There's a lot of confusion out there about what an emotional support animal (ESA) actually is and how furry friends can help people with mental illnesses. Truthfully, there's much more to this treatment method than red vests and airline bans, and — in a country where almost 20 percent of the population has a mental illness — it's important to understand.
"The clinical meaning of an emotional support animal is any animal that provides help to its owner in overcoming or dealing with a specific disability," Jane Reardon, LA licensed therapist and founder of RxBreakup tells Bustle. This differentiates ESAs from other forms of assistance animals. "[ESAs are not] trained to offer specific assistance to its owner to help accommodate a disability, which is what crucially distinguishes an ESA from a service dog protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act," healthcare lawyer Erin K. Jackson, Managing Partner at Jackson LLP, tells Bustle. "These animals play fundamentally different roles in supporting their owners' health."
And even if you have the best intentions, your pet does not become an ESA if you fall for any ESA scams that involve downloading a "registration" form that comes up when you google "emotional support animal." For proper support, patients can get prescribed ESAs by physicians and mental health professionals. With certification, an ESA gets two legal protections: the ability to fly with a person who has an emotional or psychological disability, and to qualify for no-pet housing. With this support, people with diagnoses like anxiety and depression can find healing in everyday life — despite the ESA stigma.
Here are seven ways emotional support animals actually help people.
1. They Help Produce Neurotransmitters
Antidepressants increase serotonin levels. And dogs increase dopamine and other neurochemicals associated with love and bonding. "There are studies that show that dopamine (a neurotransmitter associated with feeling pleasure) production is boosted by looking into your dogs’ eyes," Reardon says. "This is a double win — it makes you feel less depressed and increases your capacity to love [and] care for another being." So for people who tend towards loneliness, having an animal around can be an important tool in the toolkit to feel a little bit more safe and loved.
2. They Calm Anxiety On Planes
There's a lot of nonsense going around with planes and animals these days, but for people with a diagnosis, having their ESA in flight can be very important. "An ESA can help make travel possible," Jackson says. "Remember that not all travel is for a vacation. Many find travel excruciatingly difficult, but it's sometimes necessary — whether for a funeral, to spend time with family, or for medical treatment. An ESA can help make this not just better, but possible."
In flight, the ESA can be a form of support that works differently than medicine or other tactics. "Someone who experiences a lot anxiety about flying can stay focused on their ESA, instead of becoming overwhelmed by their fear of airplanes," Reardon says. People with mental health conditions deserve the ability to travel, so if you end up seated next to someone with a dog, try to grant them the benefit of the doubt.
3. They Provide Unconditional Love
Having an ESA can help individuals with a diagnosis feel love that can be otherwise hard to find. "An emotional support animal can provide a feeling of connectedness and unconditional love that people may struggle to receive from others," Richardson explains.
This doesn't mean someone with an ESA is avoiding others or can't connect with people; this love is simply another means for people with a mental health condition to get back on their feet. "An ESA can help someone who otherwise feels alone — in the world, in life, in their relationship — feel loved and accompanied," Jackson says. "This can dramatically improve that person's overall mental health and decrease the debilitating nature of their symptoms. It's so important when encouraging them to reengage with the world." Having a loving relationship with an ESA, then, can be a stepping stone to more meaningful human relationships.
4. They Work In Conjunction With Other Forms Of Treatment
It's not just having the pet that provides support; ESAs can be integrated into certain treatment models that provide their owners with relief. "Emotional support animals are not a treatment in and of themselves, they are to be used in conjunction with other cognitive behavioral treatment in order to treat symptoms and help facilitate living the life you most want to live," Richardson says.
Whatever form of therapy works for you; you may be able to find a way to incorporate your ESA into your treatment plan. "Pets can be utilized in mindfulness techniques that can help people ground themselves the present," Richardson says. An example of this is the Trauma Resiliency Model, where you can use your ESA as a resource if you need to bring yourself down from an emotional high or low. And there's even an app for this method to help get you started.
5. They Help Regulate Everyday Feelings
When you have a diagnosis, managing the day to day can be as important as dealing with any one particular moment. "On a daily basis [ESAs] are there to help an individual keep their emotions regulated," Dr. Joshua Klapow, Clinical Psychologist and Host of The Web Radio Show tells Bustle. "There is very clear research showing that the presence of an animal, as well as petting an animal helps individuals to reduce daily anxiety, keeps physiological arousal regulated, and serves to improve mood. Because the animal provides attention on demand, unconditional connection regardless of the day or time, and a steady presence, human emotions tend to stabilize in the presence of an emotional support animal." Having a prescribed ESA means that this constant presence can continue on flights and regardless of your living situation.
6. And They Can Help Stabilizing Intense Emotions
And for the times when things are particularly difficult, ESAs are there too. "Emotional support animals can greatly support an individual in times when their emotions are disregulated," Dr. Klapow says. "When they are feeling particularly down, highly agitated, very fearful, or anxious, the animal's steady state, neutral but supportive stance, and affection on demand can help an individual divert their attention from the situation and focus on the animal. Because the animal is not agitated, not depressed, not anxious — the individual can begin to reset and recalibrate their emotions." This means that your dog's unwavering dedication to his one chew toy, or your cat's committed nonchalance, can actually be really healing when you're in need.
7. They Provide Social Support
For those of you who see your animal as a family member, good news. ESAs can also improve their owners' health by being a social companion. "If pets are 'psychologically close' to their owner, they may provide well-being benefits for the owner just like any other person," a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology finds. In turn, this social support improves cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune functioning. This means that the "emotional support" provided by ESAs isn't just about going on walks and steadying blood pressure; their relationship itself is healing.
Over 18 percent of the adult population in the United States has anxiety and about seven percent suffer from depression. And guess what? It's absolutely impossible to tell what someone with a diagnosis looks like. So with that in mind, and knowing all the mental health benefits, it's important to clarify the work of ESAs. "They're doing important work, and those who rely upon their help should be treated with empathy and respect," Jackson says. "I also think it's important for people to realize that they have ESAs available to them as a means of managing their mental health symptoms. Someone who struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression may find relief through the companionship of an ESA, so it may be something to discuss with their providers." Who knows? A little furry friend might be exactly what you need.