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Caring for your dog during a mental health crisis.



TRIGGER WARNING - talk of mental health, self harm and suicidal thoughts.



Ok, so about this time last year I was made aware of the fact that there was very, very little advice or support out there for someone who was going through a mental health crisis and needed support both for themselves AND for their dog. We had one 'disaster' strike our family after the other and my anxiety, panic and overwhelm struck me like I'd not had in a long while. I was pretty much a non stop panic attack on legs, having one after the other for months on end, being able to breath clearly was a luxury I maybe experienced for the odd 5 minutes here and there, but it was rare. I was in a constant state of either anxiety and panic or totally shut down. When I had my worst panic attacks or meltdowns I would turn to self harm, it was the only thing that took away the feelings I was experiencing and gave some sort of relief. This was obviously a huge problem in itself, I was at my limit and all my other usual 'go-to' strategies had failed to help. In addition to this, I have a super awesome, but also anxious dog, who is basically glued to my side. If I'm upset, he's upset. The stress at home caused Milo as much stress as it was causing everyone else and triggered him to have several bouts of colitis over a period of a few months, not only was my poor mental health and the family problems affecting him emotionally, it was also getting to the point where it was making him physically ill.


I needed to find a way to be able to have time alone, to cry, to go for a walk to calm down and clear my head, or sometimes, just to scream into a pillow or hit a punchbag without worrying about the impact it was going to have on Milo. I needed to let my emotions out, but I needed Milo to feel safe while I did this and not end up worrying about me or getting scared (he doesn't like it when people are upset, and I was not only spending a lot of time weeping, but also hitting pillows while screaming 'for f*** sake, I can't take this s*** anymore!').


I will be absolutely clear here though, at no point did I take my upset or anger out on Milo directly, he was at no physical risk from me. If he had of been I would have made sure to get him somewhere safe until I was able to care for him again. What we are discussing here is predominantly the emotional and psychological welfare and wellbeing of a dog in your home while you are experiencing a mental health crisis.





For starters I was under self-referral for therapies, they weren't really able to offer any advice about my concerns over Milo's wellbeing though. I turned to a couple of friends who offered me some support but I still didn't really have any answers about what to do. Nor was I in a place where I was able to think creatively. Nonetheless, we muddled through. And now I would like to share with you some of the things that we found worked, or at least helped, in hope that it may help you too.


I can't talk about caring for dogs during a mental health crisis if I don't first talk about self-care. In order to care for others we must care for ourselves. That's not supposed to put pressure on, I have PDA (pathological demand avoidance)  so I am well aware that someone saying 'you need to do this' is actually more likely to do more harm than good for a lot of people, however, lets face facts it is true. If we don't look after ourselves we are going to slow down our recovery, and consequentially it will take longer before we can be in a better place to help our doggos. Now, knowing this did not help me one bit, PDA remember! So I actually ended up feeling worse and spiraling further downhill. So, while yes, this is true, don't beat yourself up about not being well. We can only ever do what we can do, sometimes we will have good days (and you will again) and some days will be utterly rubbish. That's ok. 


However, whilst you don't need to be putting pressure on yourself, you do need to find a support system. Be it a therapist, your GP, a support group, friends or family who are able to appropriately support you or even a community group who are aware of what you are going through. 


If you have reached crisis I would highly recommend booking an emergency appointment with your GP. Make notes before you go, listing what you're experiencing and how it is effecting you. Just because you go to your Dr doesn't mean you will be prescribed medication, they may just be able to refer you on to an appropriate outside organization who can help you find strategies to manage your symptoms. However, medication can and often does help people. It is really about going to them and asking them what your options are. You don't have to make a decision straight away but it is helpful to know your choices.


You can also self-refer to various therapy organizations free of charge in the UK, they are typically funded by the NHS. If you don't know who your local providers are your GP should be able to advise. I have found that it can be a bit 'luck of the draw' as to which therapist you end up with, but just because you don't find one who works well with you the first time isn't a reason to give up. You can ask to try a different therapy or therapist if you don't feel comfortable with the first one you try, or you could self-refer to a different organization. If you can afford it there are also a lot of private therapists available. I've had quite a few recommended to me but have never been in a financial position to be able to afford it, however, if you can find someone who works well with you and you can afford it then I'd say give it a go!


