I’m a dog person. I always have been and I always will be. I’ve had three dogs in my lifetime and I would say that out of the three of them, my second dog meant the most to me. That’s not to say that I don’t love my dog now. He’s our family pet and he’s the cutest, most cuddly dog. Incredibly mischievous and naughty, but a dog is a dog and you love them for good or bad.
I got my second dog, Max when I was 20 years old. He was mine. Not my parents, not my brother’s, but mine. We did everything together. I took him on road trips, I took him down to the beach to walk along the boardwalk, he went to the store with me, drives…everywhere. I loved him completely. He was with me through many difficult times and just being with him made things better. He made walking through the door a homecoming and bedtime was an adventure in itself. Sure, he took over most of the bed, but I didn’t mind. He was always there and I loved it.
Aside from being the best companion, the benefit of having a four-legged friend in your life is the positive effects they can have on your mental health. Anxiety affects a huge number of people. Research suggests that approximately 18% of adults over the age of 18 experience some form of an anxiety disorder. It’s been shown that pet owners are less likely to suffer from anxiety than those without pets.
How Do Pets Help
How exactly do dogs help with anxiety and stress? When we pet a dog (or a cat, for those cat lovers out there), a chemical called oxytocin is released, while our cortisol levels go down. Oxytocin helps promote feel good emotions, while cortisol is a stress hormone. Anxiety can be a lonely experience, so for someone with anxiety, this type of attachment can be exactly what they’re looking for. Simply petting a dog or cat can instantly ease anxious feelings. Dogs help us feel unconditionally loved and help fulfill our basic need for touch.
Pets become family that are always there for us and provide us with a reason to get out of bed. Our furry friends need us as much as we need them. This reciprocal relationship is what makes it work. Being needed helps keep our focus on the here and now by being more mindful of the present and the best part of the relationship is, there’s no drama! We talk to our pets, care for them and in return they can help us work out our problems.
One of the keys to combating anxiety is exercise. Studies have shown that exercise reduces stress, helps with memory, fatigue, concentration and anxiety. A person’s body and mind are interconnected. If the body is strong and healthy, then it is likely that the mind will be affected in a positive way. Exercise and other physical activity stimulate the production of endorphins which are chemicals in the brain and are considered to be natural painkillers. Endorphins also trigger a positive feeling in your body and can raise your energy level. Dogs always have to go out, whether it’s raining, snowing, cold or warm. Having a dog, gets you outdoors and into nature. Everyday, regardless of the weather, my current dog Buddy, looks up with his big eyes, silently (sometimes not so silently) begging to go out. I can’t refuse him. Not after all of the cuddling we did the night before. So, whether I’m in the mood or not, out we go. And I usually come back feeling pretty good, refreshed and energized.
Staying Socially Connected
As well, staying socially connected is so important, yet can be so difficult when you’re coping with anxiety. Having anxiety is like having a tornado in your head, you have a myriad of emotions swirling around and around. Seeing people isn’t always on the top of your list, because you don’t want to burden your friends and family with your feelings; they don’t always know what to say and they can’t always appreciate what you’re going through. Staying home sometimes seems safer and easier. And if you have social anxiety, going out is hard for a whole other set of reasons. Having a pet makes this a bit easier. You can’t stay home all of the time when you have a pet and when we’re out and about with them, people often smile at you or stop to pet your dog. Sometimes they stop and ask you questions about your pet. This kind of connection is easy because there are no expectations connected to it. Yet, the benefits you can get from this simple social interaction can be far reaching.
Keeping a Routine
Another way that a pet can help manage anxiety, is they force you to have a routine. I need a routine. There’s no arguing that. If I wake up without a plan for the day, I’m at a loss. For me, routines provide me with predictability, stability and just an overall sense of structure. I make my plan the night before and wake up ready to attack the day. Buddy (my dog) is always a part of my routine. I wake up, take him out, feed him, give him water and spend some time with him and in the evening, repeat. This routine happens every day whether I want it to or not. And I feel good about it. I like caring for him and I like the appreciation I get from him. It makes it all worthwhile.
I have always loved the dependability of a pet. They are always there for you; you can trust them with your feelings and they are always excited to see you. What more can you ask for in a best friend?