Guest post by Cara Koch, Writer & Photographer of La Vida in Life Photography
Do you feel like you’re in a funk? Maybe you’re struggling with depression or have experienced a very difficult life event. Therapy or medication may be able to help but maybe there’s a simpler solution.
You could get a pet.
Yep, absolutely serious. Anyone that has ever owned a pet can attest to the comfort their pet’s presence brings.
You may have already heard plenty of anecdotal evidence about how animals help humans and you may not be super convinced. So let’s take a look at some cold, hard facts about animals helping humans.
History of Therapy Animals
First, let’s look at the history of using animals in therapy. The idea that animals can help humans is not a new one. In the late 1800s the founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale, actually noted that the presence of small animals seemed to reduce anxiety for patients in psychiatric care. She also observed that medical patients healed faster when small animals were around.
In the 1930s another famous name, Sigmund Freud, found that his patients opened up more when he brought his dog, Jofi, to the therapy sessions. Sometimes he would start patients off by communicating through the dog. This technique seemed to reduce their stress level and help them open up over time until they could talk directly to him.
Moving up to the 1960s a famous child psychologist, Boris Levinson, accidentally discovered that a boy who wouldn’t talk opened up when Boris’ dog, Jingles, was in the room. He continued to use the dog with other children and noticed the same correlation. Eventually, Levinson wrote a paper on the subject and the idea began to become more widespread.
Now animals are used in therapy centers, hospitals, rehab centers, nursing homes, and many other types of healthcare centers.
But why? What it is about animals that is so soothing? What is so powerful that it can promote both physical and mental healing? Why do patients with psychiatric issues open up so much more with their therapists when an animal is present?
Let’s find out!
Animals are excellent exhibitors of unconditional love. They don’t care what you look like, how you talk, or what you say. This factor alone can reduce anxiety in people.
No matter how hard we try to combat it, we humans seem to be programmed to judge. Perhaps it is simply part of our sinful nature. We judge each other and we judge ourselves–often even more harshly than we judge other people.
Even when other people accept us, we find it hard to believe that they aren’t judging us. However, we all innately understand that animals don’t judge us. They don’t care about any problem or injury or health issue we may have.
They just love us for who we are and appreciate the caresses and words of encouragement that we offer. Perhaps the love an animal offers is the closest we can get to understanding God’s unconditional love for us.
Perhaps we all innately understand that. Maybe that plays a part in why an animal’s presence is relaxing and helps to reduce anxiety.
The Effect of Oxytocin
Right about now you’re probably thinking, okay that’s all well and good but that’s still pretty subjective. Where are those cold, hard facts? What scientific proof is there about the healing effect of animals on humans? Here goes.
Petting animals, or even just sharing a mutual gaze with a beloved pet, increases the levels of oxytocin in humans.
If you’re a healthcare professional, you may know right off the bat what this means. If you’re like me, you’ll need to read the next few paragraphs to understand the significance.
Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter produced by our brain. It’s emotional effect is so powerful that it has been nicknamed the “love hormone”.
Our brain tends to release more of this neurotransmitter in moments of bonding. For example, during a hug, orgasm, childbirth, and breastfeeding. Oxytocin is one of the physical things that causes us to love and feel loved.
In the same vein, oxytocin is present in high quantities when people are engaging in pro-social behaviors. For example, laughing, relaxing, and trusting. It even plays a huge role is psychological stability.
The effect of oxytocin is so powerful that scientists are looking into using oxytocin as a treatment for various disorders. These include phobias, social anxiety, postpartum depression, and even autism.
Or maybe, you could just get a dog.
Another secondary effect of animals, dogs in particular, is that they tend to help you get more exercise. They always want to play or go for a walk. If you’re struggling with depression or stress, they’ll encourage you to get out of the house and walk around.
Exercise in itself brings with it a whole host of mental and physical health benefits. When you exercise, your brain releases endorphins. These handy chemicals are so potent at energizing you and lifting your spirits that they have been nicknamed “happy chemicals”.
It is through the use of these chemicals that exercise can boost your mental health. The effect is so powerful that exercise has been found to help with depression, anxiety, stress, PTSD, ADHD, cognitive decline, and even help control addiction.
If exercise is so great, than why don’t more people do it? In fact, 80% of Americans don’t get enough. The hard part is the motivation to get started. That’s where a pet comes in.
Ready to Get a Pet?
If you don’t already have one, these benefits are pretty compelling reasons to get one. If you do have one, you may have already experienced much of this. Maybe you’ve already felt the effects but didn’t know that science backs you up.
Now you know. The next time that a friend of yours is going through a rough time or can’t shake a funk, try taking them to pick out a puppy.
Of course, not everyone’s lifestyle works for getting a puppy. But you could encourage them to volunteer at a local pet shelter. Spending a little time with animals a few times a week could be just the boost they need.
Have you had any experiences with the healing powers of animals? You can share your experiences with animals helping humans in the comments below!
Did you enjoy this post? Learn more about Cara Koch and her adventures on her blog at La Vida in Life Photography.