They’re the latest buzzword in mental health—making headlines for both good and bad reasons. Despite what you may have heard, emotional support animals, or ESAs, are a legitimate therapy aid for those struggling with mental health problems. Therapists have begun to sit up and take notice of the hugely positive effects that animals can have on us. Many researchers are now focusing on studying these effects and the incredible benefits that we can experience with a pet by our side.
Have you ever noticed how your day brightens up when you spend time hanging out with animals? Whether it’s your best friend’s Frenchie, or your very own Maine Coone Kitty, it’s pretty obvious to most of us that time spent with animals has a positive impact on our well-being. This is exactly the principle that health professionals and researchers are now exploring, and building upon in order to help patients improve their mental health.
So what exactly is it about animals that gives them such a strong power over our mental state? In this article, we explain some of the key reasons behind why emotional support animals can make you feel so much better.
The Impact of Animals: How They Affect Our Brains
Let’s take a deeper look into what happens when we interact with animals. Our brains are full of millions of chemicals that shape our thoughts, emotions and the way that we experience our life. When we experience mental health problems these chemicals can get all out of kilter, which, along with other factors, can cause the symptoms that we feel. Interacting with animals can help to heighten certain chemicals in the brain, which can help to alleviate these symptoms. Animals have powerful effects on us because of the particular chemicals that they help to elevate.
They Stimulate Our Brains to Produce The ‘Love’ Chemical
Researchers have been exploring the idea that a particular chemical released in the brain is responsible for the intense human animal-bond that can develop between owners and their pets. When interacting with animals, our brain releases oxytocin, which is also known as the ‘love’ or bonding chemical. This cause us to feel connected and secure, an important effect for those struggling with mental illness, which is often accompanied by feelings of isolation and loneliness.
They Help to Lower Our Level of Stress Hormones
Another amazing chemical effect that animals have on our brains is their ability to reduce the level of stress hormones, in particular, cortisol. If you have a pet, you’ve probably experienced this yourself, feeling the day’s stress melt away when you get home to some affection from them. Cortisol can be damaging to our mental and physical health, so this is an important therapeutic function of therapy animals in both physical and mental health care.
How ESAs Positively Impact Our Mental Health
So, we now know how ESAs can help us to feel better from a purely chemical standpoint, but what about the psychological impact of having an animal by your side? There are huge range of ways that animals can help us to feel better, some of which you may not even realize are happening. But that is the beauty of ESAs—they are a form of therapy that does not even feel like therapy. This integration is extremely helpful in beginning to help to heal mental health patients. Here are some ways in which pets can help with mental illness from a psychological standpoint.
They Provide a Point of Focus and Distract Us from Our Symptoms
Pets and ESAs are a wonderful diversion from our problems. Pets require us to focus on something other than ourselves which can help to stop panic attacks and interrupt cycles of depressive thinking, or even suicidal thoughts. Having an ESA forces an owner to take on tasks outside the scope of themselves, which can be motivating and beneficial for mental health. Having an ESA dog or cat can be beneficial!
They Encourage Us to Stick to a Routine
Speaking of the tasks that ESAs encourage us to get on with, these can also help owners to stay in a healthy routine. The feeding, exercise and grooming needs of pets can help to encourage us to keep a daily schedule that we wouldn’t otherwise, which helps to care for our mental health.
They Help to Foster Emotional Intelligence…and Even Encourage Mindfulness
Pets can teach us a lot about emotions. Your emotional support animal is not dwelling on what it did last week, or even what it will do in the next hour! Pets are masters of mindfulness and can set a great example for people with mental illness that struggle to embrace the present. Through their intervention, pets can help you to recognize your own emotions, and even help you to experience them and move on quickly. Think about it—have you every been around a pet in a bout of tears? Chances are, that while you were crying your pet came and snuggled up to you, alerting you to the fact you were crying, keeping you company during your tears, but ultimately reminding you that there is an important presence there waiting for your undivided attention when you’re ready.
Emotional support animals can help to heal us and make us feel better in so many ways. Whether it’s improving the chemistry of our brains, or giving us the psychological support that we need, ESAs are the perfect natural therapy to help deal with and overcome mental health issues.