Some UK based resources that may be of benefit to you include:


Samaritans is a suicide and crisis hotline, you can either phone or email them for 24/7 support. I tend to email in a crisis but I have found that just getting words down and expressing myself helps massively and enables me to process my experiences more easily.


MIND are a charity who provide advice and support on mental health problems and campaign to raise awareness and promote understanding. They often have great resources to help you begin understanding what you are going through, and also provide really useful information that your friends and family can read to help them understand.


Every Mind Matters NHS website which offers advice and support on taking care of your mental health. 


The Calm Harm App was recommended to me by a therapist a while back. It wasn't much use for me as I don't tend to have my phone to hand and never think to use apps (I'm behind on the times!) but I did like the layout of it.

 

As well as getting help from professionals some of the things that have helped me have been:


💜 Knowing when to say no (to extra work, socialising, other commitments I know will make my mental health worse)


💜 Journaling to process my experiences.


💜 Knowing that from surviving my experiences, I will be able to help support other people who are going through the same.


💜Getting a routine (In the morning I make myself get up, make my bed, take a shower, visit my horses, have breakfast, walk Milo then do a few hours of work (though this bit is sometimes sacrificed). In the evening I have a couple of hours before bed where I relax, watch TV, read, meditate, play guitar etc before sleep). Having a routine is super helpful for me as when I'm having a bad day I don't have to think about what I need to do and am able to take care of myself without thinking too much about it.


💜 Get outside - Spend at least 30 minutes outside, each day, but ideally no less than 1 hour - this is basically your dog walk. Don't just walk from A to B though, pay attention to the wildlife and nature around you. You don't have to feel happy or positive about it, but just do it anyway. I've stood many times looking at our nature reserve thinking how beautiful it is while feeling suicidal. Nonetheless, there is a LOAD of science out there that says nature is good for your mental health. While you may still feel S*** getting out in nature will at least do you no harm! 


💜 Medication - I recently started some anti anxiety medication alongside Diazepam for emergencies. I'd put this off for about 10 years... I wish I hadn't as although I've had some c**p side effects while adjusting to them they have helped a tonne. I'm still working closely with my Dr to get the right dosage but I'm relieved I gave it a go. Now they really won't work for everyone, but if you've tried everything else then I do recommend at least speaking to your Dr about options and the pros and cons of trying them. 


💜 A cold shower. Seriously. You're feeling at your worst? Take an ice cold shower. Not nice at all, but I have personally found it is reliable at shocking you out of your absolutely worst thoughts and feelings, even if only temporarily. I think the reason this is so helpful for such a lot of people (again, not everyone!) is that it distracts you. I challenge you to think about how awful or worthless you feel while trying to survive icey temperatures attacking your senses! (If it doesn't work, then make it colder!). It can be hard making yourself do this, but honestly, I've been in a full on meltdown and self harming, made myself take a ice shower and it really has helped me. Ok, so isn't this just another form of self harm? Well, not really no. It actually has health benefits, such as boosting your immune function, reduces inflammation, it's good for circulation, it promotes healthy skin and hair, and it also promotes muscle relaxation (e.g. you tense up under the cold then relax when you're out of it again). Do be careful with it if you are diabetic though, and initially limit exposure to the cold for 1-2 minutes (honestly, if you're only just starting this then that will feel like a lifetime). Check out the Whim Hoff Method if you want to learn more about some of the benefits.


💜 Exercise. It doesn't matter if this is for just 2 minutes, just make yourself get moving. It will help release feel good hormones that will boost you. This could be on an exercise bike or stepping machine in front of the TV, skipping/jump rope in the garden or doing jumping jacks. Keep it simple, do something that you used to find fun as a child and haven't tried for a long while. It doesn't need to be much to start having a positive impact.


