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  • Yoga Therapy and The Human-Animal Bond: How Kerry Murphy Provides Support to Therapy Clients

    Kerry Murphy has been with us for a while now, and we think she is a wonderful human being. She started at UpliftME as a student intern and quickly became an integral part of the team. Kerry has since graduated from her Masters program and has become a busy and sought-after therapist within our group. We can completely understand; she is a great therapist who supports children and adults with mind-body interventions and yoga. She also has a passion for animals and will someday have an animal companion to support her work as a therapist. I interviewed Kerry recently and here is what she shared – you can see why we are so excited about her at UpliftME.

    Tell Us Why You Are An Interesting Mental Health Clinician

    I am an interesting clinician because I have a lot of interests and try to incorporate them into the healing process. I love animals and yoga, which has developed into somatic interventions, and I am working towards partnering with a canine co-therapist. I have always been fascinated by what makes people do the things they do. This is why I was initially interested in studying criminology. My curiosity has developed and transformed into a desire to connect with people as a mental health therapist and create a space where they can heal themselves in partnership with me.

    How Did You Decide To Become A Mental Health Therapist?

    When I was studying criminology and justice studies, I had the opportunity to take an Inside Out class that took place in a prison in Philadelphia. We learned and discussed issues within the criminal justice system, with half of the students being from Drexel University and the other half being individuals who were incarcerated at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility. Through my conversations and observations, it became apparent to me that most of the prison population was convicted due to issues related to poverty or mental illness.

    Instead of becoming an FBI agent, as I originally thought, I became interested in how our systems support our ability to thrive and what can be done to enhance one’s mental health. Around that same time, I was meeting with my own therapist and remember having an “a-ha” moment while talking about different ways we can communicate our needs. In this session, I remember watching my therapist write out the key points on a whiteboard and thinking to myself, “What an incredible job! I wish I could do this.” After that session, I immediately switched my minor to psychiatric rehabilitation and began researching how I could make this dream a reality.

    Why Did You Choose To Provide Therapy From An Attachment-based Lens?

    It resonated with my own healing and felt very aligned with my beliefs and values. After being introduced to attachment theory in graduate school, I could see how intertwined it was with everything else I had studied and been exposed to. Providing supports through an attachment lens allows me to connect with a variety of populations and see just how universal the need for connection is despite major differences in upbringings and backgrounds. I have continued to see the healing that occurs when we use an attachment-based lens to provide therapy, which solidified my respect and commitment to working at an attachment-based practice.

    What Role Can Animals Play in Helping Children and Adults Heal From Attachment Wounds, Anxiety, Depression, and Trauma?

    In my experience, animals can be a powerful support in helping children and adults heal from attachment wounds. A healthy and secure relationship can be practiced and modeled when a person shares an emotional bond or attachment with an animal, specifically through nonverbal signs of communication. Animals are incredible observers and must use their bodies, voices, and behaviors to communicate information. You can learn many less obvious lessons by sharing a bond with an animal. For instance, a person can gain confidence and insight about what they need when they experience taking care of an animal; they can develop an understanding of unconditional love and acceptance through the shared bond.

    When training an animal, you might see that the relationship itself is the most important part of teaching the behaviors you want. An animal is more willing to connect when trust and safety are present. Through this connection, an animal can foster healing in the same way a healthy relationship with another person can. I think it’s easy to forget that humans are animals too; just because we can’t speak the same language as our animals doesn’t mean we can’t connect and heal together.

    Another way animals can help facilitate change is by providing physical touch. A therapy dog may be trained to rest their head on a person’s lap when they become aware of elevated emotions or receive a cue from their handler/co-therapist. A canine’s incredibly powerful nose can literally smell fear, depression, and anxiety through the pheromones and different odors released through our autonomic nervous system. Based on the levels of adrenaline, sweat, increased blood pressure, heart rate, and pace of breathing, a dog can oftentimes tell what you are feeling before you can. After smelling the change in odors, the therapy dog can rest their face on a person’s lap, encouraging them to pet the dog’s head. On the surface, it may look like the dog is just sitting there; however, the person’s nervous system would tell a different story.

    In this moment, the person is encouraged to stay in the present moment and to release trauma from the body. The interaction with the dog increases our ability to recognize when our body is becoming distressed and to turn that awareness into a supportive action. Our body holds onto the sensations of an experience, and our mind replays the memory. The therapy dog’s presence can stop the brain’s instinct to replay and instead encourage the body to fully feel these sensations because it knows it’s safe to do so.

    In this example, the therapy dog engaged four of the five senses for this client:

    1. Touch: the pressure of the dog’s head on the lap, the feeling of the dog’s breath as its head slightly raises and falls, and the softness of the dog’s fur as she pets its head.

    2. Sight: She may avert her eyes down and look at the dog.

    3. Hearing: She may hear a sigh or deepened breath from the dog.

    4. Smell: The scent of the dog’s fur may be present. The furry co-therapist calmed the client’s body through physical touch, while the human therapist continued to be attentive and receptive to the client’s story.

    As a Therapist and a Yoga Instructor, What Have You Learned Through the Practice of Yoga? 

    I’ve learned a lot about how to show up for others. I’ve developed an increased ability to show myself compassion and to let go of judgment, and this has completely changed how I take care of myself, how I interact with others, and how I hold space for people in the therapy room. Becoming a yoga instructor emphasized creating a supportive, safe, and completely open space for participants, encouraging them to come together and learn how to listen to the incredible wisdom the body has to share.

    But, in order to do this for others, I needed to begin with myself. I don’t expect anyone to try anything I would not try. Taking the time to not only learn how to be a teacher but also to be a student myself allowed me to integrate and understand how powerful yoga can be in the healing and therapeutic process. My practice as a yogi taught me to create a space of healing as well as how to recognize when intense emotions show up through reading body language. This way, I can adjust what is going on in a therapy session by taking a pause, slowing down, and adding a grounding element.

    What Else Should We Know? 

    There is so much to Kerry.  Check out our next blog where she will go into detail about her work as a yoga therapist and provide additional tips to help you heal.  

    You can also read more about her here.