How working with animals helps me manage my mental health
Eleanor blogs about the pleasures of volunteering on a farm and explains how being close to nature soothes her anxieties.
Eleanor lives to find the countryside corners in her home city. She loves being outdoors with animals or cycling with friends.
Since a young age, I’ve had episodes of acute anxiety, OCD, and mild depression. My mental wellbeing has always been tied up with my circumstances, so I only tend to have a bad episode when something in my life is going wrong.
If I have periods where I can’t sleep, feel lost and overwhelmed, don’t want to be alone, lose my appetite, can’t sit still, get relentless palpitations and hand tremors, and my OCD flares up properly, I don’t have to wonder why.
"I’ve worked hard to build an adult life for myself that is peaceful and stable."
I am grateful to be able to say that these episodes are rarer nowadays – I’ve worked hard to build an adult life for myself that is peaceful and stable. But you can’t avoid life! Family conflict, the long illness and death of my mum, cancer in the family, a couple of bad breakups, money worries, career crises, and now having long-distance care responsibilities for my grandparents – these are some of the things that have brought my anxiety and OCD rushing to the surface in the past few years.
At this point in my life I’m lucky to have learned what resources work for me and be ready to use them all. Things that have helped during bad episodes are my local Mind, a solid support network, knitting, podcasts, playing video games, and most of all being in nature and spending time with animals.
When I’m trying to imagine feeling calm and getting perspective, I always picture myself at the edge of a big lake, sitting on the end of a jetty, legs dangling over the side, no-one around except fish and birds and insects.
Being in nature, with dirty hands, muddy shoes and straw in my hair, and being with animals, also has this grounding, calming effect. When I was very young I lived in the countryside with rabbits and chickens and nettles and cowpats, maybe that’s why. I don’t know if there was any connection but my OCD started after my family split and we moved to a city without my dad. I live in London now and it’s the only place that’s ever properly felt like home, but I think that’s partly because there are so many green spaces and waterways.
"Having to accept death as a natural day-to-day part of the life cycle has been healthy for me, although it’s never easy."
I started volunteering at a farm with animals a few years ago during a very low period. A typical day’s volunteering on the farm starts at 10am, changing into wellies and chatting to the farmer on duty about what’s new this week – there might be some bouncy new piglets, freshly hatched chicks, a new henhouse or a different feeding regime from last week. So much can change in just seven days, or even overnight. One time the morning update was that we’d lost 10 chickens to a fox in a twilight raid. Having to accept death as a natural day-to-day part of the life cycle has been healthy for me, although it’s never easy.
"Crouching in the garden smelling the lovely, earthy smells is one of the only times I can feel at ease."
The morning feed is the first job. I like saying hello to the goats and sheep first thing and giving them breakfast. I’ll jump at the task of feeding and watering the guinea pigs and rabbits and letting some of them out to roam on the grass. Picking a bucket of greens for these ‘small furries’ is a job I love. In winter this can take ages, grasping at stubby tufts of grass with stiff, freezing hands, but in spring after a day or two of rain and sun it’s five minutes of grabbing luscious bunches of juicy dandelions and handfuls of fat grass and clover. Crouching in the garden, getting dew and soil on my hands and smelling the lovely, earthy smells is one of the only times I can feel at ease without wanting earphones in to cancel the noise of my busy brain.
After the feed sometimes the donkeys are braying for a walk, or the duck house needs a scrub, or the ferrets need socialising. Sometimes the pig pen needs a poo pick, or the fences need weeding, the bug hotels renovating, the compost pitching into the next bay, or the chickens de-lousing (nothing nice about that job, just gross, but necessary). Or there’s the little hospital in the barn with a steady roster to tend to – snotty, wheezing chickens, freshly neutered rabbits, and the odd lethargic or lame duck.
"I’ve met some of the best people in the world rounding up the birds at the end of the day to put them to bed."
The social side of farm volunteering is as valuable and wonderful as the rest. I’ve met some of the best people in the world rounding up the birds at the end of the day to put them to bed, warming up with tea by the wood burner on Christmas Eve, and giving a day-old chick physiotherapy. Even when I’m at my best I find meeting new people intimidating, and making conversation when you feel low can feel exhausting or impossible. But when you have a practical task at hand – the common ground of a tangible goal, and a communal love for being outside with animals – it doesn’t feel like any effort at all.
"Being in nature this way anchors me in my body in a way nothing else can."
Working with animals and getting immersed in nature engages all your senses in a way that is totally grounding. It forces you to be alert and in the present moment, not least because if you don’t pay attention you might skewer someone’s foot with a pitchfork, let a 500-pound pig break out of its pen to rampage around a densely populated urban environment, or trim off the wrong bit of a goat’s hoof. Being in nature this way anchors me in my body in a way nothing else can, and with a brain that’s ever whirring and buzzing and floating off on a cloud of imagined catastrophe, that’s very therapeutic.
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