How an Emotional Support Dog Can Help In Social Anxiety Disorder Treatment and Beyond

If you experience social anxiety disorder, an emotional support dog (ESD) may be of significant benefit to your stress levels, motivation, and experiences of love and care. ESDs can offer non-judgmental support as you challenge yourself to take responsibility for their care, and well-being. Dogs naturally inspire conversation among strangers, and they provide constant companionship and support in these challenging interactions.

“I just can’t handle this situation right now—I feel stupid.”

“I’m not nearly as good as the other people around me. Why am I even here?”

“When I inevitably say something silly, others will judge me and reject me.”

“Why do I even bother trying to interact? I just sound foolish.”

If questions like these burden you regularly, you’re not alone. Having social anxiety feels like you’re under a microscope constantly, even if no one is closely observing you, or even present. It can hold you hostage, keeping you indoors most of the time and pressuring you to avoid any and all social interactions or moments that could potentially crop up. It then makes the sufferer seek out safety or comfort in order to further avoid it—compounding unhealthy views of self, such as unworthiness or loathing.

Facing your disorder head on when you reach out for proper mental health treatment can be extremely daunting, and it’s natural to feel scared, especially if you don’t have family or friends close by. Thankfully, there is a certain type of support you can receive, unconditionally and boundlessly: a furry, four-legged friend.

Though dog ownership isn’t for everyone, it is no secret that dogs are proven stress relievers, can be of great physical and emotional service for those in need, and make awesome companions. Not only can a dog inspire motivation and diminish feelings of isolation throughout your treatment journey, but they can also provide support, love, and many ways to healthily manage your social anxiety long afterward. The joy that dogs can bring to us is so well-known that there are service dogs and ESDs—emotional support dogs—that are used especially for companionship and support.

Emotional support dogs, contrary to popular belief, are different from service dogs in that there are certain restrictions placed on where the dog can accompany you, and it doesn’t need to perform a disability-related task. That being said, ESDs can be registered and identified as such for those who suffer from a mental health condition such as depression, PTSD, and anxiety, among others. Though they don’t have an all-access pass to accompany you in grocery stores, shops, and other public arenas, emotional support dogs can live in otherwise pet-free homes and apartments and even fly with you when you can provide an official doctor’s note (not more than a year old) for your landlord or airline carrier.

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Begin to Open the Gateways of Trust by Matching a Dog’s Gaze

Because social anxiety is based much on the fear of being judged, criticized, or shamed by others, it can be extremely hard to make and maintain close, intimate relationships with people. An emotional support dog, in addition to being judgment and criticism-free, can provide the first stepping stone to being open to genuine interactions with others as you enter treatment and build bonds with those who have similar experiences.

Why? We’ve all heard the phrase, “the eyes are the window to the soul”—but this doesn’t just apply to human interactions. Studies have shown that looking a dog in the eyes, similar to looking into those of another person (or a young child), can increase oxytocin levels and bonding between pet and owner. This type of connection can open emotional pathways that may have otherwise been hidden or paused due to anxiousness in social situations, and knowing that bond is possible with another living thing can alleviate some of the fear of rejection brought on by the disorder.

ESDs Give You Even More Purpose and Confidence Throughout Treatment

Because a dog loves and trusts unconditionally, owning an emotional support dog can give you a sense of responsibility and pride in caring for it. It depends on you for food, exercise, and companionship as well—giving you an external reason to fight through any difficult challenges you might face while you learn how to manage your social anxiety. Recent studies have shown that having and maintaining a sense of purposecan greatly reduce feelings of anxiety and stress brought on by life’s challenges, and ensuring the well-being of another living thing is certainly a purpose! Many treatment centers even allow emotional support dogs to accompany you throughout your stay, giving you unconditional love as you begin to foster trust in your social skills and in others.

The comfort you feel from petting a dog has lasting benefits that go beyond connecting to another living thing: studies have consistently shown that spending just a few minutes with a furry companion can increase oxytocin and decrease cortisol simultaneously. It’s such a well-known fact that even those with stress on the job have been shown to benefit greatly from the act—the main reason why employers and colleges often hire therapy dogs to promote well-being and mental health when times are stressful and anxious.

Owning a Dog Is a Free Way to Exercise Your Spirit

It’s no surprise that getting fresh air by way of a walk, jog, or hike can do wonders for your mental health—but sometimes finding the drive to do so can be intimidating:

What if I run into someone I know?

Will they be judging me? How can I prevent that?

Maybe going outside isn’t a good idea right now.

These types of negative thoughts will still crop up periodically after treatment as you gain experience in understanding and living with your social anxiety, and that’s completely normal; however, the ways you respond to those types of conversations with yourself will be the keys to healthily maintaining your mental well-being:

What if I run into someone I know?

Will they be judging me? How can I prevent that?

At least Fido isn’t judging me. He looks like he could use a walk, too. Okay pal, let’s go.

Though it isn’t always going to be easy, a dog can help motivate you to get daily exercise in order to reduce any present levels of anxiety or stress you may have built up. Just as much as dogs need lots of activity to stay out of trouble and in good health, regular physical activity has been shown time and time again to alleviate symptoms of long-term depression and anxiety in humans, along with releasing feel-good hormones and chemicals in your system. Let your emotional support dog be your walking, hiking, or jogging buddy in order to give you daily boosts and motivation—he or she will love it.

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Four-Legged Friends Promote Natural Conversation and Communication

Just as emotional support dogs are fantastic workout pals, they also are great at stirring up conversation—especially when it might not have occurred to begin with. Though this may initially seem frightening, the short, low-stakes interactions with strangers around your dog can be perfect practice for lengthier, more in-depth conversations with others. Think about it: just about everyone gets excited at seeing the tail wag or the happy pant of a well-taken-care-of dog, and there is already established common ground between fellow owners, immediately creating a topic of conversation even with someone you don’t know.

More than a few studies have shown that the likelihood of someone interacting with a stranger when in public with a dog is much higher than when in public alone; in fact, one study showed an individual interacting with three strangers when alone, as opposed to sixty-five when with his dog during the same length of time. That’s over twenty times the amount of day-to-day interactions with the outside world than a solo venture offers—an awesome way to begin socializing yourself (and your dog) as you expose yourself safely to more and more social situations and activities. You can even just keep the conversation about your pup, allowing your confidence in that topic to grow and be a springboard down the road.

It’s important to go slowly, steadily, and at your own pace when it comes to learning how to integrateyourself into society without feeling uncomfortable or fearful. The benefits of having an emotional support dog by your side as you go through this process and cope with your social anxiety are vast, profound, and lasting—and also can help put you at ease. Having an animal that loves you for who you are and needs you to be healthy in order to survive is a beautiful responsibility and one that can motivate you to be a wonderful, meaningful part of the outside world.

Bridges to Recovery takes pride in its ability to treat and provide support in a comfortable, inviting atmosphere, and valued professionals are at every turn in order to make your stay exactly what it should be: healing. Varied programs, activities, and allowance of support animals make this a highly accommodating facility to help you as you bridge the gap to your new, healthy life. Reach out to us today to learn more about how we can help you on the journey to comprehensive well-being.

Lead Image Source: Unsplash user Simone Dalmeri