Depression affects almost 10% of adult Americans. In fact, major depression is the leading cause of disability for Americans between the ages of 15 and 44, according to statistics from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Lucky for us, our four-legged friends can help us with that on a daily basis.
Here are 5 different ways our dogs can assist us in preventing or alleviating human depression, and reducing human anxiety.
Unconditional Love: As a dog owner, no matter what kind of day you are having, you can always count on coming home to an excited friend that loves you no matter what. Your dog will not judge you. Your dog does not care how you look, feel, or smell. Your dog will attentively listen to you rant about whatever unimportant, completely over-debated subject, that would normally drive your family and friends up a wall. Your dog is always there waiting to cuddle, walk, play, or do whatever you want, as long as you are together. People need unconditional love to be expressed to us and from us in a reciprocal “real” relationship. We need the love of others in our lives or we fall into depression and despair. It is a proven fact that those who have someone to love, live longer lives and remain healthier for a longer period of time. Having someone to care for, and having someone in our lives that cares for us in return, is actually critical for our physical and mental health, as well as our longevity!
Touch: Many studies have demonstrated the healing power of touch. Simple touch from human to human, as well as human to dog, reduces the stress hormone, cortisol. By simply petting your dog, your body floods itself with oxytocin, a hormone that reduces stress, slows your heart rate, and lowers blood pressure. In addition, your body will produce the “feel good” neuro- transmitters, serotonin and dopamine. Dopamine plays in a role in regulation of behavior, motivation, attention, learning and mood. Serotonin plays a role in regulation of mood, appetite, sleep, memory and learning, and in the gastrointestinal tract, it stimulates metabolism, cellular growth, and digestion. A dog has the same physical reactions to this interaction as humans. Their bodies also produce all the same chemicals to make them healthy and happy. Engaging in daily petting, cuddling, or massaging, has huge emotional and physical health benefits for both you and your dog.
Responsibility: Owning a dog encourages you to take responsibility. At a minimum, your dog needs to at least be given food and water daily. Ideally, dog owners walk their dogs, clean up the yard after them, replace chew toys, and socialize them. All of these things require you to take action. These actions, according to depression research, improve mental health. Knowing that you are responsible for a living being, and that it is alive and doing well because of you, boosts your confidence and self-esteem. You will also create more structure in your day by planning meals and exercise. Organization, in itself, is also a great stress reliever and aid to healing depression.
Exercise: Evidence reviewed by the American Heart Association, indicates that dog owners are more likely to exercise than non- pet owners. Studies show that in turn, dog owners have a better cholesterol profile, have lower blood pressure, are less vulnerable to the physical effects of stress, and are more likely to survive a heart attack. All of this is due to knowing that you should take Fido for a walk every day, and then actually doing it. No offense cat owners, but those statistics are not the same for you. Regular exercise has been proven to reduce stress, ward off anxiety and feelings of depression, boost self-esteem, and improve sleep. Research has shown that exercise is an effective but often underused treatment for mild to moderate depression. When you exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins. Endorphins trigger a positive feeling in the body, which is actually similar to that of morphine. However, unlike with morphine, the activation of these receptors by the body’s endorphins does not lead to addiction or dependence. For example, the feeling that follows a run or workout is often described as “euphoric.” That feeling, known as a “runner’s high,” can be accompanied by a positive and energizing outlook on life.
Social Activity: Dog owners can naturally find themselves engaging in a little more social activity when they are with their dog. It is not uncommon to chat with a passer-by, while your dogs do a quick sniff to say hello. You may find yourself sharing stories about your favorite dog with a good friend or even a complete stranger. Studies have shown that these interactions with others provide positive emotions and enthusiasm. People need to be around people, and dogs need to be around other dogs and people. There is a sense of bonding that generally relaxes everyone. Studies have also been done on the negative effects of isolation. A study at the University College London, showed that the most socially isolated subjects in their case study had a 26% greater risk of dying, according to statistics recorded about their health, over a 1 year period. A 2010 study showed that too much alone time can be just as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day! After hearing that, aren’t we glad that our fury companions always encourage us to get out there and mingle?
These are just a few ways owning and caring for a dog can help alleviate human depression and promote better health. Be glad in knowing that just by spending time with your dog, you are creating happy, healthy relationships!