Man’s best friend has provided comfort, companionship, protection and labor for thousands of years. While anecdotally we always knew that dogs can make us happy, we are just now beginning to understand the truly magical effects dogs can have on overall mental health, especially those who suffer from mental disorders.
Dogs as brain stimulants
Mental illness starts in the brain, of course. And though all mental disorders are indeed different, most everyone suffering from any sort of deficit can be benefitted by a release of happy brain chemicals. Lucky for us, dogs can literally cause our brains to feel better. Oxytocin, a powerful neurotransmitter in the brain that is responsible for bonding, love and general happiness, has been found to be produced when humans interact with their pets. Not only that, but when our dogs smile at us or do something cute, it triggers the release of the brain-happy chemicals serotonin and dopamine.
Dogs as an impetus for social interaction
Many mental problems (like depression, for example) are worsened by isolation. They’re also caused by this isolation and make people want to stay isolated. It’s a vicious cycle. But having a dog can serve as an impetus for the social interactions we need to boost our mental health. Those chats at the dog park and on the street with other dog owners are health enhancers. If you want the social benefits that come with heading outside with a dog but can’t take on the full responsibility of ownership, then one good option is to become a dog walker.
Dogs as stability
Beyond the companionship, brain-boosting and isolation-busting qualities of having a dog, there’s also the responsibility it entails. This sort of structure can be beneficial to those suffering a mental condition. Your dog will need regular exercise, which will force you to get regular exercise. Your dog needs to be fed on a regular schedule, which will force you to find some stability in your day. Putting your energy into the total care of another living thing can center you, put you in the present and distract you (in a good way).
Therapy dogs and mental illness
While caring for a dog can boost the mental health of just about anyone, there are some specific types of dogs that are trained to assist those with specific mental disorders. Unlike service dogs, which are trained to assist with a person in need’s daily life and live with them, therapy dogs are part of a specific mental health therapy strategy, usually assisted by a licensed animal therapist.
According to psychiatry.org, “They work in a variety of settings, including nursing homes and psychiatric hospitals, private practice, and in group settings to help people deal with anxiety and stress.” They can also be used to help people cope with dementia and Alzheimer’s, depression, PTSD and autism. If you don’t want the daily responsibility of caring for a dog but want the benefits they can provide, dog therapy sessions may be right for you.
Whether you take on a dog as a pet, interact with dogs on a frequent basis by dog walking or some other dog-centric hobby, or find a licensed pet therapist to help you with a therapy dog, the positive impact of having a dog around cannot be overstated. Dogs help to relieve stress, lower anxiety, and boost brain chemical deficits, all the while giving us daily opportunities to get outside, get some exercise and improve our social connections. When thinking about your game plan to help you manage your mental condition and give yourself an overall health boost, dogs should rest near the top of that list.
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