Anxiety. Agitation. Alarm.
These are concerns that regularly bring people to seek support from a counsellor and, for many, are a part of everyday life.
They also present us with a dichotomy.
In a world where bumper stickers promote “No Fear” and adrenaline pumping recreation continues to rise in popularity, anxiety and other related mental health diagnoses are also on the increase. If you are one of the 45 million people in North America (and that’s only counting adults who are accessing health services) living with the impacts of these struggles, you likely worry that you worry too much.
Which probably doesn’t help.
The emotion of alarm, which we often refer to as anxiety or fear, is a core emotion experienced by all mammals. Yet so often we perceive and approach fear as something negative, something to be eliminated; and if that doesn’t work then at least hidden.
Are we – as individuals, within families, as a society and as a species – responding to this emotion and its various impacts in a healthy way?
Is ‘No Fear’ really what we should be aiming for?
I turn, as I often do when I have these questions, to the animals, to search out what nature intends.
Skye, a 27 year old Arabian gelding and our herd leader, provides a great example of what alarm looks like in a non human mammal. When something unexpected happens, he notices immediately; his head comes up, his ears and eyes are alert. Skye stops whatever he was doing and assesses the situation. If he decides a real threat exists he runs, and his herd usually follows his lead.
Skye’s body just produced adrenaline and cortisol, which he uses to move himself to safety.
If instead he calls the alarm false, as is often the case, I will usually see him releasing that adrenaline and cortisol, often through licking and chewing, and he is able to return to whatever he was doing before.
The emotion of alarm has been experienced, processed and released, and calm is now restored.
Occasionally a third outcome is required, when a threat is real, but there is a good reason to move towards rather than away from that threat; to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’.
I witnessed this response to alarm in action in the animal world on a recent trail ride. A coyote approached our group of horses and, knowing that our cat, Galileo, had followed us out into the field, we shouted at it to move away. Coyotes usually quickly retreat in these situations, as this one did. But then it approached our group again, hackles raised. After a few moments of confusion, and frantic searching for the cat, I realised this coyote likely had some pups nearby. She wasn’t experiencing or showing us ‘no fear’. Her stance, body language and repeated retreats, told me she was very scared of our large group and all the noise we were making. But she had something to protect, something worth facing her fear for. We found Galileo and quickly left the courageous coyote – and her pups – in peace.
Like Skye and the coyote, all humans experience alarm. Ideally, we should feel that alarm, assess the situation and then choose to either retreat to safety, find the courage to face the fear, or call the alarm false, as appropriate to each situation.
Sadly, I don’t believe this is what we usually do.
Instead, we may be inclined to dismiss or minimise the feeling of alarm; to prematurely tell ourselves or others, ‘don’t be scared’. Or we may hold on to the feeling; ruminate, agonise and relive our fears, often over and over.
Sometimes we do both.
If we face too much alarm, either chronically or acutely, our emotional alarm system may become overloaded and dysfunctional. In these cases, while we still experience the emotion of alarm we may no longer consciously feel it. ‘No fear’ may have become our defense, our survival mode and our reality. How and why that may have happened, and the differences between feelings and emotions, will need to be the subject of another article; but suffice to say, ‘not feeling’ does not usually help us make the right choice when facing a cause of alarm.
When a person has reached this defensive place of ‘not feeling’ they will likely need some help and support, from someone who understands the true nature of alarm, to gradually and gently come back towards a place of feeling safe to feel again. With a child this is ideally done through supporting and guiding a parent, or other caretaking attachment, to invite that child into a place of emotional safety and feeling.
The animals don’t always get it right either. There are times when they make similar mistakes to us, and yet these too present us with opportunities to reflect and learn.
Galileo, the young cat who likes to come with us on trail rides, often seems fearless. If cats could drive cars I’m quite sure he’d have that bumper sticker! As well as accompanying us on the trail, Galileo loves to follow me out to the pasture to hang out with the horses while I do chores. Unfortunately, he often decides that in between the horses’ legs is a good place to nap, or that it may be fun to jump up on a horse’s back. After a few close calls, I now know to keep a close eye on him. His ‘no fear’ puts him at unnecessary risk and, for now, he needs me to keep him safe.
