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Humans Could Learn a Lot From Anxious Cows
July 8, 2024

Humans Could Learn a Lot From Anxious Cows

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Everyone Talks About ​The Body Keeps the Score​. A Different Kind of Book Deserves Our Attention., We love to focus on personality types, attachment styles, and diagnoses. But we’re part of a herd too., Anxiety, therapy: What we can learn from cows.

I like to talk to my therapy clients about anxious cows. Among a group of peacefully grazing cows, the mere whiff of a nervous herd member can get the other cows all stirred up. Ears perked and tails twitching, they’ll seek out a familiar cow friend, maybe one who seems a little more chill, and the pair will start licking each other’s heads, reducing heart rates with a nice, juicy tongue massage.

We are not so different from cows. We all have ways of stirring each other up and calming each other down. One member of a team at work worries about a deadline, and suddenly you’re all a little on edge (then headed for a soothing happy hour drink). Your partner is upset about a neighbor’s noisy renovation project, and before you know it, you are too.

I find that telling my clients about cows—or elephants, or even bugs—can help. I live and work on Capitol Hill in Washington, where you’ll find The Body Keeps the Score in every lending library, but I’ve never seen a copy of Frans de Waal’s Chimpanzee Politics. Maybe that book should be ubiquitous. In my experience, when you let the animal world loose into the therapy room, people relax a little. They begin to see how a dreaded trip home or conflict at the office is a brilliant opportunity to observe anxiety among a group of animals—to metaphorically pull out a naturalist’s notebook and record patterns.

Much of the therapy world is disconnected from the natural world. We are focused on personality types, attachment styles, and diagnoses backed by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (diagnoses we would never give a cow because they are just … all cows). But our emphasis on human uniqueness, while well intentioned, has backfired into a pattern of labeling a lot of adaptation as dysfunction. We turn to treatments that focus on the individual, instead of looking at how our behaviors are part of a group dynamic. We have become less concerned with our place in the grand story of life.

Humans are not unknowable unicorns. We are products of evolution. Our behavior is influenced by the processes that govern the natural world. Our families and communities are natural systems trying their best to survive and thrive. When I was writing my latest book, True to You, it was important to me to use examples from nature to help people think about human relationships. Because we can learn something about ourselves when we study other natural systems, whether it’s a prairie dog town, a termite mound, or a troop of mushrooms.

When a client shamed herself for getting too competitive with her colleagues, I suggested she read about elephant hierarchies at the watering hole. When a manager wondered why he couldn’t seem to inspire some of his team members, I pointed out that 25 percent of ants in a colony barely work at all. Maybe the answer to why you or your child is handling a situation in a particular way isn’t buried deep in a stack of psychology research or in a therapist’s TikTok dance. Maybe it’s that you are creatures trying your best to survive out there—just like every other creature on this planet.

I bring the natural world into the therapy room not to excuse behaviors but to help my clients get curious about how they, and the people in their herd, end up acting the way they do. When people see behaviors as adaptive, rather than dysfunctional, they have a better chance of shifting out of self-blame. They also stop trying to change others. Instead, they get interested in how the patterns play out, and in how they can change their part in the automatic functioning of the group. They start asking themselves, How can I learn to regulate my own anxiety when there’s not another person around to metaphorically lick my head? and How can I avoid letting my fellow cows stir me up so much?

Because that is what makes humans unique: the ability to step outside what’s automatic and activate our own best thinking. The capacity to not always have to go along with the group. To calmly speak into your phone, ‘Well, Mom, I think about that a little differently.’

Of course, learning to operate differently takes a lot of observation. We can learn something about how to observe our fellow humans (and ourselves) from researchers who study the natural world. Here are some books that I frequently recommend to my therapy clients.

If you’re overwhelmed by conflict and drama in your relationships, there’s no better book than de Waal’s Chimpanzee Politics. After you’ve met a 30-year-old chimp who acts like a child to get sympathy, and a female who tricks two warring males into grooming each other, you’ll never experience Thanksgiving with your family the same way again.

If you’re trying to build community or want to feel more connected to existing friends, Caitlin O’Connell’s Wild Rituals will have you stealing ideas from the elephant families she has studied for decades. When I learned that zebras greet each other with playful nips, it made me consider how my friendships might benefit from an elaborate handshake or a ridiculous curtsy.

I learned about the anxious cow-licking from Ashley Ward’s The Social Lives of Animals, a great read for those who tend to be too hard on themselves and need a comforting laugh. You’ll learn that cockroaches who live isolated childhoods often struggle to find love, and how locusts will chew the ass off the locust in front of them to keep the swarm moving in the same direction. (I’ll let you decide the area of your life in which this metaphor is most useful.)

If you’re lying awake at night worried about the future of America, Thomas Seeley’s Honeybee Democracy will teach you how honeybees wiggle their tiny bee butts to make important decisions about the future of the hive. Who doesn’t love a story with a dance-off?

No book can replace the value of getting out in nature. Even 10 minutes outside can be enough to reduce some stress and improve your mood. Feeling connected to the natural world also keeps us mindful of the global challenges we face and the part we can play in evolving ourselves out of these messes. So get outside. Notice which way a sunflower turns or what starts a squabble among the neighborhood birds. Head to the farm and watch the anxiety ebb and flow.

I like to ask my therapy clients, ‘What will keep you curious about your own functioning?’ Although curiosity isn’t unique to humans, it is certainly our superpower. Getting interested in life in all forms, allowing ourselves to be delighted, inspired, and a little convicted, is a strategy I’d encourage you to try. Chances are you’ll teach your therapist something in return.


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