- Physical touch
Petting and cuddling our animals has a soothing effect by lowering the body’s release of cortisol. When we hug an animal, it can relieve stress and provide a sense of safety. Additionally, when we interact socially with animals (e.g. feed them, talk to them, train them) we experience a release of oxytocin (the “cuddle hormone”).
- Walking and exercise
When we take our pets for a walk, it allows us an opportunity to get some physical activity. We know that exercise has many physical and mental health benefits. Walking helps us to strengthen our bones and joints, work our lungs and heart, and increases blood flow to the brain. Taking a walk also benefits us by allowing us opportunities to have pleasant experiences outside of our homes, such as seeing wildflowers bloom or meeting a new acquaintance. When you have a pet that enjoys or requires walking, it can increase your motivation to get out for a daily walk.
- Regulating heart rate
As I mentioned above, petting an animal has a soothing effect. Cuddling with an animal can help us to regulate our own heart rate as our body attempts to mirror the animal’s heartbeat or rhythm. For instance, cuddling a purring cat can lower our heart rate almost instantly as our body matches the rhythm of the purring vibration. A lowered heart rate is key in reducing stress and anxiety.
In stressful times, it can be helpful to have the reminder from our pets not to take everything in life too seriously. Pets tend to be carefree and can be oblivious to many of the painful and stressful aspects of human life. Spending time with animals and caring for animals can provide a healthy reminder to take it easy, play, and enjoy the little things.
- A listening ear
When no one else is around, you can always talk to your pets. This can be similar to the ritual of writing in a journal or recording voice memos in your phone, to decompress after a long day. Your pet is not going to tell anyone!
- What if I don’t have any pets?
If you do not have any pets, you have a few options for how to access animals. If you are lucky, there may be therapy animals to visit in your area. Conduct a quick web search to see if any certified therapy animals are around. You can also offer to walk a neighbor’s dog or pet-sit while they are away. Finally, animal shelters always need volunteers. After doing some work to help the shelter with operations, you can ask to spend time with the animals just playing and relieving stress.
By Jordan Levine, PsyD, Supervised by Misti Nicholson, PsyD