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:
How Pets Can Help with Anxiety
Luckily, there are many ways that animals can help people to cope with anxiety, both mentally and physically.
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…).
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 valid ESA letter, you and your emotional support animal can benefit from protective laws that allow the ESA dog to live with you in rented accommodation and to travel with you in the cabin of commercial airlines, free of charge.