By Brandon Butler
Mental disorders greatly impact the lives of millions of Americans, and this one statistic from the National Alliance on Mental Illness is proof: 9.8 million adults have a mental illness that significantly impacts and/or limits daily life. What if there was a furry, cuddly, four-pawed animal that could improve the quality of life of those individuals with a mental disorder? Dogs are a great supplement in addition to doctor-prescribed treatment to allow those with mental illness to take some of the control back, manage symptoms, and regain that sense of normalcy. If you are one of the adults whose mental illness is causing a disruption in your daily life, read on to see how a dog could help.
Dogs Are Stress Reducers
If you’ve ever spent time petting or snuggling with a dog, you might have found yourself feeling lighter. A smile may have even crept across your face. Science says this is due to the increase of the hormone oxytocin, which is responsible for feelings of relaxation and calm, as well as decreasing stress. Even simply staring into a dog’s eyes is enough to lower your heart rate. Others seem to be catching on to the stress-relieving effects of dogs, as dogs are making appearances in hospitals, nursing homes, classrooms, and college campuses during finals week. According to Time, “The rise of animal therapy is backed by increasingly serious science showing that social support—a proven antidote to anxiety and loneliness—can come on four legs, not just two.” Whether your dog is a family member or a trained therapy dog, the stress relief you’ll feel is the same.
Dogs Combat Loneliness
Oftentimes, those with a mental illness withdraw from social situations, whether it is because they prefer to be alone or feel as though family and friends won’t understand what they are going through. A dog can ease that feeling of isolation while also positively forcing you to interact with others. In a study conducted by mental health researcher Helen Brooks, participants were asked who they went to when they needed emotional support and advice, and 25 percent of them identified their dog as a crucial member of their social network. One participant said walking the dog was the push needed to get out of the house. “That surprised me, you know, the amount of people that stop and talk to him, and that, yeah, it cheers me up with him,” the participant said. Dogs keep you social by facilitating social interactions. It could be a brief chat with a fellow dog owner, a friend made at the dog park, or someone stopping you on your walk to pet and ask about your furry companion.
Dogs Love You Unconditionally
For those who aren’t dealing with the effects of a mental disorder, it can be hard to explain how you are feeling. This isn’t something you can just “get over.” It’s a serious illness that you face daily. Some days may be easier than others, but it’s still there. A dog might not understand what you are going through either, but they certainly never pass judgment. No matter what, you’ll be greeted by a wagging tail and kisses. You can talk to him about anything and everything, and he can be your go-to when you just need to vent. Dogs keep you grounded, serving as a distraction when you need it, but also keeping you present and focused. When you are having a bad day, it’s okay to bail on your friend for lunch, but you can’t bail on your dog. He depends on you and knowing that can be the push you need to keep moving forward to be at your best for you and your dog. At the end of the day, no matter how difficult today might have been, your dog won’t ever leave your side. The love your dog feels for you is unconditional, and there isn’t a thing you can do to change that.
Dogs are a great addition to any household, especially for those with a mental illness. A four-legged companion can provide stress relief, combat isolation, and provide unconditional love and support. In addition to your established self-care plan, a dog is certainly an added boost.