Pickle, on the other hand, a pony who came to us from a show barn home with lots of performance expectations, seems to hang on to his fears. Long after Skye has called an alarm false and the herd has gone back to eating grass or snoozing, content that all is well, Pickle is still staring warily into the trees. And when he come in with a group of people, especially when he is presented with anything unknown or new, you may very likely find him chewing agitatedly on his lead rope.
I believe balance is the answer.
Alarm is not an enemy or nuisance factor to be eliminated; it’s there to keep us safe. Sometimes we need to respond to that alarm, and use the adrenaline and other chemicals it creates for us, to move ourselves to safety. Other times we use those same chemicals to help us face the source of fear and take action to protect ourselves or others, as the coyote did that day. There are many times we can call the alarm false, but we then need to allow ourselves to release the chemicals our bodies produced. We can do this through a physical release, by fidgeting like Pickle does with his lead rope, or through talking it out. In some cases our bodies will do this for us through shaking, tears and even sweating.
Regardless, I believe the answer is always to feel our alarm, as it is very challenging to assess and respond to an emotion we are unable to feel. Feeling afraid is not usually pleasant but, as with many things emotional in nature, the more space you make for it the less it usually takes; and the healthier you are likely to be. Not feeling may lead us to be reckless like Galileo, which puts us at risk of being hurt; or to holding on to and getting stuck in the alarm, as Pickle frequently seems to, which hurts us in different ways.
My role model, in how I respond to and guide myself, my kids and my clients in this area, is Skye. When he experiences alarm he recognises it and assesses:
Does he need to move to safety?
Should he find the courage to face the source of his fear?
Or can he call this one false?
And then he responds accordingly.
I plan to keep trying to follow his lead.
Great questions to be asking when in an alarm state. I think this is a good way to assess one’s situation and act accordingly. Although easier said than done at times, I like the questions as a way to help move through the process.
This is an area I struggle with because I have engaged in activities such as free climbing where the goal is to let go of the need for control and alarm! However, as I have worked more with feel and calmness with horses (As well as getting older – HA!) I have learnt new ways of working within this alarm reaction.
I think this is an area where we also need to consider and balance competence. Climbing within your level of competence and then feeling, listening and responding to alarm when it arises is different than numbing or tuning it all out. I think in these terms when I ride cross country, or when I watch my daughter vault. Yes there are risks involved, but there is a lot of competence gained before doing certain things and there are times when both she and I will feel alarm and then assess how to respond.
I have thought about your response lately Sue because of how my daughter is as she grows – she seems to have some of that “no fear” concept/behavior. It has been a balancing act to explore how to let her explore within in the net of safety to prevent serious injuries.
I think it’s hilarious that your cat comes on trail rides! Lol! Also love the description about alarm and how we need to feel it. Great article!
Yesterday when I called the horses in for their snack, they were (all) quite agitated. I couldn’t understand why. As it turns out, there was a black bear strolling not too far away. Once he was gone, they all settled and ate. They know, even if I don’t…
Yes – I have learned to pay attention when they tell me there is something there!
I speak to clients about alarm being normal reaction and ask how they experience it because it surprises me how many clients dont realize how they experience alarm or where they feel it in their body. Important to know for them to find the balance between feeling alarm and how to manage alarm effectively.
And the reality is that if defenses are high they may not be feeling it. Sometimes our job is to make it safe to feel again and then normalise and support when the feelings start to come back
It’s interesting how people experience trauma responses in different ways – suppression and denial, or over stimulation – like persistent anxiety or PTSD. I was a daredevil in my younger years, nothing could stop me – I would ride the most wild horses, do donuts on frozen ponds with a quad, and walk precariously on the edge of an ice floe next to open water. I would not do most of those things now, because age and experience has taught me to be more mindful and cognizant of the consequences. I think I was trying to prove something to others, and maybe to myself that I was brave and independent. If I had slowed down to feel and connect with myself rather than being so focused on the thrill and outside influences, things may have been different. How can we help people to connect with their suppressed feelings and emotions in a safe way? Especially if they have trauma that has gone unaddressed for years? I hope to learn more about this as the course progresses!
