As you might guess from their name, emotional support animals have an important job: to help their owners with their mental health. But did you know that they can also help with physical wellbeing too? Read how these furry companions can help us to feel better, from our heads to our feet.
What Exactly is an Emotional Support Animal?
Before we look into the ways that emotional support animals can help to make you healthier, let’s start with a little more information on what these amazing animals are, and what they do.
Emotional support animals, or ESAs for short, are a type of assistance animal, meaning that they offer assistance to people with disabilities, helping them to live with the symptoms of their conditions and enjoy fuller lives.
More specifically, ESAs help people with mental or emotional disabilities—see the next section for some examples. Unlike service animals, another kind of assistance animal, ESAs don’t need special training and don’t perform a specific task for their owners. Rather, they offer a calm, loving and supportive presence. ESAs, like any pets, do need basic training to behave properly in public.
Some of the Many Conditions Emotional Support Animals Can Help With
To get an emotional support animal, you must have been diagnosed with mental illness, disorder or disability. While the full list of conditions that ESAs can help with is a very long one, here are some of the more common ones:
- Anxiety disorders, including acute stress disorder, social anxiety disorder and more
- Disruptive mood regulation disorder
- Panic attacks and panic disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Personality disorders
- Autism and Asperger’s
Happy Thoughts: How ESAs Help Us to Feel Better
If you asked 100 different people with ESAs how their assistance animal helped them, you’d probably get back 100 different answers. After all, people are very diverse, and each person’s relationship with their ESA is unique. However, with that being said, there are certain scientifically-proven ways that ESAs can help their owners’ mental health.
Firstly, a number of studies have shown that petting a dog or cat actually changes the chemical balance in your brain, releasing a feel-good “cocktail” of hormones like serotonin, which makes us feel happy, and oxytocin, the “love hormone”. What’s more, it can help to block cortisol, which causes feelings of stress and anxiety.
For many ESA owners, especially those who live alone, simply having another living creature around—one that makes very few demands and gives lots of love in return—can be the most comforting thing of all. After all, an animal doesn’t care if you couldn’t face taking a shower or getting dressed properly: it loves you just the same.
Other ESA owners, especially those with stress or anxiety disorders, speak of how their ESA can help them to break out of repetitive cycles of invasive and negative thoughts. Something as simple as your dog placing its head on your knee or your cat jumping up on your lap can help to break the cycle.
It’s Not Just Mental Health – ESAs Help Our Physical Health Too!
While emotional support animals’ job is to help their owners to improve their psychological wellbeing, it’s often a happy side-effect that their physical wellbeing improves too. Let’s take a look at some of the ways they can help us feel healthier all-round.
Looking After Any Animal, ESAs Included, Establishes a Healthy Routine
While it’s your emotional support animal’s job to look after you, it’s also your job to look after your ESA. Depending on what sort of ESA you get, this can include feeding, grooming, veterinary appointments, cleaning up, walking, and more. Don’t let this responsibility put you off, though: it can actually be very beneficial!
Establishing a healthy routine, with time for a regular sleep cycle, proper meals, and daily chores, can be very difficult, and even more so when you are living with a psychological disability. However, a little gentle responsibility, like looking after an ESA, can be just the kick-starter you need to get into a better routine, from waking up on time to eating regularly (when you feed your ESA, you also feed yourself).
Exercise Is Hard, But ESAs Can Help to Motivate You
Most people living with a mental illness at some point in their lives will have heard well-meaning but annoying advice like “You should try yoga, it always helps me when I feel sad” or “Running cured my depression, you just need to get out there!” If you’re living with a mental illness, this can be the last thing you want to hear.
However, while exercise might not cure you, it is unlikely to make you feel worse. You don’t need to run a marathon or become an Insta-famous yoga star: just a 15-minute walk once a day is a good starting point, and what better motivation than your loyal emotional support dog?
Not only can gentle exercise be a mood-booster, but it will also help to improve your heart health, lower your blood pressure, strengthen your bones, joints, and muscles, and improve your general fitness. Sure, it’s not a cure-all, but it can help.
How to Get an Emotional Support Animal
If you think you could benefit from an emotional support animal, the most important step is to consult a medical doctor or a licensed mental health professional, as these are the only people who can prescribe an ESA. If you’re not already seeing one, there are websites that can help to put you in contact with a licensed mental health professional in your state.
After a consultation, the LMHP will prescribe you an emotional support animal by writing you an ESA letter, which gives details of your need for an ESA, as well as the issuer’s licensing information. This letter will serve as proof of your need for an emotional support animal, allowing you to benefit from ESA laws, like flying with your ESA or living with it in rented accommodation.