Depression is a complex mental disorder not yet fully understood by the medical community. It is also a multi-billion dollar business, as evidenced by the many print and TV ads that promote various pharmaceutical agents for the treatment of depression. Certainly drug therapy, when used in addition to psychotherapy, can play an important role in helping those with depression better manage their symptoms and enjoy a better quality of life. But as the drug ads clearly caution, pharmaceuticals used in the treatment of depression can cause serious, even life-threatening side effects. Concerns about these side effects have led to a greater awareness of non-drug therapies that may be beneficial in helping patients deal with depression without medications. One particular therapy that has gained recognition by the National Institute for Mental Health as a valid form of psychotherapy for treating depression is animal-assisted therapy or pet therapy. Although pet therapy has not enjoyed the kinds of comprehensive scientific studies used to evaluate and support the effectiveness of pharmaceuticals in treating depression, there is no question that pet therapy is safer than drug therapy. Here’s a look at 6 possible side effects depressed patients may experience as a result of pet therapy.
It’s not uncommon for people suffering from depression to withdraw and isolate themselves from friends and family. But isolation leads to feelings of loneliness and disconnection from others, often resulting in increased anxiety. Researchers have found that the companionship of a pet can help lessen feelings of loneliness and reduce anxiety by promoting feelings of emotional connection—a connection that leads to an increased sense of well-being. Another attractive trait of pet companions is that they are inherently loyal and incapable of ever being perceived as judgmental.
Increased sense of purpose:
Another common symptom of depression is a loss of purpose, of feeling irrelevant in the lives of others. Having a pet can help to alleviate negative feelings of self-worth. After all, the proper care and feeding of pets involves many duties that they can’t perform for themselves. In recognizing that the quality of life a pet enjoys is largely dependent on others, those who choose to care for pets often find a greater sense of purpose. As an added benefit, caring for a pet creates reasons to venture out of the house, thus creating more opportunities for social interaction.
It’s not uncommon for those suffering from depression to lead sedentary lives. And it’s no secret that physical inactivity can lead to chronic health issues such as type II diabetes, hypertension, and coronary artery disease. People who are less active are also more prone to catch colds and flu due to compromised immune systems. Adopting a pet—in particular a dog which may require multiple daily walks—is a great way for sedentary people to get moving again. And the extra activity incurred by running errands on behalf of a pet doesn’t hurt either. The added bonus of being active is that regular exercise not only leads to better overall physical health, it can also help improve mental health through the release of endorphins and other brain chemicals that are associated with improved mood.
Reduced perception of pain:
As a very prominent TV commercial frequently reminds us, depression is often associated with pain. It’s a vicious cycle because dealing with pain and discomfort can lead to greater depression. The problem with pain is that it makes those who suffer from it more self-aware, often causing them to abstain from otherwise positive experiences because they might prove too painful. For those suffering from depression and pain, research has shown that caring for a pet can provide significant relief, not by making the pain magically go away, but by altering the brain’s perception of pain. Those who are more engaged and focused in caring for others, pets included, tend not to notice pain as much as those who remain more isolated and self-centered. In addition, the satisfaction that comes from caring can also contribute to mood elevation.
Greater social interaction:
As previously mentioned, pets create the need for their caregivers to often venture out of the house, which in turn creates more opportunities for social interaction. Sometimes these types of interactions are often superficial by nature, the positive effects of which may be short lived. However, another benefit of pet assisted therapy is the existence of support groups. Comprised mainly of those who have also sought to improve the quality of their lives, support groups offer a great way to associate on an ongoing basis with others who share something in common. The feelings that come from belonging to a group, along with those that come from socializing and reaching out to others, can be both mood enhancing and mood sustaining.
Your pet will thrive:
The benefits of pet therapy aren’t just about the human in the relationship. Pets with loving, caring companions also thrive and tend to have more positive dispositions. The key is to make sure that you find the type of animal that is right for you, taking potential allergies and other factors into consideration. Many animals that are perfectly suitable for pet therapy are unwanted and waiting to be rescued from animal shelters, and knowing that you’ve made a major difference in an animal’s life by adopting it as your special pet can’t help but bring a smile to your face.
By: Kalee Perry is a freelance writer who specializes in writing about depression and diabetes.
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