There are 2 techniques that are used in CBT and mindfulness therapies which while have been a bit hit and miss in how much they've helped me they are good to know about, and the more you practice them when you're feeling well, the more effective they are when you NEED them:


❤ The 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 exercise where you find:




  

You can do this while sat in one room, no need to walk around to find things. This engages 5 of your senses and while you pay detailed attention to these your focus shifts away from whatever was causing you distress and your emotional response changes too - I find it super helpful to do this slowly and once I've completed a cycle I will repeat it. Find what pace and how many cycles work best for you, and remember, not one size fits all. There are a load of exercises out there that can help, but you may take you a while to find one that really works best for you. Don't give up! <3



❤ Square breathing is a breathing exercise which can help activate your parasympathetic nervous system, it is really straightforward to practice and can be helpful in preventing a panic attack or easing anxiety etc. Find something that is square, e.g. a coaster, a square piece of paper, a clock, a container lid etc. Starting at the bottom left corner and moving upwards trace the first edge with your finger breath in for the count of 4. Now as you move across to the left in a clockwise direction hold your breath for the count of 4. Next as you move downward, still tracing the square with your finger exhale for the count of 4. From the bottom right continue tracing the square back to the starting point, holding your breath for the count of 4. So...


 



 

Now repeat for as long as you feel is of benefit. It may take a good few cycles before you notice the effects. Breath slowly and steadily. You can increase or decrease your count as needed.



Ok, so now that we have you covered, on to your dog!

This is mostly about management and holding space when you are able to to promote positive experiences and interactions. Some of these will have massive benefits for you as well as your dog.


Create a safe space / doggy den: This is somewhere your dog can go to feel safe, many people use a crate (not locked) or just a quiet corner of the house where the dog can go without being disturbed. To help your dog associate this as being a safe place you can put them a comfortable bed in there, lots of enrichment and toys etc. Make it a happy place for them. Encourage them to rest there or play there day to day, and the idea is that if or when they become worried or scared it will be a safe 'go to' place for them where they will find some comfort.


Get family, friends or trustworthy neighbours involved: Let people you're close to know what is going on, ask them to help you out with feeding, caring for or walking your doggo if needed. I found it really helpful to have my mum walk Milo some days so I felt less pressured. Also, knowing someone else is there to feed or help care for your doggo can just be a huge weight lifted if you're struggling to take care of yourself, and enable you to cope better simply by knowing you have a backup if you need or want it. It doesn't matter if you ask someone to feed your dog, or treat you to dinner, just ask for the help you need and don't feel bad about it. It may be that a friend can take your dog to their house for the day every so often, or take them out for a walk while you have some time to yourself at home. Figure out what is most beneficial to your recovery and what works well for you and your dog.


Hire a dog walker: If you are struggling to keep your dog exercises and cared for and you have no friends or family around find an empathetic dog walker to help, often they will offer services such as home visits as well as walking services and may be able to help with things such as feeding and basic care temporarily while you get back on your feet.


Simple enrichment for positive experiences: While you may be struggling to come up with complex or creative ideas still try to plan some positive experiences into each day for your doggo where you can - this will keep your pup feeling more settled and secure and also likely help you feel better too. You could do something as simple as stuffing treats into some old toilet roll tubes, letting your dog sniff at new smells, a short game of fetch or scatter feeding etc. But do what you know and don't put too much pressure on yourself to do long sessions or anything that takes too much thinking about, the important thing is your dog, and hopefully you, both enjoy it.


Use force free, +R training: Whenever you manage to remember and feel up to it have short, simple and fun positive reinforcement training sessions practicing things you are both already good at so as to avoid stress or frustration, e.g. sit, lie down, heel walk, or any 'fun' tricks such as 'spin' or activities such as 5 minutes of agility etc. Keep some treats to hand, either in pots around the house or in your pocket so each time you do think about it / remember you can reward your dogs good behaviour throughout the day adding in extra positive experiences to keep your puppa feeling optimistic.


Provide positive distractions: You're suddenly feeling s**t and need to cry, scream and shout? Have some enrichment prepared to throw down for your dog while you take yourself off to do this. Your doggo may still get worried if they know you're upset or distressed but they will have something to redirect their attention to while you take the time you need. Good examples are a really well stuffed Kong or other stuffable / food dispensing toy, things such as bully sticks if your dog is an enthusiastic chewer, or if you need something as an asap 'go to' then scatter feeding is always your friend, grab a handful or treats, chuck them for your doggo and then go get the space you need. The key is it is something that will keep them occupied for a while.


