Recently I'd fallen off an ottoman in our hallway while attempting to shut off the fire alarm, and as a result, my ribs were uncomfortable to the point of not being able to breathe much more than a shallow breath. Wanting to heal as quickly as possible, I confined myself to the bed, bored and a bit scared of how long this forced sabbatical would last.
Fortunately at the time, I was working with a great body worker here in Los Angeles. "Body work" sounds a little silly, but it's pretty simple. Merriam Webster defines it as "therapeutic touching or manipulation of the body by using specialized techniques." Think all kinds of therapeutic touch, like massage, acupressure, shiatsu, reflexology, reiki, and more. My bodyworker, Rachel Hardy, CMT, was helping me with a very tense neck and back through light massage and pressure point techniques. And, in her never-ending kindness, she made a house visit when she learned about my ribs. When Rachel got there, she noticed my two foster kittens sprinting around.
About a month before that day, the then 5-week-old kittens came to me via Carson Cats, a no-kill shelter near me in Los Angeles. Rachel inquired about my relationship with them, and I gleefully recounted bottle feeding one and trying to teach the other to chew. I went on and on about all things kitten. Inspired, Rachel asked me if I would be willing to do an experiment in line with a therapy called somatic experiencing.
I was completely unaware of what somatic experiencing was, so she gave me the basics: it's a holistic approach to establishing the natural flow between mind and body. Rachel explained, "When our bodies go through trauma, our nervous systems can get stuck in particular patterns, and the brain can become overly focused on the pain in response to a perceived threat. Your brain wants to protect you, but it can go a little overboard." She told me that to help my body come out of this fixated response, I could consciously direct my attention to feeling something different — something very comforting, pleasant, and soothing. As I used my physical senses to engage in something that felt comforting and good, my nervous system would start to come out of it's fight or flight response and begin to heal. I liked the sound of it, so figured there was no harm in giving it a try.
Image Source: Lela Edgar
It turns out, establishing this natural flow can happen in many ways. One of the ways happens to involve . . . kittens! OK, full disclosure — this technique doesn't have to involve kittens. Anything you deem pleasurable will do, but for me it was obvious to use my little balls of fluff. My assignment was simple: when I started to feel discomfort from my ribs, I was to redirect my focus and place my attention on the kittens. It was easy enough; and even if it didn't help, of course I could spend time looking at my gorgeous kittens! I was amazed by what followed.
On the first day, every time I felt so much as a twinge of pain, I gazed at the kittens. I watched them lick each other, roll around on top of each other, listen to them purr, and show off their gorgeous, fuzzy bellies. At first it felt silly, but then it became habit. I found myself redirecting my focus automatically, smiling and loving on them more and more each day. All of the sudden, I noticed my pain had been subsiding. In less than a week, I was out of bed. Then I got curious. Could my kittens really be helping me?
After much digging, I discovered that while this strategy to calm the nervous system doesn't have much research supporting its effectiveness, I know it worked wonders for me. Besides, the benefits of cats are pretty well-documented. In addition to the overall relaxation my kittens gave me, it turns out owning a cat can lower blood pressure, increases endorphins, and aid in the healing of broken bones, joint, and tendon repair. It felt so good to go to a shelter, feel out the kittens that were right for me, and bring my new friends home. And now, after a lifetime of taking care of my cats . . . my cats took care of me.