Scientists are constantly uncovering new information about the body – a superbly complex system of interacting mechanisms. We tend to think of ourselves as a ‘brain’ attached to dumb organs, but this is vastly untrue. Our organs have their own ‘brain’ and what is contained within our bodies functions more like a society of negotiating interactions.
I have studied this, not just in relation to learning about horses, but also myself – in fact, firstly to learn about myself. We often hear people talk about anthropomorphising our horses, but what I see is that humans tend to project their emotions onto others, horses and humans alike. I attribute the reason for this to the notion that emotions have a bad connotation in human society – we tuck them away so as not to appear vulnerable. I have heard very well-known horse trainers say things like they have ‘no emotion’ in their description of how the horse doesn’t respond negatively to their energy. However, my interpretation is that they are using the word emotion to represent anxiety. Emotion can be calm.
Two very important concepts to know about the way that our analysing human brain works, are splitting and projection. The first is the tendency for us to group things into black and white, good or bad. It helps us to regulate strong emotions by magnetising ourselves toward things that we deem good, and blocking out things that we deem bad. Our perception though is quite biased to numerous factors (likeness to ourselves, experience, motivations, our understanding and empathy levels etc.) A high level of anxiety causes more splitting as we use it to control the emotional flood. It is a soothing technique that is generally quite effective but not particularly helpful in the long run. Black and white thinking is a barrier to learning and gaining knowledge.
The second part is projection. Projection is when we feel emotions that are uncomfortable and try to pass them along to someone else, avoiding the responsibility for processing them ourselves. It’s a natural reaction that animals do. Have you ever seen an angry/fearful dog bite someone that is not the perpetrator of their fear? Or have you noticed a horse who is bitten by another horse goes immediately to a horse lower in the pecking order and takes aggressive action against them? This is projection. Releasing the tension caused by an emotion outwards. If you say that your horse is _________(tired/angry/sad/sticky/stubborn…etc.), we might want to check first if that’s really our own emotion that we are projecting. Of course, horses have emotions and it’s acceptable to recognise them. The harder part, it seems, is to recognise our own emotions and take responsibility for processing them.
So, where am I going with all this? It leads back to the concept that our stress and resulting uncomfortable emotions can lead to a prolonged feeling of insecurity and lack of safety. We are after all, no more adept at controlling the ‘brains’ of our organs than any other animal. The brain that we control is our unique pre-frontal cortex and the source of our cognition and language. This is where we produce logic, that funnily enough doesn’t have to be logical to give us reasons for doing things a certain way.
The ‘brains’ of our organs interacting produce emotions through the nervous system. One of the newer discoveries is that the energy-producing structures that reside in all of our cells, called mitochondria, have a strong relationship to anxiety. The differences in mitochondria after prolonged stress could be why our bodies hold on to trauma. You can read more about mitochondria and the linkages to stress in this article.
If we acknowledge that stress causes us to soothe by ‘splitting’ things into good and bad and/or ‘projecting’ our discomfort outwards then we can manage ourselves better in these situations to harness the protective capacity of co-regulation with others through the nervous system. We can also find ways to boost our energy-producing mitochondria so that we become more resistant to stress, and ultimately enhance our ability to resist the long-term effects of stress that can evolve into disease and a faster aging process.
Some ways to boost mitochondria are through exercise particularly strength training, taking antioxidants and nutrients to limit the sources of oxidative stress (see this article for a list of nutrients vital for producing energy, otherwise known as ATP), heat therapy, cold therapy, massage, acupuncture, and particular substances that can protect mitochondria from damage and help their efficiency – one of them under investigation is curcumin (found in turmeric). Also reducing exposure to toxins is recommended since mitochondria are particularly sensitive to toxic substances such as air pollution, heavy metals, alcohol, and some prescription drugs such as NSAIDS (includes ibuprofen for humans and bute for horses), statins, aspirin, acetaminophen, and antibiotics.
Without energy there is no life, so the function of the mitochondria is life itself. Our ability to acknowledge our energy forces through emotions is vital to our well-being and health. This is important in stress resiliency where our capacity to regulate comes through our energy-producing mitochondria present in all cells.