Have 'down time' together: Make sure that when you can you have lots of time chilling out together, nice positive interactions such as snuggling on the sofa are good for you both. Milo loves his piano relaxation music, so we pop that on for him and chill out. He also loves a nice massage. Just spend some peaceful time together where you can relax in each others company.


PLAY: Play is incompatible with fear and releases hormones that help your doggo feel good. While you may not feel like playing with your puppa it will really help them feel happier and more relaxed and should give you a boost too if you are able to invest fully in the game. Again, try not to make your mental health even worse by adding too much pressure on yourself, just do this as and when you are able, but anything is better than nothing.


Keep routine: Make a daily plan and stick to a routine - add as much detail as you feel works for you but not so much you feel overwhelmed. Being able to tick off check boxes can really help you feel like your accomplishing things and give you a boost; it will also mean you make sure you meet all your doggo's basic needs if your memory isn't at it's best, as memory issues are something that is closely tied in with poor mental health. I typically go for 3 goals a day when I'm not well, the only rules are they must be achievable and realistic goals and on the really bad days may simply include 'take a shower', 'go for a walk' and 'cook dinner'. You could maybe create daily goals for your own self care as well as your doggo's care, e.g:


Know your dog: Crating Milo while I was upstairs having a breakdown only caused him more stress, allowing him to stay with me, while he still found it distressing, wasn't as bad for him as not being able to get to me - when you're at crisis it's about just doing what you can, it likely won't be perfect, or even anywhere near 'your best' but whats important is your survival and doing the least harm possible. If you can then have an 'emergency go to' person who you can call to come and sit with you or your dog when things get really bad.





A little on attachment theory...


Serve and return: Hopefully you and your dog will have a positive relationship where most of the time when you're well they see you as a safe person, a 'safe base'. They may look to you for guidance, support and to have positive experiences, such as initiating play or seeking out comfort. Often when your dog does this you will respond to their initiation and provide the positive or soothing response that they are seeking. This is the 'serve and return'. They 'serve' by seeking you, and you 'return' by acknowledging and responding to their 'request'. This helps develop a bond and builds trust. It helps your dog feel confident and secure and enables your relationship to thrive. When our mental health is poor it can sometimes be difficult to respond ('return') to those around us, including our dogs and our dog can feel worried or insecure because of this, when we don't 'return' this is where 'rupture' can occur:


Rupture and repair: It's pretty much inevitable that at some point your dog will become stressed by your distress and you won't be able to comfort them or meet their needs if you're already having a hard time meeting your own. You may be experiencing fatigue and struggle to even meet their eye contact let alone anything more, you may accidentally scare them if you throw your phone across the room or they may become worried if you shut down and barely get out of bed for a few days. Rupture and repair is from attachment theory, when you can't offer a 'return' then rupture can occur. Thankfully this can be repaired. We ideally want to limit the rupture for welfare reasons, however, when it comes to managing mental health when it is at crisis point this can understandably be difficult to avoid. So, what I would suggest is that where possible you avoid rupture, however, if you do end up with a rupture then take a breath and just repair it at your next opportunity to do so. a couple of ruptures is highly unlikely to completely ruin your relationship with your dog, just as an argument with your best friend or partner wouldn't ruin your relationship with them forever, however you may need to do some work to repair the relationship, and your dogs trust in you. That's where the above exercises can be applied again, creating as many positive experiences for your dog as possible and sharing them together, responding to them when they seek you out for comfort or play etc...


To be clear we should never use poor mental health as an excuse to cause distress or suffering for another being, however, sometimes, especially when at crisis point, people are unable to think clearly or process situations and all we can do, is what we can do to survive. I hope that the ideas here will help you come up with some ideas about how to take care of yourself as well as your dog when your mental health is bad and enable you to limit the ruptures in your relationship with your dog, help them feel more safe and secure while they witness your distress and help you feel like you have some support.


If you're reading this and trying to make things good for your doggo while you're going through a bad time yourself then you are clearly a brilliant, compassionate and kind human bean and the world is unbelievably lucky to have you, and I mean that wholeheartedly. It is not easy, but you can do this!


So reach out, ask for what you need and be kind to yourself. ❤

If you have anything to add I would love to know what strategies you've used to help your puppa


Love, 

Jen & Moo x


re-posted on Blogspot 2021


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