Loneliness and isolation are two major challenges people often face in active addiction and early in their recovery. It’s usually a good idea to distance yourself from old friends, dealers or those who are a bad influence on you who drink or use drugs, as they can be a major trigger of cravings and cause temptations to break your abstinence and sobriety in order to use or drink again.
However, you may not yet have any friends to replace them. People typically find loneliness and isolation stressful and depressing. Chronic loneliness has even been linked to early death, however having a pet is one way to fight back against this loneliness.
There’s always another sentient being around to keep you company. A dog, cat, fish, bird or reptile are always happy to see you. Just remember though that it’s not the same as having other human friends to talk to and socialise with, but it definitely helps!
Pets Facilitate Social Contact
Pets facilitate social contact in several ways. First, they give you something to talk about. Second, if you have a dog, you have to walk it and dog owners often tend to talk to the dog and you as it’s owner too. In this way, a pet not only provides companionship itself, but facilitates regular contact with others.
Pets Get You Out Of Your Own Head & Thinking
It’s normal to be preoccupied with your own problems but getting too caught up in worries can lead to anxiety and depression (we will talk more about mental health further on). Having a pet to take care of forces you to set aside your own problems for a moment and take care of something else. Pets demand attention, food and a warm and comfortable place to sit, lay down and sleep, whether you feel like it or not. Learning to value your pet’s health, safety and happiness expands your awareness so that you are less focused on your own problems. Having an animal that depends on you also gives a sense of purpose and boosts your self-esteem and confidence.
Pets Encourage Exercise & Better Well-Being
This is especially true of dogs. You typically have to walk a dog at least twice a day. This means dog owners tend to get more exercise than non-dog owners. One study found that dog owners were between 57%-77% more likely than non-dog owners to get enough physical activity every week. Having a dog encourages you to get a bit of exercise even if it’s too hot, too cold or raining outside. Getting plenty of regular exercise is important for everyone, but it’s especially important for people recovering from an addiction. Many studies have shown that exercise improves your mood, memory, concentration and self-control.
Regular exercise should be part of any comprehensive recovery plan and owning a dog can make getting enough exercise a little easier.
Pets Reduce Stress
Pets reduce stress in several ways. One is by relieving loneliness, as mentioned above. Studies have also found that spending time with pets releases oxytocin, sometimes called the love hormone, which reduces stress. The better your relationship with your pet, the stronger the bond and the more oxytocin is released. Caring for your pet also reduces stress. When you try to make an animal feel happy, you feel happier too.
Pets Help Keep You On Schedule
Keeping a regular schedule is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. A sleep schedule is especially important because it leads to better, more restful sleep which has benefits that include a stronger immune system, more energy, better healing, better concentration and less anxiety. Pets are very orientated around a routine. They will let you know when it’s time to get up, when it’s time to eat and when it’s time for a walk. This can help you stay on schedule too. What’s more, having a pet to take of gives you a reason to be home at a reasonable hour instead of staying out late or crashing at a friend’s house.
If you’re not yet in a place where you feel like you can take care of a pet, there are still ways you can make animals part of your recovery. Animal rescue centres always welcome volunteers to play with the animals, feed them, care for them and walk their dogs. You might volunteer to take care of your friends’ pets while they’re travelling.
These kinds of activities strengthen social bonds and give you real life experience of what caring for a pet entails. creating and implementing your own personal recovery/daily planner in our previous article here which includes templates, downloads and a full guide.
The Use Of Therapy/Service Dogs In Rehabilitation & Recovery
More and more therapy dogs can be found in various types of addiction treatment facilities. Interacting with a dog can improve the cognitive functions, social integration, mental stability and emotional responses of a recovering addict. Therapeutic goals are met through nurturing relationships with dogs.
Performing care-giving tasks such as feeding, walking, grooming and playing with animals help recovering addicts to learn important life skills and regain a sense of purpose, fulfillment and responsibility.
