Man’s Best Friend: The Healing Power of Dogs for Mental Health Disorders

When a dog and its owner look into each others’ eyes, a chemical reaction happens. This is not a metaphor, but a physical hormonal change observed by researchers at Abazu University. Both the dog’s and owner’s brains flood with oxytocin, the same phenomenon that occurs when a mother nurses her child or when people fall in love. Also known as the bonding hormone, oxytocin promotes a sense of stability, relaxation, and trust that have a positive effect on psychological and social well-being. The discovery of shared oxytocin release not only sheds light on the deep relationships people and dogs have enjoyed for thousands of years, but also gives us a biochemical understanding of what many people with mental illness already know: dogs are good for our mental health.

The benefits of dog ownership do not stop at the biochemical level, but encompass a full range of emotional, behavioral, and social advantages that can improve outcomes for people with mental health disorders.

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Dogs Give You Purpose

Dogs give you a reason to get up in the morning, to leave the house, to care, and to comfort. Knowing that you are needed can bestow feelings of responsibility and empowerment that can enhance your life and increase your self-worth. A sense of purpose has repeatedly been shown to alleviate symptoms of mental health disorders, particularly in cases of trauma, where it is one of the most important predictors of positive outcomes.

Expect Unconditional Love

When you are in the midst of psychological distress, it is not uncommon to doubt that anyone cares. This can be particularly true if your mental health disorder has created interpersonal conflict with loved ones. The unconditional love a dog provides can be a source of great comfort and reassurance that you are valuable and appreciated. Dogs allow you to experience love free from judgment, shame, or abandonment, and let you know that someone is always thrilled to see you.

Experience Healing Touch

Physically touching another being is one of the most powerfully nurturing acts we can experience, as demonstrated by Harlow’s notorious monkey experiments. Touch is an elemental part of not only our formative emotional and physical development, but our sense of well-being throughout our lives. Physical contact with dogs meets your basic human need for touch, and imbues you with a sense of nurturing, belonging, and peace. Petting your dog is also proven to lower blood pressure, decreasing anxiety and allowing you to more calmly respond to stress.

The Benefits of Outdoor Exercise

Self-care is often one of the first things to get left by the wayside when a mental health disorder presents itself, which can worsen the illness and create a vicious cycle of self-neglect and suffering. The exercise you get from walking or running with your dog can be exceptionally useful in disrupting self-neglectful behaviors and experiencing the benefits of physical movement. Spending time outdoors also allows you to soak up the therapeutic effects of the sun by increasing vitamin D levels, which has been shown to offer relief from depression.

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Natural Path to Social Interaction

Spending time walking your dog and going to dog parks serve as natural starting points for interactions with other people. You immediately have common ground as an entryway to conversation, which can help you feel at ease and connect with people in a low-stress manner. Whether these encounters remain casual or lead to deeper relationships, breaking social isolation and feeling like you are part of a community can contribute to an improved sense of psychological stability and engagement with the world around you.

Dogs can be an integral part of your mental health strategy and gift you with meaningful companionship in your everyday life. Bridges to Recovery honors this relationship by inviting you to bring your dog to stay with you throughout your treatment. We believe in supporting you through the therapeutic process in the way that is right for you, and offering a holistic healing experience using the most effective tools available, including the benefits offered by the four-legged among us.

Contact us for more information about our pet program or any other aspect of treatment at Bridges to Recovery. We are always happy to answer any questions you may have and support you on your healing journey.