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Historically, horseback riding was used as a sort of occupational therapy for conditions like polio, cerebral palsy and spina bifida. But scientists now believe it offers psychological benefits. “Some insurance will actually cover horseback riding therapy,” Beck says. “The benefits include increased motivation and self-esteem and also better interaction for people who are very shy or even on the [autistic] spectrum. Animals can be amazing motivators.”
It’s not easy to hug fish, but it’s worth spending time with them: Even a goldfish in a simple tank can help relieve stress.
For example, in a study by Beck, when phobic dental patients were exposed to fish tanks before treatment, they experienced benefits, he explains, as did psychiatric patients who were exposed to caged finches in another study. Later studies also showed benefits for Alzheimer’s patients, from increased relaxation to improved appetite.
“One of the many roles we play for each other is to be a focus of attention,” Beck says. “If something can hold our attention in the present, it is in itself helpful because it reduces stress. In those moments, we’re not worrying about the past or the future. Fish have varied enough movement to hold our attention, but they aren’t outlandish enough to be really stimulating or frightening. We find comfort in that.”
These findings have inspired many nursing homes to install aquariums or, in some cases, aviaries. The reason, according to Beck: Watching nature unfold is more riveting than watching, say, a lava lamp, for aging patients whose minds might otherwise wander.
In a now famous and oft quoted 2013 study helmed by Marguerite E. O’Haire at the School of Psychology at The University of Queensland in Australia, when children with autism spectrum disorder and typically developing peers were given guinea pigs to play with, they exhibited significantly increased positive social behaviors compared to the control group. “A challenge facing elementary school teachers is how to mainstream spectrum children,” Beck says. “They don’t play very well together. But the guinea pigs, which are relativelysafe and easy to handle, helped them make eye contact and facilitated positive interaction.”
What’s more, Barker adds, “They found a significant reduction in anxiety and physiological arousal. That’s very important.”
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