UC Davis graduate, Spring 2022
Major: Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology
Nora gasped as I slammed the knife through the frozen strawberry, nicking my fingernail and narrowly missing my flesh. We were anxiously awaiting our presentation on animal-assisted therapy at the weekly lab meeting, and preparing treats for the piglets had turned out to be an effective (but dangerous) way to relieve tension. Although the atmosphere at lab meetings is laid back and I felt well prepared, I always feel stressed before presenting. During our presentation, while we were discussing the meaning of elevated cortisol levels in a study on therapy dogs, Becca pointed out that in some cases, acute stress is a healthy response that helps prepare us to handle challenges. This was a good reminder that sometimes the goal of our work with therapy animals may not be to eliminate stress, but rather to change people’s perceptions of it.
Although I was only mildly anxious about presenting at the lab meeting, I have had more extreme physiological reactions to public speaking in the past: I once almost fainted during a presentation, the audience turning into a Monet painting as I struggled to hear their questions over the “whoosh” of blood leaving my brain. And yet, I enjoy having the opportunity to articulate my ideas to a captive audience, so I have learned to accept my body’s reactions. The stress I feel helps keep me focused and alert. The side effect of fainting, while not ideal, is manageable with a strategically placed chair, just in case. I believe that my acceptance of my body’s stress responses comes partly from experiencing them on a regular basis when I was younger and had social anxieties. I would often blush, sweat, or feel faint during normal interactions, so when I later did my first class presentation in college, the anxiety I felt didn’t seem unusual. And although I was nervous, I was also eager to be heard.
When Becca mentioned that elevated cortisol levels can be beneficial in some situations (called eustress, meaning “good stress”), I thought about how changes in our mindset can affect how we perceive our bodies’ reactions. Nora and I want to focus our research on using therapy pigs to treat social anxieties, and it occurred to me that the pigs could not only reduce people’s stress, but also provide a positive outlet for it. When I competed in dog agility and volunteered at a wildlife rescue center as a teenager, those activities did not immediately eliminate my anxiety. Instead, performing with my dog and handling wild animals focused my stress into excitement, sharpening my mind and my reflexes. Perhaps participants in our study could perform tasks, such as creating enrichment for the pigs or training them, that would involve interacting with people. The excitement of working with the pigs could allow participants to interpret their pounding hearts as a sign of eager anticipation instead of panic.
After our presentation, Nora and I returned to the piglets’ stall for their second training session of the day. While we worked on recalls and gradually getting them used to being held, I thought about the stress they were experiencing – the positive stress of learning what they’re capable of.
Green Care Blog
Here you can find blog posts from each Green Care Lab intern. We'll be talking about our research process, the benefits of Green Care therapy, and sharing pictures of our work. Follow along with us!