Living with anxiety can be really tough, with physical effects as well as psychological impacting many areas of daily life. While medication and therapy can help, some people choose to try making lifestyle changes to help, like exercising more, changing their diet, or meditating. For some people, help can come in a furry form: a pet! Let's take a look at some of the amazing ways that pets can help people to feel calmer, happier, and more in control.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety, at its most basic, is a feeling of worry, stress, or unease, which can range from mild to very severe. Anxiety can be a symptom of other conditions, like post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias, or a panic disorder, or it can be a condition in its own right, in which case it is known as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
There are many symptoms associated with anxiety; although it is a psychological disorder, it can have serious physical effects. These symptoms can include:
- Feeling stressed, worry, frightened, or anxious, often at something that is not entirely rational.
- Difficulty concentrating or completing tasks
- Insomnia, problems falling asleep, or waking often during the night
- Dissociation or feeling depersonalized
- Heart Palpitations
How Pets Can Help with Anxiety
Luckily, there are many ways that animals can help people to cope with anxiety, both mentally and physically.
Most doctors or mental health professionals will tell you that getting more exercise can be a great way to deal with anxiety. Not only does it help to tire you out, leaving less energy for worry, but it also can help to combat the “fight or flight” response we get when we feel anxious. However, getting into a healthy exercise routine can be difficult at the best of times, and it only gets harder when you’re living with anxiety. This is where a pet can come in handy, especially a dog that needs frequent walking. Suddenly, you have a reason to leave the house every day, to get fresh air, and to walk, which is great gentle exercise.
If you’re not a dog person, your pet can still help you to physically overcome your anxiety. One of the best ways of overcoming insomnia is getting into a steady sleep routine of going to bed and waking up at the same time every night. Yet again, this can be difficult to achieve without some sort of outside help. Enter your hungry pet, who is keen to be fed at the same time every morning, regardless of what time you went to bed. Suddenly, you’ll be motivated to get to bed on time, and have a reason to get up in the morning.
Petting dogs and cats helps us feel happier and less stressed: it’s scientifically proven by numerous studies. Here’s how it works: when you pet an animal (one that you like) for 15 minutes, your brain releases a feel-good cocktail of happy hormones into your brain: prolactin, oxytocin, and serotonin. What’s more, the stress hormone, cortisol, is blocked, so you feel happier and less stressed.
Not everyone wants or is able to keep a dog or a cat though, so which other pets can help with anxiety? Many people swear by keeping a tank of tropical fish: not only are they incredibly soothing to watch (some fish owners even go as far as to replace their TV with a fish tank!), but they can also be a good level of responsibility to look after. While cleaning out a fish tank isn’t exactly fun, it can be quite meditative.
Getting a pet of any kind can help you to reevaluate your priorities in life: after all, you now have another living being who is reliant on you for food, exercise, and love. Don’t be put off by this responsibility, however, as it can help you to focus on what’s important, and can be a great exercise in mindfulness.
Getting a pet, especially one that needs walking, can be a great way to meet new people, reducing loneliness, which can be a key contributing factor to anxiety and depression. If you walk your dog every day, you’re bound to quickly start to recognize other owners who take the same route than you. If you live near a dog park, you’ll be hard-pressed not to make some new friends—doggy or otherwise!
For some people, just having another living thing there can be enough to counteract feelings of anxiousness, especially for people who live alone. Chances are, if the dog is calm, there’s nothing to worry about by way of intruders (or mailmen…).
Match Your Pet with Your Lifestyle
It would be irresponsible to suggest that anyone with anxiety, regardless of their situation, should go out and adopt a dog or a cat immediately. All pets take time, money, and effort to look after, and getting an unsuitable pet could lead to more anxiety, not less.
If you’re looking to get a pet to help with your anxiety, think carefully about your lifestyle, including your financial situation, where you live, what hours you work, and your previous experience with pets.
When a Pet is More Than Just A Pet… Emotional Support Animals
If you’ve been diagnosed with anxiety or another mental or emotional disability, and you have a pet that helps you to manage your symptoms and maintain your freedom, you might be eligible for an emotional support animal—and the best news is, your pet could become one!
Emotional support animals are domestic animals (most often cats, dogs, or sometimes rabbits) that help their owners to live with the symptoms of a mental illness or psychological disability. They don’t need any special training (unlike a service animal), but they do need to be able to behave properly in public.
Don’t be fooled by websites offering to “register” or “certify” your pet as an emotional support animal: the only way to get one is to have one prescribed by a medical doctor or licensed mental health professional, who will write you an ESA letter. With a legitimate emotional support animal registration letter, you and your emotional support animal can benefit from protective laws that allow the ESA to live with you in rented accommodation and to travel with you in the cabin of commercial airlines, free of charge.