual excuse was, “Well, I’ve used it for this situation, but this new one seems so different!” The reality is that it’s actually not different, it’s all a trick of the mind.

Strangely enough, this phenomena also happens in dogs. No really, it does.

When we started training our dog, we were told to train Ronin in as many places as possible, because the training would not translate from location to location. If you only train a dog in one place, they sometimes struggle with knowing what you want when they’re in a different place. For example, if most of your training takes place in your living room, the dog will likely struggle with those commands when you’re in the kitchen or at the park. Taking time to train a dog where ever you want them to listen is crucial, but is a technique that I think is commonly overlooked by dog owners. It doesn’t take long to reteach the dog in new situations because they already possess the knowledge to do it, but a small refresher course is usually needed.

When it comes to your own mind, it’s virtually an identical process. Once you’ve conquered one anxiety battle using coping techniques you’ve learned, you can apply those techniques in every aspect of your mental health. Sure, there may be small differences in certain situations, but the tools you use to manage your anxiety are still the same, no matter how different it feels. Always remember to be patient with yourself, and remember you know how to handle this. It’ll just take some gentle coaxing to refresh the memory.

To manage your anxiety, you have to be in control and be firm about it. In every household with a dog, there has to be an alpha. Typically in training, they explain that you need to be the alpha, because allowing your dog to control you creates a plethora of problems. They get very unruly when they think they run the show, and learning how to be in control of the dog is sometimes a tough experience. It sometimes means getting tough, tougher than you might think, to prove that you are in fact dominant.

Anxiety is just your dog that has a false sense of control. You have never told your mind it’s not the alpha, and because of that it’s running your life in the same way an unruly dog would.

Learning how to control your anxiety takes time, because many people with anxiety have a pretty strong external locus of control (meaning they feel that the luck, superstition and external factors play a role in their success and happiness). Through therapy, you begin to arm yourself with the tools to become the alpha of your own mind, and you quickly learn that you actually do have the power to dominate your anxiety. This newly found control is called the internal locus of control.

You have to learn your limits and set up healthy boundaries. 
Proper exposure is a huge part of recovery for anxiety, but if there’s anything I’ve learned in my time in therapy it’s that sometimes boundaries have to be set to maintain a level of sanity. So how does this apply to training a dog?

Well, let’s say you have a skittish dog who doesn’t do well in crowds. You may slowly start off trying to expose that dog to crowds by inviting a group of friends to your house, or going to a well trafficked but not heavily populated park. While the exposure helps your dog, prolonged stays in a crowded area might still stress them out. They may no longer cower in fear every time you walk into a crowd, but it’s obvious that if you’re in a crowd for over an hour they start to freeze up. Over time, you learn how much your dog can take, and you limit their exposure to avoid undoing the progress you have made to make them comfortable.

This concept is the same for anxiety or any mental illness, and it’s actually a very important part of self-care. If you learn what triggers you, and how much of that trigger you can take, you can set up boundaries that allow you to still enjoy the activities you want without creating massive setbacks in recovery. Even at a level where those triggers rarely effect you, there is still a sweet spot. Spend just enough time to enjoy life, but not so much time that it starts to overwhelm you.

While comparing anxiety to training dog might seem a bit ridiculous, I feel like it’s one comparison many of us can relate to. Training a dog is something that takes time, patience and persistence. It can be extremely frustrating and tiresome, while other times it’s super rewarding watching your dog learn a brand new trick. It ebbs and flows, and there are just some days your dog won’t have it, while other days it seems like they are super receptive.

Your anxiety is just like that. You’ll hit peaks and valleys, you’ll have days where everything you’ve learned sticks like glue, and other days where it seems like you haven’t learned anything at all. Some days you’ll get a new coping skill that seems to do wonders for you, while other days your tried and true methods don’t seem to be breaking the wall.

Your anxiety and an untrained dog have a lot in common, and while one may be far cuter than the other, the same principles you need to train a dog are used to manage your anxiety.

Simply put: if you can train a dog, you can train your mind.

This article was originally published on #Fearless.

You can follow Chelsie’s journey by visiting her website, #Fearless, or following her on social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.

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Thinkstock photo via petsopets

Originally published: April 14, 2023
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