Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental illnesses in the USA, estimated to affect over 18% of the population: some 40 million people. Anxiety treatments vary for anxiety disorders, including medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes. However, did you know that a therapy dog can have a hugely positive effect on combating the symptoms of anxiety? Let’s start by taking a look at what anxiety is exactly, before moving on to how our furry friends can help us to feel better.
What is Anxiety?
We’ve all probably felt anxious at some point in our lives: we wouldn’t be human without it! It could be an important exam, a job interview, or even getting ready for a hot date that causes it—or something less easily definable. At its route, anxiety is feeling uneasy, worried, or fearful: it might be with or without an obvious cause, and can be mild or severe.
However, when anxiety becomes severe and interferes with our daily lives, and when it is not related to what’s going on in our daily lives, it can be a symptom of a more serious mental condition. Conditions that have anxiety as a symptom include:
- Panic disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Acute stress disorder
- And more.
The Symptoms of Anxiety
There are many symptoms of anxiety, both physical and mental. While some are easy to spot, others are not as easy to identify, and people may find themselves living with these symptoms for some time without realizing they are linked to anxiety. These symptoms include:
- Feelings of nervousness, tenseness, or restlessness
- An impending sense of doom or danger that is not related to real events
- An increased heart rate and sometimes heart palpitations
- Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
- Rapid, shallow breathing (hyperventilation)
- Trembling or shaking
- Feelings of weakness or excessive tiredness
- Invasive thoughts of worry or disaster
- Difficulty concentrating
- Moodiness or becoming more easily annoyed
- Feeling reserved or having difficulty relating to other people
5 Ways a Therapy Dog Can Help You to Deal with Anxiety
Now that we’ve covered a bit more about what anxiety is and how it affects the body, it’s time for the good news: your pup can help!
1. Dogs Help Their Owners Get More Exercise
Anxiety can be exhausting: not only does it take a physical toll on the body, but it can also set the mind racing too. Then, to make matters worse, it can often stop people sleeping as their brains refuse to switch off. While doing more activity while in this state might seem counterintuitive, gentle exercise (like daily walks with your dog) can actually be very beneficial to people who are feeling anxious. Not only does exercise release endorphins—hormones which make us feel happy and relaxed—but it can also help to improve sleep quality and act as an effective distraction from invasive thoughts. Combine this with the benefits of fresh air and a change of scenery, and you’ll be sure to feel better.
2. Love, Comfort, Support, and Affection: Your Dog Can Give You All This and More!
One of the symptoms—or side-effects—of anxiety can be feeling moody, on edge, and reserved, which can lead to many people living with this condition becoming isolated and distant from their friends or loved ones. This can lead to a negative cycle of loneliness in which healing is difficult. Man’s best friend, however, has earned his nickname with good reason. Dogs are sources of unconditional, uncomplicated love and support to their owners. Had a bad day and just want to curl up on the couch without talking? Awesome, your dog will be happy to join you! Couldn’t face showering or brushing your hair? Your pup doesn’t care! Dogs are very in-tune with human emotions, and many dogs, if they see their owner crying or upset, will go out of their way to comfort their human.
3. Learn Routine and Responsibility from Your Pup
Having a therapy dog is pretty great, but it’s not all sunny walks and cuddles: there’s a lot of responsibility involved, from early-morning potty breaks to veterinarian trips to picking up poop. Although this may sound off putting if you’re feeling anxious, these mundane tasks can actually be a great way to focus your attention on practical matters, not to mention a way to establish a healthy, consistent routine.
4. Dogs Can Help to Break Negative Though Cycles
One of the hardest parts of living with anxiety is the circular patterns of negative, invasive thoughts, which can be easy to get stuck in without outside help. While therapy dogs can’t cure anxiety, something as simple as petting or playing with a dog can help to break you out of the cycle. What’s more, petting a dog can actually change the hormones in your brain, releasing happy hormones like oxytocin and serotonin, as well as blocking the stress hormone, cortisol.
5. Doggy Superheroes: Emotional Support Dogs for Anxiety
Some dogs (and other pets too) go above and beyond in helping their owners to cope with anxiety or other related conditions. These amazing animals are known as emotional support animals, and the helping hand (paw?) that they give is so important that it is recognized by federal law.
Even if your pet helps you feel better, you can’t just call it an emotional support animal. ESAs are classed as assistance animals, and they must be prescribed to you by a licensed mental health professional who is treating you for a diagnosed emotional disability. They will do this by writing you an ESA letter, which will serve as proof of your need for an ESA. Emotional support animals don’t need special training (unlike service dogs like guide dogs); they just need to help you to feel better.
With a valid ESA letter, you’re entitled to take your emotional support dog with you in the cabin of any commercial flight in the USA, and you’re also permitted to keep it with you in rented accommodation. If you think you could benefit from an emotional support animal, get in contact with a licensed mental health professional today!