11 Mental Health Issues You Never Knew Animals Could Help With
If you've ever played with a puppy and felt a rush of euphoria, you know how powerful spending time around animals can be. In fact, interacting with and caring for an animal can have profound effects on your health, and there a number of mental health issues that can be helped using animals. Interacting with pets can help alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression, and if you're feeling like your typical line of treatment hasn't been doing the trick, you might want to start incorporating some quality time with animals into your life.
"Anyone who has ever owned, played with, or even watched a YouTube video of animals knows full well that there is something magical about them that deeply affects our moods, our biology, and our psyches," clinical psychologist Dr. Jeff Nalin, PsyD, tells Bustle. "Dependent on the person, animals have been shown to improve mood, help regulate their emotions, assist those who have difficulty bonding with others, and in a more general sense, serve to open up guarded or skeptical people to the idea that therapy can actually be a tool for change."
Combined with therapy, animals can be a powerful tool for mental illness, and they can also provide a simple sense of comfort. Here are 11 mental issues you may not have realized that animals can help with, according to experts.
Interacting with animals not only releases endorphins, but it helps get people out of their own heads, which can combat the negative self-loop that comes with depression, says Dr. Nalin. "Animals provide comfort and unconditional love both of which people crave and need when going through a depressed state," he says. "Pets give people a purpose to live. They are dependent upon us, often motivating people to overcome depressive states."
2. Autism Spectrum Disorders
Animals can help people with autism spectrum disorders, who tend to struggle with social connection and communication. "The support animal reciprocates love without the added pressures of language, thus alleviating loneliness and isolation and modeling connective relationships," licensed psychologist Dorian Crawford, PsyD, tells Bustle. "Because there are no specific communication demands placed on a pet owner, someone who struggles with social language can simply indulge in affection, caring and unconditional joy that an animal can offer."
Animals can provide a tactical distraction and warm sense of comfort for those who get uncomfortable physical symptoms during a panic attack. "People who experience panic may feel like they are actually dying from the physical symptoms, including shortness of breath, chest pains, racing heart and hyperventilation," says Dr. Crawford. "Support animals can sense the beginning of a panic episode and may lean into a person or even rest on the person to help 'ground' them and provide a sense of security."
Support animals can be a source of relief for those with agoraphobia, the fear of places and situations that might cause panic, helplessness, or embarrassment. "The animal can actually be the conduit that helps a person take their first steps outside the house because they have a safe companion by their side," says Dr. Crawford. "Not only does this encourage battling isolation and resistance to change, but it also offers a person who was previously homebound the opportunity to get exercise, which acts as a natural mood enhancer."
Support animals are commonly used in places where elders reside, as they can help manage isolation, confusion and low mood associated with reduced cognitive acuity, deteriorating familial relationships and increased dependence on sensory, says Dr. Crawford. "People who are having trouble maintaining clear recollections of past experiences and relationships live more 'in the moment' and find great pleasure in sensory opportunities like petting a rabbit, feeling the vibrations of a purring cat or getting kissed by a lovable dog," she says.
6. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Research published in the journal Animals has shown that levels of oxytocin and other anti-anxiety agents are released when interacting animals, which can improve the quality of life of those suffering with PTSD. "Support animals can be trained to 'keep watch' for [PTSD] symptoms and provide their owners with a reminder that they are OK right here and right now," says Dr. Crawford. "Many people with PTSD struggle with sleep specifically, and having an animal alerted to symptoms in the middle of the night, when a person may be most disoriented, offers a chance at reduced symptoms and more rest."
7. Borderline Personality Disorder
Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a disorder characterized by unstable relationships and self-image that is often rooted in a deep fear of abandonment by others that leads to impulsive, often self-destructive, behaviors. "Research has shown that this fear of abandonment and the ability to regulate emotions can be significantly enhanced through Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT)," says Dr. Nalin. "Having an animal to bond with stimulates emotional regulation skills which positively impacts the distorted self-image.
"Animal-assisted therapy has been shown to positively impact those patients with schizophrenia by increasing motivation and hedonic tone (a term referring to the ability to experience pleasure from everyday experiences)," says Dr. Nalin. "Lack of interest in life activities and lack of motivation are two prominent symptoms of schizophrenia, so adding animals as part of therapy can enhance the quality of life for these patients."
9. Conduct Disorder
People with Conduct Disorder tend to behave in ways that are violent and disruptive to others. There is some evidence that a reduced sense of empathy allows a person to act against another or another's property without fully understanding the impact and loss experienced by a victim, says Dr. Crawford. "Some settings where people are detained are using animals to teach people empathy and increase positive, caring feelings toward other living things. ... It is thought that these skills may translate into how that incarcerated person may view others in the future, with the goal of reducing further harming behaviors."
Similar to depression, grief can isolate us and bring on feelings of loneliness. "The caring of a pet can help us to focus on the love we still have to give to our furry loved one who is still living," Christina Barber-Addis, Psy.D, tells Bustle. "In addition, pets have the uncanny ability to empathize with our emotional pain and can bring us comfort when we are grieving through cuddles and much needed kisses."
11. Chronic Stress
Interacting with animals can relieve stress and improve mood by reducing the levels of the stress hormone cortisol and increasing feel-good hormones such as oxytocin, according to research published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. "There is nothing like being greeted at the door by our dog or cat after a stressful day at work," says Dr. Barber-Addis. "Even the most difficult day’s stress can be soothed by an exuberantly wagging tail or an affectionate meow."
Animals can provide comfort and relief for those suffering from a number of mental health issues. If you're someone who is struggling, speak with your doctor to see if a pet might be right for you.