You might have noticed that spending just a little bit of time around your emotional support animal (ESA) makes you feel calmer. An animal’s ability to help regulate your anxiety symptoms and provide a soothing presence is the reason they can serve as such effective support systems. But what’s the actual science behind your ESA’s skills at calming you down? Read on for more info about why your emotional support animal makes you feel less anxious.
One of the main ways your ESA helps you manage your anxiety symptoms is merely by you petting them. Studies have shown that just touching or playing with an emotional support pet can release oxytocin into your body. This hormone, also known as the “cuddle chemical” or “love hormone,” can create an overall happier feeling in your system. Oxytocin can actually help us feel more relaxed, more trusting, and more psychologically stable – all crucial elements of managing a mental illness like anxiety. The chemical has actually been proposed for use in psychiatric treatment to help with everything from social phobia to autism. Getting a natural dose of it every time you pet your ESA is a safer, easier way to get more oxytocin in your system. Plus, you don’t necessarily need to spend huge amounts of time with your emotional support animal to get the benefits. A research team in Japan showed that something as simple as making eye contact with your dog could cause an increase in oxytocin. There was another study that suggested that women pet owners achieved a boost in oxytocin by simply greeting their dog when returning home from work.
Alongside the benefit of getting some extra oxytocin, studies have shown that having an emotional support pet can actually reduce the levels of stress-related hormones (like cortisol) in your body. Too much stress can lead to too much cortisol in your system, which can result in a whole host of health problems such as anxiety, depression, heart disease, digestive issues, trouble sleeping, and weight gain. One study in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine noted that the decrease in stress hormones is almost immediate (usually within 5–24 minutes of interacting with your pet). By spending time with your ESA (even if it’s just petting them while you sit on the couch), you can send a message to your brain and your body that it’s okay to relax. Since less cortisol in your system can help you feel less anxious, an ESA can act as a natural anxiety-reliever. Additionally, while you’re getting the physical benefits of more oxytocin and less cortisol by just being around an animal, you’ll also be able to experience forming a close bond when you care for your pet. This can further solidify the positive effects of being around your emotional support animal.
In addition to the chemical changes an ESA can have on your body, there are other ways that being with your pet can help you feel less anxious. Emotional support animals can be hugely beneficial to people who struggle with anxiety because they can be used as grounding tools. Having an ESA can help bring you back to the present moment if you find yourself getting caught up in your worries or obsessing about something. By sitting with your emotional support pet in your lap, you can quickly switch your focus to something calmer. Even matching your breathing to theirs can force you to take deep breaths and relax your body a little. Emotional support animals can also be helpful in allowing you to switch tracks and focus on something else. It’s more difficult to be stressing about something when you have to instead focus on feeding your ESA or taking them for a walk. Sometimes just using your ESA to break the cycle of obsessive or anxious thoughts can be beneficial.
Symptoms of anxiety can also increase if your life is feeling overly chaotic or stressful. Emotional support animals can help by forcing you to create a regular routine (such as when you take them out, when you feed them, or when you play together), so that your days feel more structured and manageable. If you’re someone who experiences a lot of social anxiety, an emotional support pet can also create a safe buffer between you and the world. When you venture out, you can bring your ESA to help break the ice when you need to interact with others. People are generally excited to ask questions about your ESA (the breed, his or her name, etc.), so you can open up in conversations without feeling overly self-conscious or uncomfortable. In this vein, emotional support animals can actually assist you in meeting new people or making new friends. Being less isolated and withdrawn works to your advantage so that you can more easily cope with your anxiety.
While there is certainly more research to be done about the connection between pets and mental health, it’s clear that having a constant companion in the form of a furry friend can result in more manageable symptoms of anxiety. ESAs can help us develop a close bond that can cause us to feel safer and more loved, which leads to feeling less anxious overall. Having an emotional support animal might mean that you end up feeling more comfortable out in the world, potentially leading to less reliance on anti-anxiety medications or more formal interventions. Your ESA just might be the key to a more stress-free frame of mind.