4 Ways Pets Can Improve Your Mental Health
Although it might seem like a recent trend, animal-assisted healing or “pet therapy” has been around since the 1800s. Even Florence Nightingale observed that the companionship provided by small pets was beneficial to people with chronic injuries. Fast forward to the modern age, and researchers have conducted many studies into pet therapy, with promising results. Here are four key ways that pets can help improve mental health.
Stress and Anxiety
Any pet owner could tell you that a furry companion can help reduce your stress and anxiety levels — when they’re not chewing through furniture, that is. Well, it seems science has finally caught up. In a study published in the journal “Anxiety, Stress, & Coping,” researchers took a group of people and raised their anxiety levels in a particularly cruel way by bringing out a live tarantula and telling them they’d have to hold it.
Luckily, the participants were given a pet to hold instead, and the results showed that petting the animal reduced their stress levels. If it works for this, it’ll work after a difficult day at work. The animal didn’t have to be furry and cute, as it worked as well with turtles and rabbits.
Pets can have profound benefits for people recovering from addiction. Substance abuse often leaves a mark on the emotional system, and it goes hand-in-hand with many other mental disorders. Spending time with animals can help the healing process by boosting mood, lowering stress and increasing levels of certain chemicals in the brain, such as serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine. Taking responsibility of another living being can also build confidence, while the experience of mutual unconditional love can be beneficial to addiction survivors, who are often wracked with guilt and self-blame.
In pet-assisted therapy for depression, patients are usually given a pet to look after at home. Dogs are a common choice in the treatment of depression, because of their sensitivity to human emotions. They often sense when you are not feeling happy and will try to comfort you. This supportive, soothing presence can help people recover from depression.
On top of this, the responsibility of looking after the animal can also be beneficial. This appears to be the case even when the animal is not capable of showing any gratitude at all. In one study, taking care of crickets helped improve symptoms of depression.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Therapists have used animals to help treat PTSD for many years, and it’s one of the most well-studied areas of animal therapy. There are a couple of different approaches to this. In one approach, animals are present during regular therapy sessions, to help the patient relax and open up.
Another method is to simply allow the patients to spend time with animals. Horses are commonly used for this purpose, and patients will groom the horses and walk them around a designated area. The benefit is due to horses having high sensitivity to nonverbal behavior. In a sense, they mirror the patient’s state, so they can gain self-knowledge and learn to control their emotions.
Florence Nightingale would be pleased to learn that animal-assisted therapy is becoming more common, and you can find practitioners anywhere. But even without the actual therapy in the mix, this research suggests that simply owning a pet is good for our mental health. We often think of owning a pet as a great responsibility, something we have to take seriously — maybe they feel the same way about us.