I’m a huge animal lover, as you can probably tell from my About Me section. I cannot imagine a life where I come home from work to an apartment with no pets. No one to greet me at the door, no one to remind me that it’s important to go outside and breathe some fresh air.
Animals have always had an important role in the life of humans. We can trace it back to the idea of predator/prey, where we see a lot of activity in our brains (to be more specific, the amygdala, found in our limbic system, which is responsible for processing memory and emotional reactions.). Our brain is able to differentiate between dangerous animals and cute/harmless animals, as we see a very specific set of cell activity depending on the situation. This is important for survival – dangerous animal? RUN!… harmless animal? HUNT!) So just by seeing an animal, our bodies begin to experience changes at a cellular level.
(Image obtained from http://www.brainwaves.com/)
What kind of changes occur if we spend a significant amount of time with an animal? Or if we touch the animal? I recently ran into this article, which talks about how spending time with animals can have a positive effect on our mental health. Generally speaking, when around animals, we experience:
*less stress, because cortisol levels decrease
*more feelings of joy, because we release more oxytocin and endorphins
*more energy, because there is an increase in dopamine release
Thanks to this kind of research, Animal Assisted Therapy came about. One of my dogs, Tulipa, is a certified Animal Assisted Therapy dog. She has visited many individuals at hospices and assisted-living facilities to brighten their days. It was amazing to see everyone’s face light up when they saw her coming. The nurses and techs told me that the patients did so much better on the days that Tulipa and I visited, in that they were more compliant and generally experienced less pain and discomfort.
The article I mentioned above goes on to specifically talking about the effects of Animal Assisted Therapy on different mental health concerns, like trauma (e.g., sexual abuse) and Alzheimer’s Disease. Since my interest and expertise are in the arena of Schizophrenia and other severe and persistent mental illnesses, I was most intrigued by their findings on that matter. Just to give you a brief description of what Schizophrenia is: individuals with this diagnosis are faced with a chronic battle in which they have difficulty establishing reality from internal distorted perceptions, as they often experience hallucinations (sensory experiences that are not based on reality, such as seeing/smelling/feeling/hearing/tasting what is not actually there) and/or delusions (beliefs not based on reality). The recommended treatment for this disorder is a combination of therapy and medication management. When a person is having these sensory or thought disturbances, performing everyday tasks becomes challenging. (Can you imagine being able to completely focus and successfully complete projects at work when there is so much turmoil happening in your head?) This article cited other studies, in which individuals diagnosed with Schizophrenia spent time with different farm animals. After 12 weeks, researchers found an improvement in coping skills and self-efficacy. This improvement was seen even at a 6-month follow-up. Spending time with these animals significantly helped these individuals better function in their everyday lives.
So, moral of the story, animals can help in big and small ways – whether it’s giving you some relief from your everyday routine, or making such a huge, impacting difference in the lives of individuals diagnosed with a mental illness.
I invite you to spend some time with your pets or your friends’ pets, and share your experiences with me!