Lorraine Kerr-Atkinson M.S. NCC, LPC

9090 S. Ridgeline Blvd, Suite 220 Littleton, CO 80129

Serving Highlands Ranch


Anxiety and the Animal in You

Anxiety and Biology

At our obedience class, our family dog, pictured above was highly distracted. She could not learn a new command. Her eyes kept scanning the area and she could not even focus on familiar commands. Why was she distracted and jumpy? Anxiety!!

Until my family and I rescued the above funny looking (but cute) dog, I had no idea that dogs could suffer from anxiety. Luna (as in the goofy Luna Lovegood character from Harry Potter by J.K. Rowlins) was traumatized by her past. She was afraid of people (especially men) and other dogs. She startled and cowered at any fast movement or loud sound. After I trained in EMDR I realized, in retrospect, that Luna had a doggy version of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

It took almost a year before Luna settled into our household and really became a part of the family. It was not an easy journey, but I have been struck at how much anxiety is a biological process that animals, including the human animal, experience.

Some dogs are inherently anxious. They were born that way. People also can be born with a tendency to be anxious. Psychologists have studied shyness and find that this temperament trait exists in babies that are only a few months old. In our society, shy behavior is often called anxious behavior. In addition, scientists also know that anxiety and depression are heritable, meaning that anxiety may run in the family.

I encourage my clients to address the biological aspects of anxiety while we work on the psychological pieces. That means looking at family history, sleep, exercise, nutrition (too much caffeine anyone?), and ruling out or addressing physiological problems such as heart disease, menopause, etc. with a qualified physician.

Why do I do this? Because although biology often plays a role in creating anxiety, it can also help to reduce stress and lessen anxious feelings.

For example, on the advice of the dog trainer, I now take Luna on a long walk before we head off to obedience class. According to my dog trainer, exercise lessens anxiety in dogs. The difference is amazing. I can literally see her relax while her confidence increases.

Interestingly, the same principle applies to we human animals. There are good studies that show that exercise helps to alleviate stress and lowers anxiety in adults!

Other physiological ways to decrease stress and anxiety includes establishing a sleep routine and taking time to meditate or pray, do yoga, or connect to nature. Getting a good night’s sleep or going for a long bike ride, are effective ways to help you decrease stress and increase your resilience.

I know that for myself, I try to do some kind of exercise every day just because I know that exercise is as necessary to my good mental health as much as brushing my teeth everyday is necessary for good hygiene.

I think of nutrition, exercise, and sleep as the building blocks of mental health. Just as I could not train my dog if I did not attend to her physical needs, you cannot effectively address your anxiety if you ignore the biological components! So next time you feel just a little anxious, do the experiment (as I often tell my clients) and try going for a long walk.