My particular flavor of anxiety can best be described as mental time travel. I jump ahead to potential crises to work them out in my head, and rewind to past problems to obsess over what I could have done differently. I spend whatever time I have leftover realizing the hypothetical fires I put out were all in my head and only burned me. It’s a cycle that’s easy to get stuck in, but I’ve learned to manage it with mindfulness — or staying in the present moment — through cognitive behavioral therapy, yoga, running, meditation and breathing exercises.
But the one thing that’s moved the needle more than anything else when it comes to my mental health also occasionally shits on my rug — a tiny hound-mix named Tottie, who I adopted a little over a month ago.
Tottie isn’t a therapy dog — she’s admittedly not even always a good dog — but she’s an excellent mindfulness guru who has kept me more present and playful by simply being her floppy self.
Fortunately, a number of experts assure me that it’s entirely normal and sane to think of Tottie as the Deepak Chopra of dogs. “Dogs don’t need any special training to offer benefits to our mental and physical health,” psychologist Paul Greene, director of the Manhattan Center for Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, tells me. Research shows that merely being around a dog during times of stress lowers a person’s heart rate and blood pressure, decreases cortisol and other harmful stress hormones and improves cardiovascular health. Moreover, when pet owners look at their pups, both the dog and human release more oxytocin, commonly referred to as the “love hormone,” which makes people feel good and increases the bond between them and their animals. Interactions with dogs also elevate levels of dopamine and serotonin, adding even more feel-good neurotransmitters to the mix.
To that end, Philip Tedeschi, the executive director of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection at the University of Denver, explains, “These special connections can improve our optimism and positive worldview.”
It’s not surprising then that dog adoptions surged in the first few months of quarantine, as a mental-health crisis brewed in isolation. In a recent survey from Rover, where Tedeschi works as an animal-human connection expert, 92 percent of dog owners reported that their pets have played a positive role in their mental health during the pandemic, and 86 percent said they alleviate stress from news topics like the coronavirus, economy and politics. Interestingly, 40 percent of respondents claimed to turn to their pet specifically when they’re upset about current events, compared to 23 percent who turn to their significant other and 13 percent who turn to a family member.
Beyond the oxytocin boost, caring for an animal adequately requires outdoor exercise and social interaction, both of which make it harder for mental illness to thrive. It’s easy to stare at a wall and think about everything terrible that could happen as COVID numbers surge for a third time, but it’s a lot harder with a dog licking your feet, asking you to go for a walk. “If your anxiety leads you to ruminate about your worries, interrupting that rumination by playing with your dog is a great way to bring yourself back to the present moment,” Greene says.
Animal behaviorist, dog trainer and Buddhist Russell Hartstein adds that dogs help us more or less meditate throughout the day without ever really having to try. “Watching your dog do simple acts such as sleep, drink water, eat or play provides great joy and stops the monkey mind and waterfall of thoughts that go through our heads nonstop,” Hartstein says. “This leads to being present in the moment.”
Tedeschi, who is also a trained psychotherapist and social worker, notes that social support, which dogs totally count as, is a significant predictor of health, longevity and recovery from mental and physical illnesses. “Social support theory proposes that animals provide both direct and indirect support to humans. In a direct way, animals act as sources of nonjudgmental support and perceived unconditional positive regard,” Tedeschi explains. Meanwhile, indirectly, animals act as “social lubricants or facilitators of interaction between humans.”
For me, all of this checks out. During the pandemic, I moved from Brooklyn — where I lived with two roommates and socialized with friends outdoors in masks — to Chicago, where I began living alone, which was really lonely at first. And so, my dog not only gave me someone to interact with, but something to get me outside and talking to strangers again. Even if it was just telling other dog owners that she was newly rescued and scared of other dogs, the interaction felt delightfully normal. And when we didn’t cross paths with other people and dogs, we were still getting exercise and exposure to sunlight and nature — all of which further benefit mental and physical health.
Experts are careful to warn that if I only adopted a dog to help with my mental health — and wasn’t doing anything else about it — I’d probably make for a pretty bad dog owner. “Research doesn’t support the idea that simply owning a pet is sufficient to fully address problems with depression or anxiety,” Greene says. “Specific types of therapy and medications are recommended for that.” And, of course, having to surrender an animal you couldn’t properly care for and potentially neglected isn’t good for anyone’s anxiety or depression, and will more than likely exacerbate symptoms.
That said, provided a dog’s basic needs are met (primarily food, water, exercise and veterinary care, but also love and affection), Tedeschi doesn’t believe mental illness should hinder dog ownership, especially because “many people with a mental-health diagnosis function better with animals in their lives.“ Not to mention, there are plenty of other ways to interact with dogs other than owning one — from volunteering at shelters, to dog-walking and dog-sitting, to asking a friend if you can hang out with their pup for an afternoon (they’ll usually appreciate the break).
I’m lucky to finally be at a place in my life where I can give a dog a good home, and being able to appreciate that has kept me positive and present in an otherwise dark time. Better yet, the more I put into caring for her, the better I am at caring for myself. I drink less so I’m not hungover when we go for walks; I don’t forget to eat because she never skips a meal; and I’m forced to take work breaks or suffer the consequences of her eating another bra. (Yes, my dog is a boob gal.)
So while most gurus would definitely be better houseguests, there’s no denying that my spoiled, misbehaving little dog perks me up much more than my old bras ever did.