Dogs are America's favorite pet, and millions of Americans became new dog owners during the COVID-19 pandemic when isolation became the norm. DNA studies suggest that dogs were first domesticated an astounding 23,000 years ago. These walking mood-boosters can brighten your day, whether they're excitedly greeting you at the door or learning new tricks. And they may be of particular help if you're dealing with a mental health issue.
The symbiotic relationship between humans and dogs has been thousands of years in the making. Oxytocin is the so-called love hormone that makes us feel relaxed after social bonding. When a baby stares into its parents' eyes, oxytocin goes up in mom or dad. And canines, with their puppy dog eyes, have evolved to do something similar. Petting a dog and mutual gazing slows your heart rate down and lowers blood pressure.
Dogs offer unconditional love. They don't care how well you're doing at your job or whose feeling you may have hurt today. They're not racist or sexist and only exhibit dislike towards people who resemble neglectful or abusive owners from the past. Dogs can sense when you're upset and may look at your face multiple times to check your expression and offer comfort. Your mood can also be contagious, so if you succumb to the blues, there's a chance your dog may become gloomy too.
Loneliness is a modern epidemic, particularly among the elderly, and it can negatively impact various facets of your health. Being able to touch another living creature affectionately is often taken for granted, but it's so essential for longevity. Dog cuddles, petting, and playtime increase oxytocin levels in humans and their hounds, and interacting in this way is a solid substitute for human hugs.
Dogs will crack you up with their antics, and when you're feeling down in the dumps, your pooch's goofy sense of humor might be the only thing putting a genuine smile on your face. Puppies are always entertaining as they begin to explore their environment, and grown dogs love games and may try to play pranks on you. Dogs may act silly to get your attention, and they can do a sort-of laugh too. They also demonstrate sheer delight when you give them rarer treats, which can be heartwarming.
When you're grieving the loss of a loved one or dealing with financial or other stress, having a dog can take your mind off your concerns, however briefly. That daily walk outside or active play session in your backyard has many physical and mental benefits. It can present you with opportunities to socialize with other animal lovers. And it forces you to get out and reconnect with nature which can inspire joy and creativity. The fresh air can lift your spirits, and exercise also results in better sleep which is critical for sound mental health.
Many people with anxiety and depression experience low self-esteem and feel purposeless. Rescuing a dog is altruistic and can make you feel like you're capable of making life better for another being. The responsibility you feel towards your canine buddy can haul you out of bed and pull you out of your depressive headspace and back into the world.
Trained dogs can calm patients down before medical procedures, and they can, remarkably, lower your perception of pain. They assist war vets when they're navigating PTSD, and they can soothe children on the autism spectrum. Emotional support animals are becoming more common on college campuses as first-year students deal with homesickness and challenging courses.
Substance abuse and mental health disorders often exist in a vicious cycle. Dogs help individuals at risk of relapse establish a routine and structure in their daily lives. Successful recovery depends on finding healthier coping mechanisms for stress and more positive sources of pleasure and happiness, and dogs check both boxes. Add a dog to your list of sober companions-they're excellent listeners. Even if you don't have the resources to care for one full-time, volunteering at rescue shelters can offer feel-good benefits and provide a safe trigger-free space for you to hang out while looking for a job or when you have time off work.
Dogs are high-maintenance pets, and they require time, energy, and resources you might not have access to right now. In addition, various breeds have different personalities, so look into the types that may be the best fit for your lifestyle. Try fostering or dog-sitting before committing to a full-time pet. The last thing you need is for a dog to be the source of more worry or self-chastisement. Other less demanding pets can also offer snuggles and stress relief.
Be sure to see a doctor as soon as possible if you're struggling with anxiety or depression. Your local physician can refer you to a psychologist or prescribe medication to get you through a rough patch. A combination of meds and therapy can significantly improve your mental health and long-term well-being.
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