How Pets Can Help Reduce Your Stress

By Heather Matzkowitz, LMSW

When I walk into my apartment after a long day and see my dog running towards me all I can think about is how happy I feel. I have always been an animal lover and can speak to the profound health benefits of being around them.  

Studies have shown that being with an animal can increase the stress-reducing hormone oxytocin and decrease production of the stress hormone cortisol. This makes sense, right? As you know, pets provide us with the unconditional love that makes us feel at ease. This can help people who are experiencing depression or anxiety. Research shows that pet owners recover faster from serious health conditions, experience less illness, and tend to be more content as opposed to those who do not have a pet.

So what type of pet should we get/play with in order to reap these benefits? The answer is any type your heart desires. Even fish are proven to help with calming the nervous system. Aquarium therapy has been used to calm children with hyperactivity disorder and is also used to help anxious dental patients feel more at ease. 

So how exactly does having a pet help with your mental health? Here are some ways: 

  • Activity: We all know the numerous benefits of exercise for both physical and mental health, but sometimes it can feel difficult to get motivated. With an animal (such as a dog) that needs to be walked, you are obligated to get up and walk them. 
     
  • Physical Touch: Physical touch can be very therapeutic. Contact with animals has been found to have a soothing effect on people. Petting an animal can lower your heart rate and blood pressure and help you feel at ease. 
     
  • Socialization: Connecting with others helps us to feel happier. Loneliness is a known stressor, and stress can depress our immune system. When an isolated person obtains a pet, for instance a dog, they suddenly have a reason to go on a walk. They start talking to the people they meet on the street. When we are feeling down or anxious, it can be difficult to push ourselves to socialize. Having a pet makes it easier to get out and talk with other people. 
     
  • Companionship: We all crave companionship. Having a pet provides you with a constant source of healthy social stimulation. People with pet companions experience less loneliness and isolation, which is especially beneficial for those experiencing depression. Even if the companion is cat, bird or fish, the person is no longer alone, and the quality of their life can take a significant turn for the better. 
     
  • Sense of Purpose: Having an animal can raise your overall spirit. Connection with your animal can give you a sense of purpose because they depend on you. This sense of dependency can help you to feel needed and create a sense of self-efficacy, which translates into other areas of your life. 

Getting a pet may not be for everybody, and it is important to remember that each person is different. Simply going to a shelter or a friends house to play with an animal can be equally beneficial for your health. 

Heather Matzkowitz is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. If you would like support in learning strategies for coping with anxiety or depression contact Cobb Psychotherapy and see how therapy can help.