Mental Health Tips from Diana Ferrari, MFT

By DeeDee Conrad on Apr 30, 2020 at 08:01 AM in Stories From the Barn

Mental Health Tips from Diana Ferrari, MFT

Dear Hearts Community, 

As the sun rose Sunday, I found myself relaxed and settled into a quiet corner in my back yard.  It was a day to reflect and a chance to look back over the prior week as I anticipate the days to come.  In some ways, this is a routine Sunday activity for me and yet, I realized the coronavirus has turned my routine upside down.

I now find myself reworking my schedule almost daily and redefining words such as usual, normal, and every day.  As I think about the week to come, I quickly find myself wondering about the next two or three weeks and then the months ahead.  Noticing my heart rate spike and my stomach tighten, I realize I am experiencing anxiety.

Being a Marriage and Family psychotherapist in private practice over the last three decades does have some advantages.  I have learned something about human behavior, including my own.  I believe with support and encouragement humans are adaptable and resilient even in times of uncertainty.

Social distancing, the new terminology describing the behaviors necessary for us to stay physically healthy, can also undermine our sense of connection with one another.  We are social beings and seclusion and isolation can impact our sense of identity and emotional safety.  Biologically, we are pack animals and depend on one another, just like our horses, who rely on the herd for security and companionship.

I miss the people I interact with daily and weekly, my Hearts family, my students and their families, my colleagues, and our horses, Buddy, Chief, Rocco and Toby, just to name a few.

I miss you all.  The time I once spent with neighbors, friends, waitresses and waiters, bank tellers and moms and dads, is now limited to my immediate family.

As challenging as these times are, I believe we now have an opportunity to re-evaluate the time we spend with our families.  Because we are dependent on one another, and the time spent with our families is so concentrated, we may feel uncomfortable, even stifled at times.  This can add stress to our relationships.

So, what do we do at a time like this?  The following are a few suggestions:

  • Stick to a routine, no matter how simple.
  • Arrange family meetings where everyone gets to share uninterrupted….
  • ….a positive experience (rose) and a negative experience (thorn).  There should be no problem-solving, just simple listening to one another.  This exercise works best when all members understand from the beginning that this exercise is about everyone being heard, without offering suggestions or advice.
  • Schedule a mental health day with no school work, no chores, no cooking.
  • Schedule alone time for those who want it.
  • Practice belly breathing with everyone laying on the floor, then inhale belly up and exhale belly down.

The experience of anxiety may include an accelerated heartbeat, sweaty palms and fearful thoughts, all contributing to the release of cortisol, the stress hormone, which serves to increase and maintain anxiety.  On the other hand, the experience of joy, warmth, touch and movement, stops the output of cortisol and instead releases oxytocin, the feel-good hormone.

When experiencing anxiety, try the following exercise:

  • Get comfortable and take three deep breaths.  Close your eyes.
  • Remember your favorite time at Hearts.
  • What memory brings a smile to your face?
  • What are you doing?  Grooming, riding, walking, trotting?
  • Who are you with?
  • Now, let yourself relax into this joyful memory.
  • Repeat as needed. 

I look forward to seeing each of you back at the ranch, when Hearts reopens with a renewed sense of purpose and commitment .We are excited to welcome you back to your favorite equine activity.

Dust your boots off and stay in touch, 


Diana M. Ferrari is a licensed Marriage and Family Psychotherpist who has maintained a private practice in Santa Barbara since 1986. She offers individual, couples and family psychotherapy addressing a broad range of human issues. Besides providing psychotherapy in her downtown office she also conducts Equine Assisted Psychotherapy at Hearts Therapeutic Equestrian Center. Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, incorporates horses experientially for emotional growth and learning. Clients work outside, unmounted in the arena, accompanied by Diana, our horses and Equine Specialist, Lauren Hayes. Diana has also been a volunteer at Hearts in the Therapeutic Riding Program since 2015. Diana can be reached by phone or email: [email protected], (805) 965-6830 

Photography by Emily Hart-Roberts

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