By Stephanie Schafer, M.Ed., LPC, NCC
Village EAP Counselor
If you’ve ever owned a pet, you know the challenges and the rewards that can come from having animals in our lives. With the seemingly growing trend of emotional support animals that we have heard in the news, such as an emotional support peacock at an airport in New Jersey, this topic has been brought into the spotlight. So, the question is “can pets help with our mental health?”
There is a growing body of research into the effects companion animals (aka, pets) have on a person’s health. There are relational aspects, like the sense of having someone there for you, a life you are responsible to care for, communicating and building trust, and engaging in play and laughter. There are also physical benefits, like increasing one’s exercise by walking the dog or riding the horse, and in doing so it can help us socially by meeting new people when out for those activities. Additionally, it has been found that the act of petting a dog or cat can lower a person’s blood pressure and help them feel less stressed in the moment. All of these aspects help our mood and ability to cope with the stresses of life.
In my experiences as a helper, I have heard from folks how important their pet has been in their lives, including the times when they felt most alone or struggled to find reasons to live through some difficult experiences. They shared that it was the thought of their beloved pet not having someone to care for them, or seeing the look on their pet’s face when they were distressed, that helped them survive those times. These folks read the animal’s expression as caring and concerned, and it helped them feel connected to another living being. It gave them the strength to reach out to a person who could help them beyond what their pet could.
Additionally, there is an approach to mental health care called animal-assisted therapy, which uses the human-animal connection to foster recovery for mental health concerns. Much like I mentioned before, interactions with these animals often lead to decreased stress, reduced anxiety and anger, improvements in self-esteem and patience, and a sense of empowerment. If you have ever attempted to teach an animal a new trick, you know it takes time, consistency, and patience. This process directly translates to the work we do for ourselves in making meaningful changes in our lives.
So, whether it is based in research or personal experiences, there is something to be said for our connection to animals and nature. It is a relationship to be valued and honored, and can positively affect us in our lives.
If you’d like to learn more about this topic, or to speak with a counselor about any concerns you have about your health and wellness, you can contact The Village to schedule an appointment with a counselor by calling 800-627-8220.