Chemistry of Anxiety
Stress makes us sick. Stress makes us tired, it causes digestive problems, it makes us angry. Stress affects our sleeping. Stressed people are likely to develop insomnia and wake up many times during the night. The quality of the sleep drops down. Studies show that many of these changes are caused by cortisol, a hormone released by our body in stressful situations. While others hormones are also released, cortisol is connected to the most long term negative effects of stress.
All of the above is common knowledge when talking about human stress. However, all of that also applies to any mammal exposed to long term mental and physical stress.
Stress as of itself is a natural response to pressure. Hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are released to improve the performance. It’s a natural ”fight-or-flight” situation that has proven very important during all stages of evolution. Usually the stress-response system is self-limiting, meaning the hormone levels naturally drop down after the perceived threat has passed. Stress only turns into a problem when the system is unable to return to normal and the stress hormone levels remain elevated for a long period of time.
Cortisol is part of the steroid hormone family. Most of cortisol is produced within the adrenal gland. Cortisol plays a part in many body functions, such as the metabolism of fat, protein and carbs. It functions to suppress the immune system, to increase blood sugar and also decreases bone formation. It’s release is connected to low blood sugar levels and stress, both of the mentioned increasing its release temporarily.
When subjected to long term elevated level of cortisol, a.k.a when the stress levels of the individual wont naturally drop down, the body and mind will face the negative effects of cortisol. To mention only a few; weight loss, loss of appetite (or increased appetite but no weight gain), inability to sleep/bad quality of sleep, difficulties in learning and remembering things, aggression and anxiety.
Anxiety feeds stress, and stress feeds anxiety. Anxiety is the continuous state of ”fight-or-flight”, where the mind and body are in constant alert, ready to react immediately to any kind of perceived threat. While anxiety is not always caused by stress, it has a connection to high cortisol levels both as a cause and as a symptom. Anxious individuals often have elevated cortisol levels.
Stress In dogs
Anxious dogs tend to suffer from elevated cortisol levels and hence are prone to meet the negative health effects of it as well. Rehabilitation of such dogs is slowed down because of the high stress level affecting their ability to learn new things and remember the old. The key to success when working with an anxious dog is to be able to reduce the level of long term stress, thus increasing its abilities to learn new ways of behaving and getting rid of stress-related problem behavior. It’s impossible to treat an anxious dog with just training, because the problem is not only in the inability to understand commands or to behave in an urban environment. Many anxious dogs are in fact well trained. They are just unable to work under stress, and they are stressed most if not all the time.
Reducing stress is a key factor when rehabilitating a dog expressing problematic behavior connected with high level of anxiety. Training is just one part of changing the behavior; most often than not an overall change in life is required. Sometimes very anxious individuals benefit from medication, but in many cases just changing the way we communicate and behave around and with the dog is enough to encourage a needed change for the better. This is explained by both the drop of stress hormone levels as well as introducing a new, healthier way of facing the world and it’s many stressful situations.
Anxious dogs lack the ability to recover from the stress normally. Their self-leveling system is affected by trauma or by natural, in-born traits, causing their stress to build faster than release. Dogs like this need to avoid getting stressed, because they are unable to recover from it. In most cases, this means avoiding situations that make the dog stress out and teaching ways to withdraw from situations that are likely to push the dog over the edge. This way, once the dog is exposed to stress, it’s let likely to panic and more likely to listen to the owner.
Lack of discipline has nothing to do with an anxious dog expressing anxious behavior. This is best explained with a scenario where a fearful person meets the source of their fear, i.e. a spider, for example. Being scared makes the person react in one or another way, and that reaction has nothing to do with the person not knowing how to behave in said situation. Fear overrides common sense and learned behaviors, turning even us people from civilised persons into a squelish, primal, scared creatures. In dogs, fear often expresses itself in the form of aggression or total lack of concentration. To the owner and bystanders this may look like untrained behavior and unfortunately that misinterpretation often leads to navigating towards wrong kind of trainers. Sometimes these trainers use tools that restrict the dog from reacting, thus further increasing its stress.
Another fairly common misunderstanding claims only traumatized or mistreated dogs develop anxiety. This is not true; while trauma can cause anxiety, bad nerve structure can cause it as well, especially if the owner doesn’t acknowledge the symptoms soon enough and react to them immediately. Nerve structure is something that passes on easily, making it crucial for any breeder to know what a good temperament is. We should also avoid praising and encouraging over energetic and hyper performances over calmer ones in certain dog sports.
Thirdly, anxiety is not caused by bad training nor does it mean you are a bad trainer. While some problems are certainly created by lack of practice or guidance, some are caused by a wide variety of. Different things, happenings, genetics and surroundings. Anxiety is one of these things.
Lastly, like I mentioned before:
Anxiety is not fixed with training only. Anxious dogs have their whole system affected by stress. Certain hormone levels are elevated, they are unable to recover from stressful situations and their ability to learn and remember is decreased. An overall evaluation of the situation is a must. No amount of discipline and training will fix a symptom created by an issue that sits far deeper than just disobedience.
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