What Animals Taught Me About Managing Anxiety
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written by Victoria Piontek, author and parent
On a frosty April morning, I found myself standing in a horse paddock waiting for an equine family therapy session to start. My teen son had been suffering from social anxiety since elementary school. As he got older, his anxiety grew more complicated, and the lack of relief morphed into chronic depression despite regular, ongoing therapy. At his psychiatrist’s suggestion, we were trying a new program that offered equine therapy as part of their methodology.
It was my family’s first experience with equine therapy, but not my first time around horses. I grew up with them. As a kid, I spent my middle school years on the back of a gentle black and white Welsh pony who I loved with all my heart, so I was familiar with the power of friendship between animals and humans. However, I never realized the transformative insight they give us into our natures, struggles, and relationships.
During our hour equine therapy session, my husband, son, and I discovered more about ourselves than we had in years of previous therapy. I was thunderstruck by the horse’s ability to break through emotional blocks by simply doing his horsey thing while we interacted with him.
That life-changing equine session got me thinking about my childhood filled with anxiety and animals. Anxiety tends to be hereditary. Watching my son struggle made me more aware of my own generalized anxiety and the way my exposure to animals in childhood had grounded me, particularly my pony and a funny little goat named Jennifer.
Jennifer was a faithful, bouncy creature who followed me to my school bus stop each morning and would be mysteriously waiting for me when the bus dropped me off at the day’s end as if she could tell time. Jennifer’s daily, playful greetings soothed the worries I lugged around like a rock-filled backpack by grounding me in the present and getting me out of my head, something anxiety sufferers struggle to do.
These experiences inspired me to write my new middle-grade novel BETTER WITH BUTTER.
BETTER WITH BUTTER is a story about a twelve-year-old girl with generalized anxiety disorder and the fainting goat who changes her life. Using a fainting goat as her emotional support animal provided a lot of comic moments and allowed me to approach this tough subject with humor, heart, and a light hand for younger readers.
According to the CDC, approximately 4.4 million children ages 3-17 have diagnosed anxiety. I hope BETTER WITH BUTTER helps them be seen, provides insight into this mental illness, and increases empathy for anxiety sufferers.
People struggling with mental illness don’t always realize their courage and strength. I also hope BETTER WITH BUTTER helps remind us that sometimes the hardest battles we fight are the ones in our minds and that people with mental illnesses do that valiantly every day.
While BETTER WITH BUTTER is about anxiety, it’s also an animal friendship story and an ode to the pets who love unconditionally and help us heal.
Victoria Piontek is the author of The Spirit of Cattail County, a Bank Street College Best Book of the Year. As a kid, she was lucky to have a menagerie of pets, including a goat that liked to follow her to the school bus each morning. Better with Butter is her second novel. Visit her at victoriapiontek.com and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @victoriapiontek.
Note from Melissa: Thank you so much for sharing your story, Victoria! I couldn’t agree more and can totally relate. I didn’t know I would even like dogs until we rescued one for my daughter’s sake — for some of her struggles with sensory stuff and anxiety. But, it was transformative for me more than her. I can’t wait to read Better with Butter!
Mental Illness in Children’s Books
Stories About Rescue Animals (Including Dogs, Cats, Skunks, and Squirrels)
Middle-Grade Books for Tweens Who Love Animals