I am often asked, ”what do horses have to do with art, and what in the heck does nursing have to do with this all woo woo stuff?” It’s one of my favorite questions, because I am so passionate about the answer, and about how these things fit together in the most beautiful way.
Let’s start with a look at the state of nursing today. Actually, this is relevant to all healing and caring vocations: Nursing, Medicine, Social Work, Behavioral Health, and Animal Welfare, but I speak especially about nursing because, as a nurse myself, I am really concerned that our profession is in crisis without a viable lifeline.
Did you know that nurse burnout was actually cited as a public health crisis 2016? Nurses are leaving the profession in unprecedented numbers at a time when chronic health issues are becoming more and prevalent, and the question of who will take care of our aging population is especially worrisome. Nurse burnout is a hot topic that feels more like a hot potato, with little being done in the workplace or in academic centers to fully address the problem. This is not a new phenomenon by any stretch of the imagination – first diagnosed in nurses as far back as in the 1950s[cm_footnote_parse][/cm_footnote_parse], the term “compassion fatigue” was coined by C. Joinson in an article in Nursing Magazine, in 1992. It saddens me that, in the ensuing 25 years, so little has been done to address the issue: compassion fatigue is a veritable epidemic in the nursing profession these days.
At the time Joinson coined the term – also now known as Secondary Traumatic Stress – to describe the “loss of the ability to nurture’ that was noted in some nurses in emergency department settings,” however research now shows that this type of fatigue is prevalent in all practice settings and is believed to be an inevitable side effect of working in a caring vocation, or with those impacted by trauma.
Most of us nurses spend our days listening, decision making and advocating for others but we cannot advocate ourselves out of a paper bag. The result is disastrous – both for ourselves and our patients. The California Nursing Diversion program[cm_footnote_parse][/cm_footnote_parse] for example, which is a mandatory program for nurses with substance abuse issues, has a very, very long list of current and former enrollees. I look at the list and wonder how many could have been helped earlier, before their own personal crises occurred?
I believe that self-care is a useful antidote (or ideally a prophylactic) to compassion fatigue, and helping nurses to learn important self-care strategies will be key to addressing this crisis. It is the first step towards a larger, profession-wide culture shift: we need to learn to “put our own oxygen masks on first.”
I walked (or was it crawled?) along the path of burnout and stress for over 10 years. The only options I was aware of were: personal therapy, medication, and Employee Assistance programs for job stress. I finally suffered a panic attack that was the catalyst that started me on a profound healing journey, one that – you guessed it – involved art, and horses.
Those of you who have been in the presence of a horse for any length of time have probably experienced feeling a state of peace and relaxation. The institute for HeartMath actually has a term for the healing capacity of horses. They call it “bidirectional healing.” In short, the human heart has a larger electromagnetic field and higher level of intelligence than the brain. As measured by a magnetometer, the human heart’s energy field can radiate up to 8 to 10 feet. Where this gets relevant (and very cool) is in relation to a horse. A horse’s heart is 5 times the size of a human heart and therefore their electromagnetic field is much larger than ours, so theirs “overrides” ours. In their natural emotional state of serenity, horses are more likely to have what science calls a “coherent” heart rhythm (heart rate pattern), which studies have shown can be a reliable measure of well-being, consistent with human emotional states of calm and joy. Because their electromagnetic field is stronger than ours, their more coherent heart rhythm positively influences our own heart rate variability. That leads, in turn, to reduced cortisol levels, lower blood pressure, and increased levels of beta endorphins (the hormones that make you feel good). Bottom line: in the presence of horses you feel better, and when you feel better you are more able to relax and rid your body of stress, negative emotions, or feelings of inadequacy. How cool is that?! I think we’ve just answered the question of “why horses?”
So now let’s look at art, and the benefits of engaging in the creative process. There are many studies that cite creating art as a significant factor stress reduction. One such study found that 45 minutes of creative activity significantly lessens stress in the body (as measured by stress hormone levels such as cortisol), regardless of artistic experience or talent. Art in any form – drawing, painting, clay, coloring, music, collage, or any other creative activity – is good for your body, mind and soul!
Being around horses is relaxing, and reduces stress. Creating art reduces stress. Combining these two is a powerful recipe for healing. When you are relaxed, you are able to move into your creative capacity with ease and grace. When you access that state of “flow”, you stop worrying about not being good enough and you simply ARE. When the threshold for self-consciousness is lowered, you can set aside what others think and find your own path and heart space, and that is a place of PURE MAGIC!
So, when people ask, “why art and horses for nurses?” I answer, “because they pave the way back to learning self-care and self-nurture.” This is a powerful self-care prescription; one that we, our families and our patients are crying out for. Creating art in the presence of horses gives us a place to re-learn what makes our hearts sing with joy. By re-learning how to connect back to themselves, nurses and other caregivers can learn to feel self-compassion again, and to find respite from the storm. We can come home from our jobs and be joyfully present with ourselves and our families, instead of bitterly relieving our stress-filled days. (P.S. your partner does not want to hear about all of it! They have no idea what our job entails and don’t want to be dragged through endless recaps of stressful days). When we change our formula for self-care, we become healthier in all areas of our lives. We begin to live again and that is the greatest gift ever – to ourselves, our families, our friends, and our patients.
This is why I created Art, Soul and Horses: as a call for the nursing community to remember the importance of taking care of ourselves. Art, Soul and Horses is a sacred community where healers can come together to experience joy and find relief from stress – and in this place of joy and self-compassion, we can set the stage for changing the culture of nursing. Shifting the destructive direction of our profession onto a more nurturing, sustainable path may be a long-tall order, but I fully believe that we have the collective power to do it – starting with ourselves. Will you join me?
In Joy and Healing~ Vivian, Luca and Skye Mama
Art, Soul and Horses offers Vision Art Workshops, Personal 1:1 Equine Gestalt Coaching in person or telephonically, and Nursing/Nursing Student Community Support Groups onsite at our ranch in Escondido, California.