That is a big question, but an important one Jessica! Making it safe for people to feel again is something we are constantly working on in sessions at Healing Hooves and build into lots of different parts of the training. We focus on it most specifically though during the focus training week (the one in September) when we explore the ‘flight from vulnerability’ and how to make it safe to feel again. We also really explore the area of alarm in that training which is closely related to this topic. I find that doing this work indirectly or ‘one step removed’ is generally the best way – as it’s just safer and more inviting. And if you are working with a child also having some context with the parent(s) so that the child has a ‘safe place to land’ at home is an important part of making this a safe process. Our story Super Thor explores this theme: https://healinghooves.ca/super-thor-preview-of-our-new-therapeutic-childrens-story/
These stories are really great to read especially now I have some background in attachment theory. I find myself reflecting on that feeling that gets triggered when I am faced with something that scares me. It feels like a very physical trigger and my body goes to a place that I seem to have a hard time shaking. Sometimes it is because I really do feel helpless at addressing the problem that is scaring me. Other times I have done what I can to resolve the problem that triggered these feelings but they seem to “hang on”. It leaves me wondering about some of the physical things that we can learn from animals perhaps. I might pay more attention to the physical ways they release that anxiety that humans perhaps have lost touch from.
Great reflections Shari! Yes – many of the ‘calming signals’ we explore in the horse context within the Foundation training we can also draw upon for ourselves. I think these can be things we can all benefit from!
I love the idea of calming signals being similar to grounding techniques in people. This story and thread really helped me to see the similarities. Thank you!
you are welcome Kim!
Does he need to move to safety?
Should he find the courage to face the source of his fear?
Or can he call this one false?
And then he responds accordingly.
I really liked these questions and will start to ask them in scenarios where I feel the alarm rising. I tend to experience the emotions. I liked the parallels between horses and humans explored. However, I think making the decision to assess whether retreat to safety or facing the situation, versus realizing the alarm is false seems to involve a cognitive component with people, unlike with horses. What do you think?
As well, I also think it may be useful to have a repertoire of calming signals for when I am alarmed, and physical activity, accessing my senses such as scent, and breathing deeply are some calming signals for me that have proven effective in the past.
Hi Shreyasi – I totally agree that when our alarm system is working as it should there is definitely a cognitive component – we need to identify the source of alarm and then decide what to do. There’s a lot more than cognition happening here of course too, but cognition is (or at least should be) part of it. During the Focus training we explore this in more depth and then also what happens when that cognitive component is missing. I think horses do this assessing too but maybe in a different way!
I enjoyed reading this article. Your comment about the importance of feeling our alarm as we can’t respond to something we don’t allow ourselves to feel resonated with me, as did holding onto alarm after the threat has passed. Balance in feeling the alarm and then releasing it and turning to horses as role models in this behaviour.
I was recently in the mountains and we were in a remote meadow high up. A friend that was with us was becoming more and more agitated as she was feeling as though there was a threat (bear, cougar) hidden in the brush. All of our horses had spent a couple of minutes looking into the outer edges and then had settled down to eating. It is was interesting to see that although the animals were not showing alarm she still was and she could not understand why we were not as alarmed as she was. I found I needed to balance her alarm reaction with my desire to spend time in the meadow so that we could both enjoy our time on the trail. Was a great reminder of the different responses people and horses can have to the same environment and the need for patience and understanding.
yes, sometimes that feeling can stay with us a long time. This is where I think horses can be such great role models – they feel and express their emotions, but then once it is safe again they are usually better at letting it go than we are!
It truly is about finding that balance. I have this conversation often with students I work with, although normally we are talking about stress. I’ve never directly referenced horses in this conversation, but for some students that would probably be a great connection!
I love this article, particularly Sky’s questions! I think this is a brilliant way to explain this the children and adults alike. I also love all of the comments and insightful questions/answers in the comments.
