Sarah Varley
Courtesy Sarah Varley; Elyse Messick
February 10, 2017 02:16 PM

Sarah Varley had an intense phobia of vomiting for a long time, but it became much worse when she was raped at 19 and started suffering from PTSD.

“The phobia became all-consuming,” Varley, 28, tells PEOPLE. “I started to have to control everything I ate and it became more and more restrictive to the point where I basically wasn’t eating. I stopped going out. It was really bad.”

Varley’s restrictive eating led her to drop down to only 94 lbs. She eventually decided to seek treatment, and at the same time began visiting her cousin’s wolf sanctuary, which incidentally began helping her heal.

“It was really impactful because it forced me to be present,” she says. “With PTSD, you’re constantly reliving the past and you’re surrounded by triggers and memories, so you are always on guard and it’s exhausting. But when you’re with a wolf, your focus is on that animal. I had tried other mindfulness techniques and meditation and all these things that are supposed to bring you to the present and help you heal — wolves did it without even trying.”

Spending time with wolves also helped Varley, who is based in Agoura Hills, California, get past her vomiting phobia.

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“Wolves greet each other by licking each others’ teeth, and they would come up to do that to me,” she explains. “Everything in my history would say, ‘Do not allow them to do that. That’s a lot of germs to come into your mouth.’ But the reality was that I wasn’t going to turn away an animal that I had spent weeks and weeks to earn their trust. I would go back to my therapist after and process those instances, and say, ‘Okay well this happened and I didn’t get sick, maybe I can take another bite next week or eat something I normally wouldn’t eat.’ ”

She also connected with the wolves on an emotional level.

Courtesy Sarah Varley

“These animals come in the sanctuary traumatized as well,” says Varley. “You see that and you sense that. When an animal is hurting, it becomes your goal to make them better, and I was so absorbed in making these animals better.”

Because Varley’s time spent at the wolf sanctuary was such a vital part of her healing process, her hope is to now provide that experience for others.

“What I’m looking to do is to create an organization that acts as a conduit between mental health professionals and other animal sanctuaries,” she says. “It would allow more people to have this healing and interaction with animals that are widely misunderstood.”

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