Statistically, every year over 40 million adults in the United States aged 18 and older are affected by an anxiety or depression disorder. That makes up over 18% of the population! It is an incredibly serious disease with lasting direct and indirect consequences.
Luckily, however, because so many people suffer from a depression or anxiety disorder, there are various ways that those of us who deal with one of these horrible illnesses can fight back.
One of the most effective (and cute!) ways is actually through our pets! Not only can your furry guy be a best friend, but studies have shown that owning a dog can significantly combat the symptoms and consequences of depression. According to one study, "dogs, in particular, can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, ease loneliness, encourage exercise and playfulness, and even improve your cardiovascular health." Basically, owning a slobbery little floof is good for your mind, body, and soul!
Signs Your Dog Knows You're Sad
Depression and anxiety are horrible diseases to have to deal with alone. Enter, Fido! Dogs have evolved into what they are today alongside humans for hundreds of years. As a result, they are extremely attuned to our behavior and emotions. While they can't really understand our conversations (although we all wish they could, and that doesn't stop us from chatting with them!), they really can tell when we're happy, sad, nervous, excited, or anything else!
When you're sad, depressed, or even crying, oftentimes your dog will notice your emotional state and do all they can to help. Some owners have told stories of hard times during their day when their dog just seems to sense their unease. In response, these fluffy balls of perfection can whine with you, jump up on you and offer a hug, or pace to match your uncomfortable state.
Many dogs that notice their owner crying will approach with their tail tucked between their legs and bowed heads, which studies show are consistent with signs of empathy towards their owner's emotions. Some may even respond with kisses, which has the added benefits of showing love AND cleaning up your tears!
The mere fact that emotional support animals exist is evidence of this fact. Soldiers that are experiencing PTSD are often paired with a service pup. Those with autism who go through bouts of depression and anxiety are matched with emotional doggos. These canine buds are usually trained to respond to anxiety and depression with specific actions, such as smothering their owner who is having a panic attack or waking up their human BFF during a nightmare. It may be as simple as having a friend by your side that helps to ease the effects of mental disease. Regardless, dogs really can help you with your depression.
Despite all of this, we still can't depend on our best friends to completely solve our depression or anxiety issues. By pairing owning a pet with therapy, medication, and other depression-relieving tactics, we can learn to cope with anxiety and depression symptoms.
The History of Dogs Emotionally Helping Humans
Dogs used in a therapeutic sense can be traced all the way back to ancient Egypt. Anthropological analyses of these ancient societies have shown that people believed that "a dog's lick could heal sores or legions." Throughout the ages, dogs have been brought into hospitals, nursing homes, orphanages, and other places usually associated with a "sad" atmosphere to calm residents and ease despair.
In 1880, famous civil war nurse Florence Nightingale wrote that "a small pet is often an excellent companion for the sick, for long chronic cases especially." Essentially, we've known for a long time that dogs offer more than just a furry friend- they can make us better, more well-rounded, emotionally stable people.
The Science Behind Dogs Helping With Depression
As previously stated, countless studies have shown that owning a dog really does help with the symptoms of anxiety and depression. The way they do so can be summed up in five ways:
Unconditional Love and Affection: No matter what happens, most of our furry friends are just happy to be around us, and that happiness is often infectious. Petting a floofer releases oxytocin, which is our happiness, feel-good hormone. Pets, and dogs, in particular, can remind us that we simply are not alone, which is often helpful in the face of sometimes overbearing depression. They remind us that we are not worthless, that we are loved, and that not everything in the world is bad, simply by existing.
Altering Behavior: Similarly, it's hard to be sad when you have a bouncing, joyful ball of fluff leaping all over you with slobbery kisses. When we pet our pooch, we often forget about daily annoyances and frustrations. The simple act of paying attention to our dog helps to calm our emotions, slowing our breath, our speech, and our minds. This calming behavior makes it easier for us to forget our sadness and facilitates improving relationships with others. They can distract us from depressive behavior, forcing us to show love to the spastic little dude in front of us.
Exercise: Regardless of whether your dog is lazy or not, the fact remains that all dogs, at some point, need to go to the bathroom. That involves their human going outside. Whether it's just a walk around the block or your dog demands a hike or a game of fetch to exert your energy, owning a dog requires outside time. Scientifically, being outside reduces stress and the symptoms of depression. Exercise lowers blood pressure and releases endorphins, which can affect depressive moods. And it's hard to be sad when your dog has a big ol' grin on their face!
Structure and Responsibility: Having a dog means you have to be responsible. We have to feed, walk, and love our dog every day - there are no breaks. According to depression research, the simple fact of having a routine and responsibility promotes mental health. Watching our dog grow and thrive gives an owner purpose, reinforcing the fact that we are able to take care of another creature, and by association, ourselves as well. Being needed is a powerful combatant to the symptoms of depression.
Social Interaction: Let's face it - your dog is adorable and perfect. Other people recognize that too! Walking your dog outside can inevitably lead to strangers coming up for pets and a quick conversation. Dogs are a conversation starter and can lead to forming new friendships and relationships. These social interactions are a kind of antidote to depression.
By Katherine McCormick
Published: 02/14/2018, edited: 04/06/2020