I am currently taking Intensive II through the Neufeld Institute and it is all about alarm! I am learning about my own alarm system and I am starting to see alarm (in myself and those around me) with new eyes. As is typical with Dr. Neufeld’ work, once you see it you cannot “unsee” so a new part of my journey has begun!
When the horses are on alert, we always look out into the field to see what may be coming our way. One day are horses were super spooky and ran away quickly, about 20 seconds later a huge swarm of bees came into the yard. Super alert!
Yes, cortisol release of fear. I recently learned that a simple hug or petting a pet can release as much cortisol as being afraid or feeling anxious.
I always try to teach my clients that fear is a good thing, just sometimes it can become out of control. Often people will want anxiety to completely disappear and I find it is about teaching about when anxiety is helpful and healthy for us. Learning to feel it and then release it is something definitely that we can learn from animals and I like that we can observe this in them and then get better understanding in ourselves.
Yes – being ‘alarm free’ is not the goal! Alarm exists for and serves a purpose, but it can for sure become dysfunctional. We explore this in a lot of depth at focus training – I am looking forward to being able to share all this material with you!
This article really resonates in acknowledging the value of our intuition; both human and animal.
It addresses how genetically we are all hardwired for this, and it identifies how external factors can dial down, or numb our ability to access, or on the other hand over stimulating, once again in regards to both human and animal, to accessing our instincts based on our life experiences.
Pickles external influences have over stimulated his intuition or spidey senses beyond Sky’s more natural instinctual safety assessment response.
The article reflects on the effects of those external factors on children that are consistently exposed to violence or trauma, that can create a tolerance coping mechanism that reduces their alarm response.
Gaileo, from what I can assess, is more naturally predisposed to a blissful unawareness of potential danger, and benefits from support on the look-out for him. I see a parallel to where adults responsibilities come into light in protecting children….all while finding that “balance” where we can afford to risk the fear to grow our abilities to cope, challenge and embrace it!
great analysis Sara!
I’m appreciating that the horses don’t ruminate on an alarm once the threat been determined insignificant or been resolved in some way
Alarm – the range of fear through intuition… I love Karla McLaren’s work on this. I can recall having a fear of fear… as a sensitive child born into a heritage of severe trauma (Holocaust) I found the entirety of life really quite overwhelming and so wisely (at that time) chose to shut down and shut off. Later in life, coming back to myself was quite a process, working with feeling and emotion progressively and gently. I am so grateful for my personal experience of healing as I can now confidently say that I know ‘a’ way through and have been able to ‘be’ that for my children and for clients, as well as sensitive horses.
yes – reversing that flight from vulnerability takes a lot of time, courage and patience. I’m glad you were able to both respect your defenses for the purposes they served when they were needed, and to start to invite the softness back once it was safe to do so!
Great article! I probably have too much alarm and fear sometimes. Meditation is the most amazing thing for that 🙂
Alarm is a great topic with so many different ways to deal with it. Looking to the animals has always been a great guide.
Exactly. I tell my students fear is normal it keeps us safe and tells how far to go with our riding and or interaction with our horses. I tell them I am afraid a times too. I had one student who is a refugee from Ukraine in 2014 after the protests and violence by the Russian backed state police. She is so contained and shut down she will not share her fear or frustrations on the horse and will keep trying without any change in the result as she is operating in tension and with hard focus on the task and not on relaxation or feel in her body to follow the horse’s rhythm or posture.
WIth the violence in Ukraine and having live in a war zone myself I am experiencing similar struggles. THis will be on people’s mind and in their hearts from now on.
I like the phrase ” the more space you make for it the less space it usually takes”. I think that making space for emotions is very important for helping people express and deal with their emotions in a safe space.
What a great summary of the alarm model from Neufeld. I really like how you explain the three options we are given by alarm, and that no matter what, we must feel our fear. The assessment part of fear is so necessary too, to help us make great use of our alarm. My doodle tells me often, as she feels alarm more than most, and I am learning to hear her. I often say to clients and my own kids, “what is the message that your alarm might be sending you?”
that is such an important questions for us all to be asking Dana, thank you!
