I’ve struggled with depression off and on throughout my life. It’s not something I talk about very often. In fact, this is the first time I’ve ever even written it down to be read publicly. I guess I keep that side of myself hidden from the rest of the world because I like being known as the happy-go-lucky, gregarious, fun-loving guy. And I am all of those things much of the time. But like most everyone else, I struggle. And also like most everyone else, my “happy face” is sometimes a mask.
Since the pandemic began, I’ve struggled to stay positive and upbeat for obvious reasons. I don’t mind being a homebody much of the time, but after a while, the social isolation weighs heavy. I’ve gotten used to the fact that besides work, I don’t really “make plans” these days — and it gets depressing. I am very fortunate though. I have a job that allows me to interact with animals every day — so even when I’m in a depressed place, I can spend five minutes petting a kitten, or playing fetch with a dog. It’s an instant pick-me-up — and any negative or defeating thoughts just kind of melt away, even if only for a few moments.
Every week I hear tales of four-legged creatures becoming angels in times of terrifying darkness. Indeed, a substantial body of research indicates that pets improve our mental health.
Here are a few ways.
1. Pets sooth us with their mere presence
Have you ever wondered why so many dentists offices have aquariums in the lobby? Studies indicate that merely watching fish lowers blood pressure and muscle tension in people about to undergo oral surgery. Who knew?
Other research shows that pet owners have significantly lower blood pressure and heart rate both before and while performing stressful mental tasks. Studies also demonstrate that people recovering from heart attacks recover more quickly and survive longer when there is a pet at home. It seems as though their mere presence is beneficial.
2. Pets offer unconditional love and acceptance.
As far as we know, pets are without opinions, critiques, and verdicts. They don’t much care that you suck at board games, or occasionally forget where you parked your car. If you’re there, they love you. All of you…flaws and all.
A Johns Hopkins depression and anxiety study found nursing home residents in St. Louis felt less lonely with some quiet time with a dog alone than a visit with both a dog and other residents. Half of the residents had quiet time alone with the pooches. The other half shared the dog with other nursing home residents. Both groups said they felt less lonely after the visit, but the decrease in loneliness was much more significant among the residents that had the dogs all to themselves. In other words, at times we prefer our four-legged friends to our mouthy pals because they offer us unconditional positive regard without judgment or editorial.
3. Pets alter our behavior.
Here’s a typical scenario. I come through the door in the evening and I’m annoyed. At what, I don’t know. A million little snafus that happened throughout the day. I am dangerously close to taking it out on someone. However, before I can do that, my dog Madeline trots up to me with her tail wagging like a helicopter propeller, wanting some attention. So I kneel down and pet her. She wiggles around and makes that little growly noise she makes when she’s super excited to see me, and I smile. Voila! She altered my behavior.
I am only agitated a little now and chances are much better that someone will not become a casualty of my frustrations. We calm down when we are with our dogs, cats, lizards, and pigs. We slow our breath, our speech, our minds. We don’t hit as many people or use as many four-lettered words. Well, I still use a lot of four-lettered words. But just for dramatic effect.
4. Pets distract
Pets are like riveting movies and books. They take us out of our heads and into another reality – one that only involves food, water, affection – for as long as we can allow. If you follow me on any social media, you know that the only things that can ever be found on my feed are cute photos and videos of animals doing the darndest things.
I do this on purpose, by the way. We are living through some really challenging times right now on every front — and it’s only natural that people would turn to social media to air their grievances, make political statements, or rant about whatever happens to be pissing them off today. It can get a little exhausting to scroll through, so I very purposefully use my social media feed to post lighthearted moments of animals truly living in the moment. It’s a beautiful thing to behold, and in my opinion — a nice break from all the hate-mongering going on online these days.
5. Pets promote touch
The healing power of touch is undisputed. Research indicates a 45-minute massage can decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol and optimize your immune system by building white blood cells. Hugging floods our bodies with oxytocin, a hormone that reduces stress, and lowers blood pressure and heart rates. According to a University of Virginia study, holding hands can reduce the stress-related activity in the hypothalamus region of the brain, part of our emotional center. The touch can actually stop certain regions of the brain from responding to threat clues.
It’s not surprising, then, that stroking a dog or cat can lower blood pressure and heart rate and boost levels of serotonin and dopamine.
6. Pets make us responsible
With pets come great responsibility, and responsibility — according to depression research — promotes mental health. Positive psychologists assert that we build our self-esteem by taking ownership of a task, by applying our skills to a job. When we succeed — i.e., the pet is still alive the next day — we reinforce to ourselves that we are capable of caring for another creature as well as ourselves.
Taking care of a pet also brings structure to our day — which gets us up out of bed, forces us to engage, and instills a sense of purpose.
Listen, these are tough times we are living through. So it’s OK to not be OK all the time. For me, that’s the lesson I learn from my pets every day. They love me no matter what mood I’m in. They think I’m awesome even when I’m sad. They allow me to be in whatever emotional space I need to be in at any given moment — and they’re there with me through it all. And because they are there with me, I keep going, knowing that better times are ahead.