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How Pets Ease the Stress of Recovery

Sophia has two daughters struggling with PTSD, ADHD and addiction. For years they’ve been in therapy and on medications to help reduce symptoms, increase their ability to manage them and facilitate addiction recovery. While the meetings and prescriptions were helpful in creating a baseline for functioning, both girls (now in their freshman and junior years of college) had hit a plateau in their recovery. Fresh triggers and increased school, family and recovery stressors were resulting in increased binges with drugs and alcohol.

As a parent, Sophia was at her wits end.

“The girls had made so much progress in the two years they’d been in treatment. We were all so hopeful that they would continue on an upward trend. Then, they seemed to hit a wall and start to backslide. We didn’t know what to do to turn things around.”

Of course, it’s normal in recovery for momentum to slip and addictive behaviors to re-emerge. Recovery creates challenges, lifestyle changes and responsibilities that trigger anxiety, panic and a loss of self-confidence that reverses gains and threatens to upend the recovery process.

After a month of the girls’ downward slide, the therapist made a new recommendation:

Instead of switching or increasing medications or implementing more strict protocols she suggested that each girl get a service dog. Trained as companions to assist people with disabilities (including anxiety and panic) service dogs have become an increasingly popular element in many types of recovery.

For Sophia’s daughters getting their own service dog marked a turning point. Within a week each girl reported feeling more calm, secure and stable, which reduced feelings of stress which lead to reduce addictive behaviors.

Addiction dramatically changes the way we see ourselves, others and the world. While stripping us of a sense of self-efficacy (the belief that we can handle situations and succeed in creating the outcomes we seek) addiction teaches us to depend on the external relief of addiction to manage life.

Part of recovery, then, means learning to handle life’s challenges from a sober state of mind. Feeling connected to a source of quiet strength and peace helps create a new space from which to approach the recovery process and life beyond. This is where pets can be so helpful. Science proves that (especially cats and dogs) affect our bodies and minds in ways that can distract and disrupt addictive habits and help to develop new, healthy alternative behaviors.

The following four effects of pets highlight how powerful their presence can be:

  • Mindfulness: Overcoming addiction requires the release of habitual behaviors and the management of withdrawal and other symptoms related to learning how to cope with the world from a sober perspective. Whereas an addiction promotes dissociation from the present moment, connection with a pet facilitates mindfulness, a state of being consciously aware that engages the prefrontal cortex of the brain—the part that houses all executive function. The more the prefrontal cortex is activated the more actively we can choose healthy actions and inhibit unhealthy habits.
  • Stress hormones: Numerous studies prove that just being around a pet relieves depression, increases immunity and reduces doctor visits. Especially engaging with pets through cuddling or playing increases the bonding hormone, oxytocin, which reduces the stress hormone cortisol, which leads to a reduction of symptoms related to anxiety.
  • Autonomic body functions: Without any effort on our part the presence of pets alters body functions we don’t even think about. A pet’s calm presence can naturally decrease human heart rate, oxygen consumption, blood pressure, muscle tension and respiration rate.
  • Brain function: Interacting with a pet, from the emotional exchange to the unconditional love to the laughter and good feelings their playful antics promote, releases endorphins that improve brain function by stimulating imagination, problem-solving skills and even our ability to better connect with and relate to others. When we tap into seeing life from a pet’s perspective of curiosity (a viewpoint that has been proven to increase memory) we can even stimulate neurogenesis (the creation of new brain cells) by engaging in a process of experiencing novelty that activates the brain and increases optimal functioning.

While there’s an enormous amount of science behind the “Pet Effect,” the real benefit of connecting with an animal is in the way that it lets us reconnect to ourselves. In the nonjudgmental environment of the animal experience, we can escape our busy, critical minds and access something much more recovery-friendly: a perspective of transcendence where there is no right or wrong, good or bad, but simply the moment we are in and the effortless way we can connect with another living being.

The quiet space such an experience forms offers distance from addiction, anxiety and the struggles of recovery. It also offers up a way back to the simplicity of who we are. From there, we can focus on connecting to an inner strength, a deeper sense of knowing and the belief that whatever challenges arise in recovery – and in life – we have the ability to discover healthy ways to handle them.

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