Fine motor skills, focus and balance are improved. Goal setting is practised and a sense of achievement is felt when these goals are achieved. Teaching a dog new tricks and skills is particularly useful for goal setting and achievement and teach those in recovery that perseverance and hard work will mean they will achieve their goals and that they are capable of achieving their objectives when they put their mind to it.
As recovering addicts form emotional bonds with a dog or animal, they develop empathy, trust, confidence, goal setting and self-esteem among others. Through their joyful and loving nature, dogs teach recovering addicts about the value of non-verbal communication, self expression, co-operation and service. Dog-assisted therapy also helps to lower anxiety, stress and depression, which are more often than not, associated with addiction. Treating anxiety and depression is a major component of a lifelong, successful recovery process.
Just like humans, dogs respond differently to certain styles of verbal and non-verbal communication. When a recovering addict finds that the dog doesn’t respond to their style of communicating, they are coached to change their approach. This helps them to overcome any self-defeating attitudes and unrealistic expectations and improves their communication skills.
This in turn will help them over time to re-integrate into society, find work or education and build better relationships with others.
Through providing non-judgmental companionship and unconditional love, dogs can help recovering addicts who struggle to open up to others to develop positive relationships with other people. Those recovering tend to feel more comfortable opening up and talking about their addiction to their Counsellor in the presence of their dog.
Simply having a pet that you can talk to, who has an open ear, can also help when those in recovery become stressed and just need someone to talk to to get things off their chest.
Many reputable centres use dog-therapy to support and enhance the typical therapy offered to recovering addicts.
6 Ways Pets & Animals Help With Mental Health
1. They’re Great Listeners
Our pets are always there for us and we often get the impression they know when we’re feeling down or upset. Maybe that’s why according to research conducted by the University of Melbourne, around 50% of adults and 70% adolescents who own a pet regularly confide in them.
2. They Can Help Reduce The Effects Of Depression & Loneliness
Pets are a great source of comfort, companionship and motivation, often helping us to live Physically and mentally healthier lives – sometimes without even realising it.
In particular, the regular exercise from walking a dog can be beneficial for people suffering with depression.
Pets also offer company and someone to share the day with, which is incredibly valuable for pet-owners who experience loneliness, particularly in later life.
3. They Can Help With Anxiety
Petting and playing with your pet reduces stress-related hormones, even after just 5 minutes of interaction. In fact, playing with your pet raises our levels of serotonin and dopamine; these are the hormones that calm and relax the nervous system. When we smile, laugh or converse with our pets, this helps stimulate the release of these “happiness hormones”. Yoga, meditation and mindfulness exercises are a really good way to reduce stress levels, reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms and can help you prepare for the coming day if you do it in the morning before leaving home.
4. They Support Our Overall Well-Being
According to HABRI, 74% of pet owners say that owning a pet has improved their mental health. Studies show that human-animal interaction increases oxytocin levels in the brain, resulting in a sense of calm, comfort and focus.
Not only that, but a study of over 600 cat owners by Cats Protection and the Mental Health Foundation found that 87% felt owning a cat had a positive impact on their wellbeing, while 76% said they could better cope with life thanks to the company of their pet.
5. They Can Help Children With Autism & ADHD
According to the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), pet therapy sessions have shown to increase social functions, decrease isolation and improve independence in children with autism.
Similarly, children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can benefit from keeping a pet. By taking charge of feeding, walking and bathing, they can learn to plan and take responsibility. The exercise that playing with a pet offers also releases excess energy to help children feel calmer at night.
6. They Help Us In later Life
Pets make great companions, particularly for dementia patients. Dog-assisted therapy has been shown to improve mood, psychosocial functioning and quality of life in people with dementia.
