Bringing the Psychological Benefits of Dog Ownership into Residential Mental Health Treatment
Dog ownership can provide us with tremendous joy, a sense of unconditional love, and numerous health benefits. For people struggling with mental illness, it can also be an essential part of the healing process by buoying you emotionally through difficult times. By bringing your dog to treatment, you can continue to derive these important benefits throughout your stay and enhance your treatment experience for the best possible outcome.
“Dogs are the best!” my husband and I often say to one another as our 10-year-old cockapoo snuggles up next to us or runs around like a rocket in the woods or falls asleep snoring after a long day of swimming and chasing squirrels. We both still marvel at the way she understands things we say, the way she greets us at the door as if we have been away for months (even if we have only gone out to the mailbox), and the way she appears to feel a kind of joy beyond any human experience. She gives us a simple and fierce love and expands our understanding of happiness every day.
But our appreciation for our dog has another dimension, too; for the past 10 years, she has been a critical part of my psychological stability. Part of this is unconscious and biological; research reveals that petting a dog lowers our heart rate and blood pressure while inducing the release of oxytocin. Part of it is about routine and activity; she makes me go outside, move, get some sun, and maintain a regular schedule, all of which can be vital to mental wellness. But I believe that the biggest part of it is simply love. A creature whose love for you is so overwhelmingly evident makes it hard to feel unlovable
Evidence of Benefit
My experience is in no way unique. Studies show an immense array of benefits conferred by dog ownership; as one research cohort notes in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “There is considerable evidence that pets benefit the lives of owners, both psychologically and physically, by serving as an important source of social support.” According to research by Krista Marie Clark Line of the University of Missouri-Columbia, people are “less likely to suffer from depression if they own a dog,” particularly single people and women. The CDC found that children living in homes with dogs are less likely to experience stress and anxiety. And for people with preexisting mental illness, dog ownership can significantly increase vital quality of life parameters. In fact, even brief interactions with dogs can provide deep comfort and improve the well-being of people struggling with acute psychological pain, which is why specially trained therapy dogs are dispatched to sites of mass trauma, supporting people affected by horrific events.
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Loving You Through Mental Illness
Selma Gonzalez is intimately familiar with the psychological benefits of dog ownership. “[My] depression left me feeling heavy and hollow all at the same time. It twisted my mind into something powerfully dark, feeding me lies and belittling me,” she writes.“The anxiety was paralyzing – the mere thought of seeing my family and friends caused my heart to beat faster and make breathing hard.” Without the ability to socialize and with little energy to even leave the house, she retreated into her home and waited for her treatment to lift. “But I wasn’t alone while I was there,” Selma says, “[My dogs] Andie and Lucy were right beside me, pushing me to continue living.”
It was Andie and Lucy who forced her to venture outside on daily walks, and their wild antics coaxed smiles out of her even in the midst of crushing depression. It was Andie and Lucy who saw her through her anxiety interacting with strangers and who comforted her as she cried, lying down beside her and licking the tears from her cheeks.
Andie and Lucy have been a great blessing. I don’t know how I would’ve handled the first few months of my diagnosis without them. I was so weak, and often felt like I was slowly rotting away – but Andie and Lucy’s strong love lifted me up.
Although Gonzalez is still making her way back from the darkness, she credits her dogs with providing her with vital support through her journey. “I am still dealing with depression and anxiety, attending appointments and taking medication, but my two cocker spaniels have not left my side. They still brighten my day and comfort me, make me smile and laugh.”
Bringing Your Dog to Treatment
At Bridges to Recovery, we recognize and honor the tremendous bond between dogs and their human companions. We also understand the vital psychological benefits these relationships can provide, and believe that these can be harnessed to optimize residential mental health treatment. This why we welcome you to bring your dog to treatment for the duration of your stay.
By bringing your dog to residential treatment, you can continue receiving the multitude of benefits conferred by dog ownership, decrease your stress levels, elevate your mood, and gain a deep sense of love. This emotional grounding can be critical to helping you more fully participate in the therapeutic process and remove the barriers standing in the way of your recovery. In a sense, your dog becomes a part of your treatment team, augmenting the efficacy of clinical care by acting as a source of comfort, joy, and unconditional support as you engage in a transformative healing journey. This unique approach reflects our ongoing commitment to providing our clients with the best possible treatment experiences that draw on both excellent medical practice and compassionate, personalized care to facilitate lasting emotional change.
Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive residential treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance abuse and eating disorders. Contact us to learn more about our pet policy and how we can help you or your loved one restore psychological tranquility and improve quality of life.
Lead Image Source: Unsplash user Angelina Litvin