By Dr. Cathy Reimers I Special to Moonshine
Have you ever walked your dog and suddenly realized you’ve arrived at your destination, but have no idea how you got there? This is a common experience; it’s usually because we put ourselves on autopilot, thinking all kinds of thoughts other than being in the moment. Sometimes we are not even aware that we have a dog while we are walking.
Our worries and anxieties can take us a million miles away from the here and now, especially in this time of coronavirus. Anxiety can be thought of as the anticipation of future threats with negative outcomes. It causes us to focus on thoughts and feelings that are spinning out of control, with “what if” being the cornerstone.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness teaches us to “be present” in the world, and it functions as an antidote to today’s feelings of fear, helplessness, and anger, among other stressors causing anxiety.
Mindfulness is a powerful tool for reducing anxiety, and if we incorporate a mindfulness meditation into our daily dog walk, there are ways that our dogs can help us manage today’s stresses. Dogs can cue us to engage in less-anxious behavior.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, who holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from MIT, is regarded as the founder of modern mindfulness. He ran and developed the world-renowned Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic in 1979, and later the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society in 1995. He coined the saying, Wherever You Go, There You Are, which also is the title of a book he authored.
In neuroscience we have learned that engaging in new behaviors and repeating those behaviors forms new neural pathways in the brain. The research purports that repeating a thought strengthens the neural circuitry of that thought. Specifically, tuning into our physical sensations helps to reduce anxiety by calming the amygdala, that part of the brain that is responsible for creating anxiety. The goal of Dog Mindfulness, an online anxiety reduction program I’ve developed after three decades as a clinical psychologist, is to help you be less reactive to stress and to reduce both worry and anxiety. Learn more about specific structures of the brain and how anxiety is created under the resource section of anxietyreductionprograms.com.
Through a series of daily exercises with their dog, people can learn anxiety reduction techniques that are tailored to cue them into positive behaviors and mindfulness.This practice strengthens new neural pathways so that people are more apt to engage in that behavior in the future. This program is not psychotherapy; it is an experiential education in mindfulness practiced as a team with your dog.
This following meditation offers the opportunity to practice some of the exercises in the Dog Mindfulness program. Practice this mindfulness exercise for five minutes each time you walk the dog. It may be helpful to use a timer on your phone to set a specific amount of time to focus and engage in mindful sensations. When you are ready, increase the time to 10 minutes.
Dog Walk Mindfulness Meditation
Carefully observe your dog’s behavior to identify what sensations they are utilizing in the moment:
- When your dog is sniffing, identify it as the sensation of smell and then begin to smell things around you, too. It may be a pine tree (there are few of those in Tahoe/Truckee), flowers, or the fresh air.
- When you observe your dog looking at something, you also can observe what’s around you in this moment. Pick out the beauty of something nearby.
- When you observe your dog’s ears perking up, begin to listen and notice the sounds around you. Try not to apply your interpretation or judgment of the sound; just experience it.
- When you observe your dog wagging its tail, ask yourself how you are feeling emotionally. Just notice the feeling and try not to change it.
- When your dog comes up to lick your face, focus on touch. It may be the right time to pet and hug your dog.
If your mind wanders off while you practice this meditation, bring your focus back to the sensations. Try to increase your time of focus and notice how you perhaps feel less anxious. Remember that the more you do this mindfulness walk with your dog, the stronger you develop positive neural pathways. Your dog becomes the conduit for you to learn and rehearse techniques that incorporate both neuroscience and MBCT. And that’s smart.
~ Licensed psychologist Dr. Cathy Reimers has been helping people manage anxiety and other challenges for over 30 years. Her unique anxiety reduction programs use online video conference sessions, based on the latest neuroscience principles in retraining the brain and the practice of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy. For dog lovers, she offers an interactive Dog Mindfulness Program utilizing the same neuroscience and MBCT principles designed to reduce anxiety, practiced as a team with your dog. More info at anxietyreductionprograms.com.