Survivors of trauma use experiential therapy to process difficult feelings, including anxiety about COVID-19.

By Jim Tuttle

COVID-19, Mental Health
Share this LinkedIn

Arms outstretched and eyes closed, Rebecca Hedman sits atop a horse named Socks as he strides steadily around a circular pen on a bright, sunny day. Rebecca breathes deeply and focuses on the rhythmic movement of the animal beneath her. She’s ridden horses for more than 10 years, but this is more than just horseback riding; it’s therapy. 

It’s almost like the wind carries away the pain that I’m working through,” Rebecca says. “It’s beautiful. You’re outside in nature, you’re trusting the horse and they’re trusting you.” 

For the past 10 months, Rebecca has attended weekly sessions of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy at a farm about 15 miles east of Austin to help process trauma from sexual assault. Since March, she’s also been using this time with the horses and her therapist, Kathleen Choe, to address her feelings about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Changes at the coffee shop where she works as a barista have been one new source of stress. The shop closed its dining room and switched to drive-thru service only to keep employees and customers better protected from the coronavirus. 

But Rebecca says some customers have been rude, and it’s difficult to communicate behind the mask she’s forced to wear. She has to sanitize her work station every 30 minutes, a new routine that reinforces her concerns about the virus. But she’s doing her best to adjust and cope with the unknown.

“For the first two weeks, I had no idea if I would have a job the next day, and so that created anxiety,” Rebecca says. “And then I started worrying about the economy, and then I started worrying about my friends and my grandma and my family. And so there has been a lot that I have to really work through.”

Rebecca ends her therapy sessions by lying facedown and relaxing for several minutes before dismounting. “They’re giant and they’re supportive, and I think the best part about that is that I’m putting all that pain on their shoulders and they can carry it,” she says. “I don’t have to carry it. They’re carrying it for me.” [Photo by Jim Tuttle]
Rebecca ends her therapy sessions by lying facedown and relaxing for several minutes before dismounting. “They’re giant and they’re supportive, and I think the best part about that is that I’m putting all that pain on their shoulders and they can carry it,” she says. “I don’t have to carry it. They’re carrying it for me.” [Photo by Jim Tuttle]

Rebecca’s not alone. Her therapist says many clients have expressed increased anxiety, and there’s been an influx of new clients as a result of the coronavirus. Kathleen has offered to reduce or suspend fees for clients who’ve lost their jobs because of the pandemic, since those clients are especially in need of support.

“A lot of my clients are not sleeping well, they’re not eating well, they’re turning to their addictions to cope,” Kathleen said. “They’re confused because there’s so much misinformation and conflicting information that’s coming out.”

With the pandemic causing widespread uncertainty in so many areas of life, Kathleen worries that some people, especially those with previous traumatic experiences and other challenges, could suffer negative mental health effects by remaining in a prolonged state of mental stress.

“With anything that’s a chronic stressor like addiction, ongoing abuse, or a pandemic, our brain really wasn’t wired to stay in that survival stance for extended periods of time,” Kathleen says. “And unfortunately for people who are already dealing with some mental health challenges or unsafe environments, their nervous system kind of locks into this survival stance.”

The daughter of Holocaust survivors who immigrated to the U.S. from the Netherlands when she was a young girl, Kathleen has been a therapist for more than 25 years. 

“I really got into the work because I had some bad experiences trying to recover from my own trauma, and I wanted to offer trauma-informed services to other survivors of eating disorders, sexual abuse, and secondary trauma,” Kathleen says. “I wanted to offer people a way forward with healing that had less bumps and misunderstandings.” 

Hers is a hybrid practice, offering traditional talk therapy in an office setting, as well as experiential therapy with horses. Since it’s easier to maintain safe distances outdoors at the farm, she has continued offering equine sessions throughout the pandemic, while her traditional sessions have moved online.

Kathleen Choe has been a therapist for more than 25 years and became certified to do experiential therapy using horses in 2013. “There’s something really powerful about working with a very large animal that you can’t control, and creating safety and a relationship with this animal,” she said. [Photo by Jim Tuttle]

“My clients who come out for the experiential therapy are the ones who don’t really do well in a traditional talk-therapy setting,” Kathleen says. “And you really can’t bring horses into Zoom. I offered all of my clients the option to transfer to telehealth for the time being, and only one of them chose that option. The rest have all continued to come out to the barn and work with their horse.”

New clients begin the process by selecting a horse they want to build an ongoing relationship with. Creating and maintaining that connection is a major objective of the process, which is guided by the therapist. 

“The relationship work they are doing with their horses brings up feelings that tap into the trauma, and it comes up much more organically,” Kathleen says. “What’s making you feel unsafe right now? What do you think that might be tied to? What other experiences have you had with this particular feeling? Then we can work through it. Instead of talking about what you might do next time, we actually do it in that moment.”

Briana Stringer said she’s been in some form of therapy to deal with trauma for much of her life, but she just started working with Kathleen and the horses a few months ago. As an animal lover and a professional dog trainer, she was interested in trying equine-assisted therapy when she learned about it. She said she’s made significant progress so far. 

“I don’t know if it was just the foundation of going through therapy my whole life or my age or the timing of it or the pain involved to get me here and move forward, but I think it probably has to do with the animals for me,” Briana says. “There’s no games, there’s no egos, there’s no ‘what are they in it to get from me out of it?’ They’re consistent.”

Briana Stringer works with a horse named Bonnie. “I’ve been around animals my whole life and I was around horses at some of the worst times when I was a teenager,” she said. “They saved me a lot of times when nobody else could.” [Photo by Jim Tuttle]

Briana started her therapy at the farm a few months ago and was just finding her stride when the coronavirus reached Texas in March. She feared she would have to suspend her therapy, as her stress around the pandemic piled up, but Kathleen continued to offer the service. 

“I feel like I’m better now than I’ve ever been, and this has been probably the most important thing because I can come and share how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking,” Briana says.

The last several months have been uniquely challenging for therapists, Kathleen says. Although she’s had years of experience hearing about the anxieties of others, it’s unusual to be in a situation where she is also personally affected by the same ongoing issue, as is the case with the coronavirus. While remote therapy on Zoom has become a necessity for some of her clients, her sessions at the farm feel easier.

“I think the beauty of it is that you’re almost in this little bubble out at the barn. The horses don’t know there’s a pandemic. They’re still eating and pooping and sleeping and doing all the things that they do,” Kathleen said. “You’re out in nature, you’re getting all this wonderful sensory input from the breeze and the birds, the trees and the grass and the horses. It’s a chance for the nervous system to realize that there are things about the world that haven’t changed.”