Whispering Ants

Posted On Jul 05, 2023 |

How do the quiet sounds we hear everyday affect us & our dogs? What ANTS (Automatic negative thoughts) can a whisper on the wind evoke?

Go with me for a moment on this. I want you to think back to when you were absolutely heartbroken or upset over something, if you're older like me you’re going to have to dig really deep into your younger self to remember what savage heartbreak feels like as it may be a distant memory. Let me explain.

The first time I was truly heartbroken by a boy was when I was about 19 or 20 years old, the relationship with my boyfriend had ended and I had to go and sleep in his parents' spare room. The only thing in this room was a bed and a chest of drawers. It felt as empty and despairing as I did, the only sounds I could hear were the occasional passing cars and the rain hitting the windows. Let’s now move forward 23 years to my last major heartbreak that although it was more complex, because I knew it was best, there were still those sounds. New sounds were added like the sound of the gravel outside putting me on alert in case he had come back, more cars passing, the hum of the air as distant sounds were carried towards my open windows, bleeping signal lights and passing trains (He always arrived by train). People who were loved and full of happiness sent their laughter riding on the summer wind as a reminder that I was still failing and very much alone in that moment.

It is likely that like me, you would have forgotten this despair over time and it can all seem a bit trivial as you hardly, if ever think about it but what you may have done is block out those sounds of life, they were initially little triggers that reminded you of pain. Basically, the details fade but your subconscious remembers how much it hurt, so it will encourage you to cover up that noise.

We then make our own noise to cover noise. We get busy, physically and mentally, we talk over silences, we go to sleep listening to the television rather than hear the noises of people living their lives, or driving past on the way to a magical land we are not part of. This has become our habit.

Now the years have passed, we’re feeling very happy and content but we still have this habit of masking these sounds, the sounds we can’t control that still stir up uncomfortable feelings. They are a trigger for us despite the fact that we have long forgotten the cause.

It hit me as I lay in bed recently that I didn’t want ‘my busy noise’, I was tired and wanted to sleep without the stimulation of the TV, it was late and I knew I needed to feel rested for the next day. As I lay there I could hear the bumping of cars over drain covers and the acceleration of engines as they hit the distant dual carriageway. At that moment I had an ANT (automatic negative thought: a concept developed by Dr. Aaron Beck) “What if I just put the telly on, because I don't lose this happy feeling. That’s when the epiphany hit me, I can change the narrative on these distant sounds. I thought about the advice I give to you about counter conditioning (helping your dog feel emotionally different about things) and I realised I could associate my own triggers with a completely new emotional response.

So I focused on how happy and content I felt, I let myself become aware of how good the crisp clean cotton duvet felt as I snuggled down, I became aware of how soft it felt on my skin. I took note that I rarely felt vulnerable any more, that I was in a safe comfortable space and I was relaxed, I began to stretch out and take up the space around me. I then took in the sounds from outside my window and paired them with the deep feeling of contentment I was feeling. I even woke up the next day smiling at the hum of life, the hiss and vibration of stationary buses, and the sounds of the swifts circling the house at high speed while screeching in pure delight as they enjoyed their acrobatic flights. 

How is this relevant to our dogs? One of mine is laying at the foot of my bed while I type. Well they have also been scared, heartbroken and felt vulnerable in their lives. It could be they have left the safe haven of their mother and been shocked by the sounds of the outside as they moved location. There are dogs that like us have suffered trauma, street dogs in particular may never have felt safe around the sounds and buzz of people in a crowd. Again like us they may have forgotten the experience but never forgotten the feelings they associate with certain sounds or smells. We can’t give them analytical talking therapy over their past traumas or feelings of being spooked, but we can help them with their response to these triggers. We can feel frustrated because we are not seeing the problem. It is easy to forget that just one sound or smell can take a dog or a person back to an emotional whirlpool full of reactions that circle up from the depths of what may be a faded distant memory that is no longer clear.

Grid Walking Therapy combines so many things, we use our own energy in a nurturing way to help our dog feel safe and encourage them to slow down and smell the roses, literally. We encourage them to self soothe with their nose and in essence we repeat as often as it takes so that they begin to feel happiness and contentment while the sound of urban life carries on in the distance. We then give them choices, do they want to go slightly nearer to the urban edges or just stay back and observe? Remember they may have had years of using their own coping mechanisms and it may take months to counteract the negative experience with positive.

What is most important is that you are giving them choice, a feeling of comfort and a whole new library of emotional responses to sounds and smells that feel good. When they ask for space we are giving it, when they want to observe we are understanding, when they look for guidance we are calm and confident. Above all we are helping them to feel safe when the ants whisper.