Can Animals and Pet Therapy help our Mental Health? Guest post by Dawn Prime

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(image: http://www.usatherapydogs.org/)

Can animals help our mental health? Approximately one in four people in England will experience a mental health issue each year (YouGOV). Every mental health issue is individual, and every situation is different; this can be shown in many forms including stress, anxiety and depression. Living with a mental health condition can affect many aspects of our daily life, with many describing it to be a lonely and isolating experience, whilst others withdraw from social interaction.

So, can animals help with mental health? In my experience they certainly can, and the therapeutic power of pets has been well documented. I believe that this is done in a number of ways, from improving mood, to calming down and giving a sense of purpose.

Whether it’s dogs, cats, rabbits or fish – each animal has a way to help and offer great companionship to those experiencing and overcoming mental health.

Mental health benefits associated with pets include:

* Decreased anxiety

* Reduced loneliness

* A known sense of comfort and safety

* A greater improvement of self-esteem and confidence

* Help in depression

At the best of times a pet can be a great source of comfort, companionship and motivation, and in many ways they can help us all to live mentally healthier lives.

Caring for a pet gives our day a purpose and reward, similar to that sense of achievement in say, looking after a child. For example, owning a pet – especially a dog – means you will need to go for walks, which can often lead to conversations with other dog owners along the way, so simply put, it’s helping someone with mental health stay connected and less withdrawn in a social circle. Social anxiety can be a major hurdle to overcome but by having a dog, you have a ready-made conversation, as dog owners like to talk to other owners about their dogs!

Pets can also give owner’s incentive to remain calm – most pets are generally cute or cuddly and have the ‘awww’ factor, however our pets’ mood, at times, can very much reflect our own, so if we feel sad, our pet could be too.

Commanding and teaching our pet brings confidence and reassurance, and in time this will naturally train our own brains to let go of any negative stress. Unlike people, pets won’t judge your illness, so many people find it therapeutic to talk to animals as they listen – remember they are non-judgmental, and who knows they might just understand!

We can take stroking our pet as something we sub-consciously do whilst we watch the TV or read a newspaper, but did you know that stroking a pet can, at the same time, stop our minds drifting into negative thoughts.

Our mind releases feel good endorphins, so can make us feel better and calmer. The simple act of stroking a pet is also well known to lower blood pressure, as well as reducing physical and emotional stress.

Therapy animals also have a valuable role to play; often in a professional setting they provide comfort, support and can help to engage people. Therapy animals are trained to help people with mental health conditions such as depression and provide a calming atmosphere – with a typical therapy session involving the therapist, the animal and their handler.

Therapy pets can include “dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, guinea pigs, rats, miniature pigs, llamas, alpacas, horses, donkeys and mini-horses,” as long as they’re at least a year old and have lived with their owner for six months (Pet Partners).

Personally, I have known people whose anxiety has improved since having a pet. They find it very comforting in having some company which isn’t human, and someone they know who will love them unconditionally. It is re-assuring to know that they have a responsibility for looking after someone else that takes their mind off their own problems, whilst having a positive impact on their own well-being – helping them cope with everyday life.

Finally, it’s important to remember that every pet is different and it’s vital to be aware of the commitments they bring, for example a dog will need good walks at least twice a day and a horse will need to be ridden out. If you are not sure about taking on a pet but want the benefits that are associated with being around animals, then there are many local animal sanctuaries which would value a volunteer.

Animals can be wonderful creatures and really therapeutic for our mental health.

This article was written by animal nursing assistant, health advisor and writer Dawn Prime. 

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Guest Post by Richie: Dealing with anxiety, Live Your Now

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(image:weheartit.com)

I was honoured to be asked to write a piece on anxiety for this wonderful blog.  I’m Richie, and I’m a mindfulness coach – one who happens to have had anxiety for as long as I can remember.  The thing is, I didn’t always know I had it.  I’ve been researching positive psychology methods etc for many years, but I wasn’t coping so headed to see a counsellor who referred me for a course of CBT after having pointed out – Sir, you have bad anxiety.