Many care homes have resident pets or receive regular visits from animals as part of their recreational schedule; not only do they create a calmer, more homely environment for residents, it’s thought that they reduce anxiety in people with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Early Research On Pets & Mental Health
The first research on pets and mental health was published 30 years ago. Psychologist Alan Beck of Purdue University and psychiatrist Aaron Katcher of the University of Pennsylvania conducted the study. Therefore, they measured what happens to the body when a person pets a friendly dog. Here’s what they found:
- Blood pressure went down
- Heart rate slowed
- Breathing became more regular
- Muscle tension relaxed.
These are all signs of reduced stress. Therefore, the researchers had discovered physical evidence of the mental health benefits of pets.
The Power Of Animal-Assisted Therapy
Since then, scientists have discovered much more about the connection between pets and mental health. As a result, animal-assisted therapy programs have become an important part of addiction & mental health treatment.
Moreover, individuals benefit from owning mental health animals, such as an emotional support dog.
Since the 1990s, teen mental health programs have incorporated equine therapy programs. Equine therapy programs actively involves horses in addiction and mental health treatment. The human-horse connection allows teens to address emotions and issues. They do this through a powerful, direct experience of nonverbal communication.
How Science Supports Pet Ownership For Improving Your Mental Health
The relationship between man and animal dates back many, many centuries. Time has transformed this relationship from being one based on utility to one based on love and family values.
Now more than ever, pets are kept for companionship over all else; they are an important and valued part of the family. Dogs and cats have moved from sleeping outside to sleeping next to us or directly in our bed!
Through the advancement of scientific research focused on human-animal interaction, we know that this companionship provides a host of benefits – both to the people and animals involved. The Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) is a non-profit organisation that funds research into the health benefits of pets and human-animal interaction. HABRI’s vision is for the human-animal bond – the mutually beneficial relationship between pets and people – to become universally embraced as an essential element of human wellness for quality of life, physical and mental health.
HABRI summarised the latest scientific findings on the mental health benefits of the human-animal bond to raise awareness for people who may benefit directly from animal companionship or animal-assisted therapy.
Recent research exploring the benefits of pets and human-animal interaction for mental health has uncovered new benefits for stress, depression, post-traumatic stress, addiction and for managing mental health conditions. Now, we have peer-reviewed scientific evidence that tells us:
- Service dogs can help alleviate symptoms in veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Pets help owners manage their feelings and provide a powerful distraction from the stress of having a mental health problem; and
- Therapy dogs help reduce stress in college students.
Additionally, a recent HABRI-funded study found that veterans living with PTSD exhibited better mental health and well-being if they had a service dog, including:
- Lower overall symptoms of post-traumatic stress
- Lower levels of depression
- Higher levels of life satisfaction
- Higher overall psychological well-being
- Better physical mobility
- Lower levels of social isolation and greater ability to participate in social activities
- Higher levels of resilience
- Higher levels of companionship
- Reduces suicidal thoughts & actual suicidal attempts
These important findings highlight the efficacy of service dogs as a complementary treatment for PTSD, which adversely affects more than 250,000 (30%) of post war veterans, with an alarming 22 suicides per day.
Everyone living with a mental illness should have access to care, services and supports that would benefit their mental health, including interaction with a companion animal. Research supporting the benefits of pets for people of all ages and health conditions is constantly growing.
The more people learn about the health benefits of the human-animal bond, the more likely we are to see an increase in pet-friendly workplaces, apartment buildings and pets in the classroom and therapy animals welcome in nursing homes, community based drug and alcohol services, hospitals, addiction residential rehabilitation facilities, college/university campuses and beyond.
Just like the relationship between animals and humans has evolved over time, the relationship between pets and human health has grown too.
As society faces growing mental health issues like loneliness, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia and many more, the role of companion animals will expand through research, education and advocacy as well.
Dogs & The Homeless/Rough Sleeping Community
As we mentioned earlier, pets, and more specifically, dogs can be a great companion for the homeless and rough sleeping community Where isolation and loneliness become a consequence of their circumstances.
Where Can I Get More Help & Support?
Contact information for charities, groups and organisations who may be able to provide further help and support can be found on our help and support page here.
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