All of us have been there, at one point or another: the stressors of everyday life pile up, or more than our fair share of problems seem to come at us at once. We feel overwhelmed, to the point of a meltdown. Yes, even adults experience levels of stress and anxiety that negatively impact our mental health and wellness. When we reach our emotional breaking points, we may feel at a loss about how best to recharge or reset. We don’t always have the time or money to practice self-care in a way that makes sense, or fits into our day.
What if I told you that studies have proven substantial benefits between interacting with our pets and improving mental health? Contact with a friendly, domesticated animal not only lowers blood pressure, but raises endorphins and lowers cortisol levels. These advantages can aid in lessening symptoms of loneliness, anxiety, stress, and depression. In addition, petting and cuddling animals helps put us in a state of automatic relaxation. If the animal is your very own beloved pet, the positive effects are even greater!
Playing with a pet can help elevate levels of dopamine, as well as serotonin. Both these “feel good” chemicals, also known as neurotransmitters, play crucial roles in regulating sleep, mood, and emotion. Furthermore, there also tends to be an increase in the brain’s production of the hormone oxytocin. Some refer to oxytocin as the body’s love hormone, since it often strengthens feelings of compassion, trust, and bonding.
Animals can provide a whole lot of emotional support if you ask me! Throwing a ball around the back yard won’t solve all of your inner struggle, but it can certainly provide moments of respite and self-care.
Another role that oxytocin plays inside the body is decreasing our cortisol levels. In contrast to the love hormone, cortisol is often referred to as the stress hormone. Too much cortisol is linked to weight gain, weakening immune responses, high blood pressure, and more. Since holding or stroking a pet inhibits cortisol production, it helps counteract the negative, physical effects of stress, depression, and anxiety.
Touch is one of the most powerful ways to bond with your animal and it doesn’t take much scratching or stroking to see the difference. One study found that cortisol levels were significantly decreased after 15 and 30 minutes of an owner stroking, petting and talking with their dog.
Due to the new Department of Transportation (DOT) policy, Emotional Support Animals are NO longer allowed to fly in airplane cabins for free. However, Psychiatric Service Dogs are eligible.
This type of sensory stress relief can also be useful for people who suffer from various heart conditions. The findings are supported by the American Heart Association, who state that pets are linked to lowering cholesterol, unhealthy triglyceride levels, and the risk of heart disease. Some sources also report that heart attack patients with pets live longer than those who don’t have them. They also tend to make speedier recoveries, especially those who own or spend a lot of time with dogs. Certified, trained animals may even help save someone’s life if they should experience a medical emergency. This includes Psychiatric Service Dogs.
One of the reasons that cuddling pets has a restorative impact on a person’s health is that it meets the basic human need for touch. Studies have proven that positive, long-term behavioral changes can be achieved by consistent time spent with furry companions. Similar to a human hug, hugging your dog is relaxing (not just for the mind, but also for the body). During a hug, your heartbeat slows and a sense of calming connectedness occurs.
“Sleep efficiency” is a score used to calculate the amount of time you actually spend sleeping when in bed. One study found that humans who slept with their dog in the same room had a better routine and were also able to sleep more efficiently. Study participants (and their dogs) wore a sleep tracker for seven nights. These trackers found that humans had an 81% sleep efficiency and the dogs had an 85% sleep efficiency. For reference, a sleep efficiency score of 100 is perfect. If you’re not waking up well rested, you should try sleeping with your dog! Petting them to fall asleep is another great tip.
A friend of mine, in her thirties, has struggled with depression and severe anxiety since early adolescence. Due to different traumas, as well as genetic precursors for some mental health conditions, she has trouble processing stress. Her emotional responses are usually extreme: When sad, she’s inconsolable and struggles to get through the day. When happy, she feels she’s on top of the world, but any wrench in her routine can seem like the end of the world. With the pandemic disrupting most things – her employment schedule and responsibilities, one child’s educational requirements and needs, and another child’s immunocompromised condition – this year has been a struggle of immense proportions.
She didn’t have much luck with traditional forms of suggested relief. For years, she relied on her canine, a tiny chihuahua that stuck by her side despite how she was feeling. When he crossed the rainbow bridge, she lost a huge source of physical comfort and emotional support. During a panic attack, she would usually turn to her doggo for cuddles. With him gone, she felt a void and day-to-day life seemed impossible.
Recently, she came across another dog who needed care. The one-year-old puppy has only been with her for roughly a week and a half, but through their instant bond and near-constant companionship, she’s already helping my dear friend bounce back from tough days with anxiety. Simply hanging out together helps de-escalate bad episodes of overstimulation. Cuddling and bonding with this happy little lap dog. In addition, making sure the puppy is properly cared for has been a great distraction from her overanxious thoughts. Taking her outside for exercise is only one example.
I also know a great couple living just outside of Boston, who have no human children but two very special furry ones. The feline is overprotective when it comes to her routinely ill and very stressed out mother, Shannon. She spends a lot of time alone, too unwell to socialize beyond what’s unavoidable. If she didn’t have her kitty to keep her constant company, even at night when most people are sleeping and she’s up in pain, she says that many nights would feel more lonely and unbearable. Feelings of alienation, seclusion, and overall loneliness are easier to deal with, simply because of her animal’s presence and cuddles. With her ESA certification, Shannon has peace of mind knowing her cat is legally allowed to remain in their “no-pet” apartment without any added headaches or fees.
On the flip side, her husband, Chad, is often too busy and overextended, picking up the slack for her on days she’s stuck in bed. While some may expect him to be too exhausted to be up much later than dusk, he suffers an opposite problem. Used to always being “on” and powering through every day, he often finds it hard to wind down when it’s time for bed. Spending some time with his canine companion, a nine-year-old German shepherd mix, has proven beneficial when it comes to helping him relax. He often accompanies Chad on many errands. Petting his dog on the drive has a way of calming his mind and taking the focus away from the difficulties at home.
(Pets can be assets for those with both mental and physical day-to-day challenges, it’s important to note that pet ownership is a big responsibility and may not be for everyone. Those not in a place where they can care or provide for a pet should consider alternative options, such as volunteering with or visiting animals outside their home.)
In both of these examples, pets are providing their owners with therapeutic ways to combat their stress and anxiety, as well as decrease other negative feelings. Additionally, interactions between people and friendly, domesticated animals can help with diminishing physical pain, strengthening socialization and communication skills, and reducing boredom. They’ve even been said to help children overcome some speech disorders.
These types of animals are known as Emotional Support Animals. Mental health and wellness benefits aren’t exclusive to owning or taking care of dogs and cats either. There has been plenty of research supporting mental health advantages for people with rabbits, mice, hamsters, guinea pigs, and more. Even watching fish swim is a proven stress reducer. Emotional Support Animals come in all varieties! To learn about which type of pet may fit your current needs, check out this HelpGuide article.
If you suffer from a severe or debilitating mental health disorder, a Psychiatric Service Dog may be a wonderful option for you as well. PSDs are specifically trained to perform tasks that assist with everyday functions. They offer practical help along with a sense of safety and security for those in need. Click the link below to see if you meet the ESA or PSD qualifications and begin your journey to experiencing less stress and more freedom today.
The benefits of an Emotional Support Animal certification and a Psychiatric Service Dog certification are drastically different. Fortunately for you, American Service Pets’ network of active board certified doctors can help you find the right path to certification. To find out whether you need an ESA or PSD letter, take our easy, three-step Pet Owner Survey!
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