Can Having a Pet Benefit Your Mental Health?Lindsay Chambers
Around the world, millions of people have adopted pets as members of their family. Unlike your other family members, however, your relationship with your pet is probably much more straightforward. They give you unconditional love, and don’t ask for that much in exchange. They can be your most compassionate companion when times are tough, listening without interrupting or judging.
A growing number of scientific studies have indicated that non-human animals experience many of the same emotions as humans – including grief, joy and contentment – though they may express them differently. But does science have anything to tell us about the effects of pets on mental health?
Interacting With Pets Minimizes Stress and Anxiety Symptoms
Are you looking for a natural way to decrease your stress levels and lower your blood pressure? Playing with pets increases your brain’s natural release of happiness chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine, while reducing the stress hormone cortisol. Taking a dog for a daily walk is also excellent for both your physical and mental well-being.
Pets Are Natural Mindfulness Practitioners
When you see a dog running carefree through the park, or a cat snoozing in a sunbeam, you can rest assured that they aren’t dwelling on things that happened to them yesterday, or fretting about what tomorrow may bring. In other words, pets are an ideal role model for demonstrating how to live in the moment.
While mindfulness might not come as naturally to you as it does to your pet, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth pursuing. With practice, you can learn to let go of problems you can’t change, or stop worrying about a future that might never become reality. Playing with a pet can also distract you from your anxieties and teach you to appreciate what you have.
Caring for a Pet Gives Humans a Sense of Purpose
Some mental illnesses, such as depression, can make you feel worthless, lonely and unloved. Taking responsibility for the well-being of another living creature can help give you a greater sense of connection to the world. Even pets that require very little interaction with their keepers can provide this benefit. For example, researchers in one study asked a group of elderly patients to look after a cage full of five crickets. After eight weeks, the cricket caretakers demonstrated fewer symptoms of depression than the control group members, who were not responsible for taking care of anything.
If you feel your mental health is not quite stable enough to fulfill the needs of a pet such as a dog or cat, you can still benefit from being around non-human animals. Volunteer at a local animal shelter, or get a lower-maintenance pet such as tropical fish. Watching the fish swim around their tank can be very relaxing, almost meditative.
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