Me?

Yes I’d had panic attacks, people would describe me as quite reactive, amongst other things – and after all these years, to discover it was my “fight or flight” mechanism going into overdrive & attaching to situations in had no business being in, well, I was not impressed to say the least! How did I miss this? I felt initially extremely put out by this, I saw myself as a “fighter” – I got on with things, my panic attacks were just “stage fright” (I was in radio/music performance etc), my OCD a quirk of creativity and all that jazz! Right?

Wrong.

This is when I began to understand more fully the stigma associated to “mental health”. A somewhat wishy-washy term to people not familiar, or plain ignorant of the facts (as I myself was), as it’s often attributed to needing to just “chill out” or, “stop being so depressed” etc. At some point in life, many people will experience bouts of some kind of mental illness – after traumas, disappointments, or for some no seeming reason at all! But then, even the most healthy people can catch a cold.  And that’s the issue. Mental Health is a physical issue, that cannot be seen, and therefore for some is like trying to see oxygen.

My advice is simple on this matter; for brevity.

Acceptance & ownership

Firstly, accept it’s a physical thing, and take ownership and understand the physical things in the mind that are taking place. This helps separate you from the thought that you ARE your anxiety/depression etc. This is simply not the case.

If you catch a cold, you don’t say you ARE your cold. CBT helped me understand the mechanics of it, and have useful approaches, but for me (and we’re all different), I find mindfulness to have been the most helpful because it teaches to not identify as “being” depression/anxiety etc. This begins a process of dissociation of identifying as “being” depressed/anxious, and instead acceptance of what it is, how it functions, learning how it feels, and gradually gaining a level of understanding and feeling of when it’s occurring – and how it can shape/affect our feelings/emotions and therefore behaviours/reactions.

Experiment with techniques

Secondly, experiment with ways that can help you day to day – of course, seek professional help, but there’s also much that you can do independently. Breathing exercises (massively effective!), reminding yourself that the depression/anxiety doesn’t make you who you are, try things like mindfulness which teach us to detach from thought.

I also personally use meditations, guided or technological, hypnosis, even things like “EFT” (emotional freedom technique – or tapping), reading positive books, listening to uplifting music, and actively managing thought processes as and when I can.  Using mindfulness to compliment allows for being more in touch then, with which techniques are being more effective for you in the moment.

Is anxiety still there? Oh yes! But the more I practice these techniques (and you will find what works for you) and indeed, share them with others, the more aware I become of “anxiety”.

Reframing

Lastly; I have also reframed my anxiety, because without that fight or flight mechanism, our species would not likely still be here! So it’s important! It’s evolved in our species to protect us – and there are times that flood of adrenaline etc is critical. We certainly would not wish to be without it, but the chances a tiger is going to jump out and eat us are hopefully not too prevalent in your neighbourhood…

My experiences prompted me to begin @LiveYourNow & @Rmindrs on Twitter where I post daily mindfulness reminders, engage, and encourage others to talk – and hopefully create a few laughs too! (Laughter releases great neuro-chemicals!)

Be forgiving of yourself, understand you’re on a journey, and when you find things that help you, share them with others. The more we speak openly, the less stigma is attached, and the more others who may be suffering in silence may feel comforted and confident to speak out and seek assistance.  I have been witness to that now multiple times, and it’s truly a wonderful thing when we accompany each other, in compassion, on our healing journeys.

Thank you for reading! I hope it brings even just one person comfort/hope.

To your greatest life,

Richie – @LiveYourNow

Article for the Monologues Project- ‘People don’t always understand’

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Be Ur Own Light has teamed up with the amazing Monologues Project for this months #showandtell feature. In it they interviewed us about our journey with mental health and asked questions about our lives.

It is such a pleasure to be working with them. Thank you Monologues Project!

To read the in depth article, click here: http://www.themonologuesproject.org/features/003

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