10 ways dogs improve mental health
If you’re a pet parent, you already know that dogs provide comfort, protection and companionship. They make you laugh, offer a shoulder to cry on, and give you unconditional love. But did you know that your canine companion plays a vital role in improving your health? Recent studies have revealed that children who grow up with a dog are less likely to develop allergies. On average, people with pets also have lower blood pressure, decreased stress, and improved self-esteem. Pets lower the risk of heart disease, meaning that people who own a dog or cat tend to live longer than those who don’t.
There’s no denying, then, that sharing your life with a furry family member can improve your physical health. But these days, mental health awareness is on the rise. The internet is brimming with articles on how yoga can lessen anxiety and which foods combat depression – and that’s fantastic. But in most cases, lifestyle and dietary changes aren’t enough to relieve symptoms associated with mental health disorders. In fact, some people suffer from these afflictions their entire lives without finding a cure. Unlike the flu, a broken bone or even cancer, there isn’t a textbook solution for depression. Doctors can’t open us up and take out the enduring feelings of despair, and pills and medication often only provide temporary relief.
"Unlike the flu, a broken bone or even cancer, there isn’t a textbook solution for depression."
But all hope isn’t lost. There is more and more research being done on how we can ease the burden of mental health disorders. Among these solutions is dogs. Let’s take a look at how sharing your life with a canine companion can help you through even your darkest days.
1. Dogs keep you active.
It’s no secret that exercise substantially boosts your mood. But when you suffer from disorders such as anxiety and depression, exerting energy at the gym or on the trail is the last thing you feel like doing. Being a pet parent not only promotes an active lifestyle – it makes it a requirement. When you share your life with a furry family member, daily walks and other outdoor activities become a necessary fixture in your daily routine, keeping you physically fit and helping your overcome symptoms associated with mental health disorders such as lethargy and irritability.
2. Dogs encourage you to get outside.
Exercise plays a huge role in combating depression. But outdoor exercise is even better! Playing outside with your pooch gives you the chance to connect with nature and soak up some vitamin D from the sunshine, which can work wonders when it comes to your mental health. In 2013, a meta-analysis published in The British Journal of Psychiatry assessed conflicting evidence about the relationship between vitamin D deficiency and depression. The results? A direct correlation. Researchers conjectured that a lack of vitamin D plays a role in depression and other mental illnesses due to its vital role in brain function. The bottom line? Walk your dog!
3. Dogs lessen your isolation.
Many people who suffer from depression and anxiety find solitude in the dark, secluded abyss of their curtained bedroom. But human connection is hugely significant when it comes to mental health and, like it or not, dogs force us to socialize. Sure, you can order your dog’s food and accessories online to avoid going into the pet store. But dogs needs to mingle as much as we do, so you’ll have to head to the dog park or set up a “puppy playdate” in order to keep him healthy and happy… and that means you’ll have to talk to some people. But don’t fret. Dogs are excellent ice breakers, so holding a conversation won’t be as difficult as you might think.
4. Dogs help you sleep.
Insomnia is a common symptom in those with mental health concerns. As the sleepless nights where on, it’s easy to become caught in a vicious cycle of exhaustion, frustration, and depression. But your dog’s presence might be the answer. A study conducted by researchers at the Mayo Clinic revealed that many people report better sleep patterns when they share their bed with their animals. If you’re like the majority, the sense of security that dogs provide might help you to fully relax and slip into a deeper slumber.
"The sense of security that dogs provide might help you to fully relax and slip into a deeper slumber."
5. Dogs soothe you.
At the most basic level, dogs are therapeutic simply because they fulfil the human need to touch. Rhythmic petting or grooming is comforting to your dog or cat, but it also helps calm your mind and soothe your emotional state. Concentrate on the texture of his soft fur, the warmth he radiates, and his deep breaths. When you connect with your pet, oxytocin – the hormone related to stress and anxiety – is released, helping to reduce blood pressure and lower cortisol levels.
6. Dogs offer constant companionship.
In a world chock full of complaints and negative energy, pets make unbiased, devoted companions. As any dog parent knows, canines are very intuitive creatures that seek you out when you’re feeling down and offer unspoken comfort that not many humans can muster. In the long term, this unwavering bond has the power to prevent illness and increase longevity. In the meantime, it’ll help shift your focus away from your problems!
7. Dogs are great listeners.
Dogs might not be able to give you advice. But they sure make great listeners! As talk therapy and journaling demonstrate, the act of communicating your feelings is beneficial no matter what form it takes – and that can include ranting to your pet! Tell your pooch about your day, open up to him about your feelings or simply talk to him about the weather. His impartial ear will offer you a sense of relief, help you flesh out your emotions and even assist you in recognizing negative patterns in your life.
8. Dogs give you a purpose.
Lack of purpose can be extremely detrimental for anyone who suffers from depression. An article in Psychology Today states that focusing our attention externally helps us spend less time immersed in the chatter of our minds, which often triggers negative thoughts and feelings. This same article suggests that having a purpose (in this case, a dog to look after) makes us less self-centered. “We feel a part of something bigger, something outside ourselves, and this makes us less focused on our own worries and anxieties,” the article says. “Our own problems seem less significant, and we spend less time thinking about them, and so our sense of well-being increases.” Feeling overwhelmed by negativity? Seek gratification in the eyes of your grateful pooch.
9. Dogs understand you.
Whether you choose to believe it or not, dogs are acutely attuned to our behavior and emotions. Studies have shown that they can interpret our body language and tone of voice, and even distinguish whether we’re happy or sad just by looking into our eyes. Sure, the human-animal bond is great because dogs encourage us to exercise and show us unconditional love. But on a much deeper level, they get us. They hear us without being able to understand what we’re saying. They’re intelligent enough to alter their behavior to suit our changing moods, and that consistent empathy can have an incredibly powerful effect on your mental health.
"Studies have shown that dogs can interpret our body language and tone of voice, and even distinguish whether we’re happy or sad just by looking into our eyes."
10. Dogs make you smile.
Picture this… you walk through the door at the end of a long day and your dog is waiting for you on the welcome mat. Her tail wags enthusiastically. As you bend down to greet her, she plants an excited kiss on your cheek. She doesn’t care that you are overdue for a shower, that you keep forgetting to pay the hydro bill, or that you made a mistake at work. She’s just happy that you’re home – and if that doesn’t boost your mood, I don’t know what will.
Some people dislike meditation. Others can’t stand being on a restricted diet. And some people, believe it or not, don’t like dogs. If you’re one of those people, take this article with a grain of salt. Battling a mental health issue is a personal journey, and finding your solution means discovering what works – and what doesn’t work – for you.