Trauma to Trust: Understanding How Animal-Assisted Therapy Facilitates Therapeutic Safety Through the Lens of the Polyvagal Theory
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Trauma was traditionally regarded as an event that happened to a person. However, this understanding has evolved over the years into the appreciation of trauma as the embodied human experience of feeling unsafe that continues in the present moment through repeating defensive responses in the nervous system that are meant to keep an individual alive. The continuation of defense strategies can create physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual distress for a person and can impede healing processes. There have been ongoing discussions in the field of mental health as to how to best help people heal from trauma responses. Current research on the neurobiology of trauma indicates that understanding the physiological and social processes that we use for survival are the keys to understanding the pathways to healing. This manuscript thesis explores the biopsychosocial processes human and non-human mammals use to create safety described by the theoretical framework of the Polyvagal Theory. Second, I explore animal-assisted therapy with canines, animal-assisted therapeutic interventions, and how this adjunct approach to therapy can be understood as a facilitator of humans’ biopsychosocial experiences of safety. Last, I argue that canine-assisted therapy can be an appropriate and safe manner of activating the social engagement system, as proposed by the polyvagal theory, to assist clients in therapy to access safe ways of regulating and restoring their nervous system to a balanced state of calm, resilience, and growth.