I find this such a common challenge in my practice. When we haven’t been taught the skills to respond to our alarm system in a healthy way, it seems like our alarm system can become either over-sensitive, like a thermostat set way too high so the heat is always kicking on, or we become numb to all feelings, even the enjoyable ones like peace or excitement or joy. I really love the idea of making space for emotions. There’s an “equation” from the mindfulness literature that I use a lot:
Suffering = Pain + Resistance
When we feel any kind of pain (which is inevitable and normal) and react with resistance (which comes in many forms), we increase our suffering. I like this equation because it doesn’t try to claim that if we can make space for our emotions, we won’t suffer at all. Emotional pain hurts, even when we respond in a really healthy way. But, when we respond with resistance, we usually increase our suffering, either in intensity or duration.
I’d like to learn more about how Neufeld explains the alarm model and see how I can fit this into my own working model of alarm.
I love that equation Andrea! I’ve heard it put as along the lines of “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is not” but I prefer your way of expressing it as it recognises that some level of suffering is still going to exist
Really enjoyed these examples and I think it’s more accessible for people when they see it in animals. We are more complex sometimes but the underlying need and reactions are so similar. Often just feeling the emotion and acknowledging it can be the release and I think often about horses orienting response as they scan their environment and how this helps my clients too. Looking forward to learning calming signals.
Have you seen the video we have on FB Elicia? It was from back in November I think – a great example of the horses allowing a normal alarm response to flow through them, be processed and then calm restored. The whole thing took less than 4 mins for the whole herd!
I agree with your comments about the answer being found in our ability to actually feel our fear. “The more space you make for it the less it usually takes” is a great approach to feeling, facing and honoring our wide range of emotions in general.
I have been wondering how “no fear” became popular, since some fear and anxiety is necessary to keep us alive. In addition, there seems to be an expectation of wanting to be happy all the time and avoid “negative” emotions such as sadness. I think these expectations set us up for failure. No one can be happy all the time.
I agree this is such an important reframe. Even the fact that we as a society label emotions as positive or negative is concerning.
I have a Skye named Beorn…he is the overseer of the herd, and I see so much of him in your stories of Skye.
I love this post-emotions tell us things…tell us about risk, but also tell us about what is important to us. They guide our behaviour, and tell us about our values.
absolutely – too often emotions are seen as a problem but they are all there for a purpose and we do better when we listen to them and get curious!
I love the content of this post! Alarm is something I have been teaching for years, and the learning from the courses at HH, has given me more depth and richness in teaching info about alarm. It is interesting to read this today, as I just explained this content to my child yesterday, and my response to her was to normalize the alarm (was false alarm), and to normalize the release.
In my prior career, fear was considered weakness and as such I trained myself to suppress and ignore my alarm. When I began to train as a counsellor and started to reflect on this (among many other things!) it was a struggle to allow myself to really feel the fear. If our environment teaches us to be afraid of being afraid, then what?
This experience for me has helped me gain perspective on what many of my first responder clients struggle with. I also feel that many careers, such as my old one, no longer value the ‘bravado’ they did 20 years ago and there is a new awareness to the importance of emotional intelligence which I am so grateful to see. I am also grateful and excited to know that normalizing the alarm response one-step removed through observing the horses will be another avenue to offer support for many of my clients who currently still believe showing fear is showing weakness. If a 1200lb animal can openly display alarm, so can we. 🙂
I like the phrase “feeling our alarm” and breaking down fear into real threat, false alarm, and feeling fear and doing it anyway. Very helpful way of describing fear/anxiety, especially for those experiencing false alarms and responding as if there is a threat.
Agree with Mikayla above, this article offers such a practical healthy response, as demonstrated by Skye, in responding to and processing our fears, very helpful.
I think this is a great article because it reminds us that we need to be checking in with ourselves and remembering how important that we are processing our feelings and releasing at the end of each session and day. When we are able to practice and execute a healthy response to fear and threats, then we are able to better help clients co regulate and teach through examples.
great point Katherine – we need to be aware of this as facilitators