As someone with diagnosed complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety, I’ll try just about anything in the pursuit of improved mental health. I’ve experimented with different types of psychotherapy, meditation, and breathing exercises. I’ve written in a gratitude journal and done digital detoxes. I’d thought I’d attempted it all. Then I heard about the llama walk. When most people think of emotional support or therapy animals, dogs, cats, and horses might come to mind. But llamas actually make ideal therapy animals. I learned this recently when I signed up for a llama walk at the historic Mountain View Grand Resort & Spa in Whitefield, New Hampshire. My guide, Jessica Jones, informed me that llamas are excellent at reading people’s energy, moods, and emotions. And despite false stereotypes, they’re actually known to have gentle, calm temperaments. Those factors might help to explain why they’re being used for a wide variety of therapeutic purposes all around the world—from reducing stress and aggression to improving mood, learning, and empathy in people with dementia, among other populations. While there isn’t a ton of research just yet on the benefits of hanging out with llamas, one 2006 study revealed that children with autism who underwent llamas-assisted therapy showed greater use of language and improved social interactions compared to those who did standard occupational therapy. After an extra stressful year, I was curious whether spending some quality time with a llama could really have mental health benefits for me. So, on an unseasonably warm morning in late October, I trekked down to the barn at Mountain View Grand for a stroll with Bourbon, one of the resident llamas who goes on leashed walks throughout the mountainside resort grounds from spring to fall. Here’s what I noticed during and after our walk together. Photo: Rebecca Strong
Being with a llama gave me a surge of joy
Without fail, I always feel happier after spending time with animals—it’s one of the many reasons why I used to volunteer at a local rescue. Researchers believe that interacting with animals can boost your mood because it triggers the release of oxytocin and serotonin, so-called “feel-good hormones” that are associated with feelings of happiness, bonding, and pleasure. And my llama walk delivered exactly that: I felt a noticeable lift in mood not only during my walk with Bourbon, but also for the rest of the day. Related Stories
I became more mindful of any anxious energy that arose
A 2011 review found that animal-assisted therapy with farm animals, specifically, can help reduce depression and anxiety in people with diagnosed psychiatric disorders. While educating me on how to guide a llama, Jones noted that the leash is essentially an emotional cord that connects me to Bourbon. “Whatever you’re feeling, he’ll start feeling,” she explained. Knowing this made me become super aware of and in tune with my emotions. I definitely didn’t want Bourbon to absorb any of my potential anxiety, so I made it a point to do some deep breathing as I walked alongside him. It wasn’t just about me—I was taking care of him, too, which made me more mindful of my energy.
I let my guard down
One of the symptoms of my complex PTSD is hypervigilance. This means I constantly feel like I’m on high alert and on the lookout for signs of any potential danger. Llamas tend to serve as protectors for herds of smaller animals—and Jones told me that Bourbon, in particular, takes this role very seriously. In fact, he’s known as the unofficial “secret service” for the farm. (I got an inexplicable amount of glee picturing Bourbon with an earpiece, tie, and a pair of dark shades.) Interestingly, as my walk with Bourbon went on and I became more comfortable holding the leash, I felt the tension in my body gradually ease up. My breathing steadied. It was as if I knew I could relax because my llama guardian was on the lookout for me.
The llama’s peaceful demeanor rubbed off on me
One of the most common misconceptions about llamas is that they’re disagreeable or even aggressive. In reality, it’s extremely rare for llamas to spit on people—they only resort to this mechanism if they’re provoked, and feel super threatened. Jones warned me that llamas don’t generally like to be touched. In fact, mothers don’t even engage in much physical contact with their young. Knowing this helped me to avoid crossing any boundaries and making Bourbon uncomfortable. Of course, like all animals, llamas can vary in personality. For example, Jones told me that Bourbon is more serious, while one of the other farm’s llamas—Finnegan—has a more playful personality and loves posing for photos. And it seemed to me that the emotional connection through the leash ran both ways. By the end of the stroll, it was as if I had absorbed Bourbon’s serene and focused energy. During conversations with my husband later that day, I noticed that I felt less reactive and more patient. By the end of the stroll, it was as if I had absorbed Bourbon’s serene and focused energy. It’s worth noting that I probably benefited not only from interacting with Bourbon, but also from spending time in nature. A 2019 review found that exposure to nature can increase happiness while decreasing mental distress. According to another 2019 study, even spending just 20 to 30 minutes in a natural environment can actually reduce levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.
I experienced a boost in confidence
Research has found that spending time with farm animals in nature can also increase self-esteem and self-efficacy. For me, I think this benefit stemmed from the fact that I had to learn how to lead an animal I’d never interacted with before. Admittedly, I was nervous at first. I didn’t want to choke up too far on the leash and end up causing Bourbon any discomfort, but Jones also made it clear that giving too much slack would make it impossible to guide him in the right direction. I worried about keeping the perfect amount of distance—not so little that I impeded on his personal space, but not so much that I lost control. I tend to panic when dealing with unfamiliar situations, and self-doubt often creeps in when I have to play the role of leader. But about 10 minutes into the walk, my confidence began to grow. Observing how Bourbon followed me around corners, down steps, and up hills reinforced that I’m fully capable of handling the situation. It also gave me a sense of accomplishment that I tried something new and nothing bad happened. When Jones told my husband and me that Bourbon seemed more at ease around us than he usually did on these walks with guests, I felt an immense sense of pride. Maybe—just maybe—I wasn’t the only one who reaped some benefits from that Saturday morning stroll.
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