It doesn’t take an online therapist to confirm that the animal kingdom and humans have become inextricably intertwined. Tourists flock in their hordes to go on safaris or visit zoos. We study these creatures in-depth and go to great lengths to protect them with people such as Jane Goodall and Steve Irwin being at the forefront of these efforts.
The dog has been domesticated as a pet between 18 800 and 32 100 years ago already. And horses have acted as transport and an agricultural sidekick for the past 6000 years. But more and more emphasis has been placed on animals and mental health in recent years. In this article, we explore the various avenues this has taken us. And we discuss whether there really is a correlation or whether it’s just the latest trend giving a placebo effect.
Potent Cuddles from Creatures
There were quite a few interesting studies done on the effects of cuddling soft toys. This is because there was no denying that after giving a fussy baby or a fussy child one of these to have a cuddle with, there was a change in behaviour. They seemed to calm down and settle down. These studies showed that soft toys were not just something nice and fluffy to hold and acted as a symbol of comfort, but that they actually triggered the body to release oxytocin.
Oxytocin is generally known as the “feel-good hormone”. But there’s much more to it than just getting someone in a better mood. This hormone is associated with feelings of trust and empathy and plays a big part in forming bonds with others. Oxytocin also inhibits the production of Cortisol (“the stress hormone”). And, once again, this doesn’t just relate to a mood or feeling. The inhibition of Cortisol actually curbs weight gain, increases immunity levels, stimulates muscle regeneration and lowers the heart rate and blood pressure.
Cuddles with creatures proved to be even more potent than our soft toy friends. Not only did it have the same general effect when it comes to Oxytocin and Cortisol, but it had an overall impact on the well-being of the individual. Unlike soft toys, animals also appreciate and reciprocate the love they’re given – unconditionally. This becomes especially apparent since it’s been proven that the animal experiences the same Oxytocin and Cortisol effects during the encounter.
Natural Pain Medication
In recent years, there has been an increase in hospitals allowing pets to visit their owners. Sometimes it’s from a standpoint of empathy, and an attempt to make a patient that rarely gets guests to feel less lonely. Sometimes it’s for comfort reasons (refer to the section we discuss cuddles above). But other times, especially when it comes to terminal cases, it’s an effort to decrease pain. But are animals really a natural pain medication or is it all in our minds?
The answer may be a combination of the two. In terms of actual pain relief, a decrease in Cortisol can lessen muscle stiffness. This is something that can cause severe pain in people with certain illnesses. Cats have also become an interesting subject when it comes to pain relief. A purring cat has been proven to reduce pain. Although purring can also induce a release of oxytocin in humans, it is believed that this has more to do with frequencies.
A cat purs at a low frequency of 25 to 100 HZ. This corresponds with the frequencies of many medical and therapeutic treatments we have today for a variety of issues such as wound healing, healing bone, and yes, providing pain relief. The mood boost with Oxytocin can also play a role in the intensity of the pain. Studies have proven that those suffering from depression actually experience negative emotions and pain more severely. More than likely because they are subconsciously more focused on the negative in the mental state caused by the illness.
Animals play a further role in our perception of pain simply by being a distraction. For a few minutes, the patient is transported away from the illness and its effects to a place filled with fluffy love and playful cuteness.
This has become quite a controversial topic and a point of contention for many as an online therapist will often hear horror stories during sessions. Support animals have steadily been on the increase. The general understanding is that a support animal provides emotional support, and companionship, and helps aid with anxiety and phobias.
Since these animals help the individual cope with their surroundings and the challenges they face, these animals are allowed to go with them wherever they go. Even places where one generally does not expect to see animals. Support animals can be anything ranging from a dog to a bird and even lizards.
To have an ESA (Emotional Support Animal), you must be prescribed one by a registered and licensed mental health professional. You will need to keep this “prescription” along with an official letter with you at all times. In certain countries or states, you might also need to register the animal as a support animal at certain governing bodies. Or even obtain a special permit.
Support Animal Controversy
A support animal should not be confused with a service animal. A service animal has undergone special training to aid those with disabilities whilst a support animal has not. The reason why support animals have become such a sore point is that, as any online therapist can attest, there will always be people trying to cheat the system. Many individuals state that their pet is a support animal even though they have no diagnosis or paperwork proving the need for one. All just so they can take their animal with them wherever they want.
Others find a way to convince a mental health practitioner to write them a recommendation even though it’s not really needed. These charlatans make life very hard for the individuals who actually benefit from their support animals. They tend to be judged prematurely as some sort of fanatic animal lover and privileged “karen” based on the actions of others.
There is also some debate (even amongst those with support animals) as to which animals can truly be classified as support animals. It’s hard for some to wrap their minds around a dog or cat being placed in the same category as an iguana or a tarantula.
Equine Therapy is just a fancy word for specialised horse riding given as a treatment. This type of therapy is a very old concept. It was first introduced by the Greek physician Hippocrates 2400 years ago. More recently it became more prominent on our radars due to the big screen and popular movies such as The Horse Whisperer.
And where Equine Therapy used to be the go-to for those with physical and mental disabilities, it has become more and more popular amongst those suffering from mental illnesses as well. Whilst great emphasis is placed on an occupational therapy angle when working with those with disabilities, more focus is placed on the psychotherapy and counselling side of things when it comes to those suffering from mental health issues. There are a variety of reasons why Equine Therapy works when it comes to mental health.
You still have all the standard benefits as mentioned above such as the Oxytocin etc. But the horse also helps create an informal and safe space for the patient to interact. The patient is not sitting in an office where it can feel like their therapist is staring them down. They are out in the fresh air dealing with an animal they know is completely unbias and non-judgemental.
Horses are also known to mirror emotions and movement. This helps both the therapist and the patient since it gives them both insight into things unspoken. The horse allows them to speak about difficult things by using the horse as a narrative or analogy. “The horse is sad today”. “Oh, really? Why do you think the horse is sad today?” “Because he doesn’t have any friends.” Needless to say, this therapy is especially recommended for children although adults can benefit from it just as much.
The Impact Animals Have on Us
Except for being the wonderful creatures we adore and love, it’s clear that animals have a much bigger impact on our physical and mental health than previously understood. The effects animals have can be summarised as follows:
- Decreases Cortisol aka “the stress hormone”
- Releases Oxytocin aka “the feel-good hormone”
- Combats loneliness
- Increases feelings of support
- Provides comfort
- Can aid in the development of those with brain conditions such as Autism and ADHD
- Increases physical activity. This releases neurotransmitters such as endorphins, dopamine and endocannabinoids that also gives you a feeling of motivation and happiness
- Provides feelings of acceptance and unconditional love
- Helps manage pain
- Helps one shift the focus from your one’s own needs to taking on the responsibility of an animal and putting its needs first
- Offers the opportunity to express oneself in ways that one can’t with a fellow human
Animals Used as Add-on Therapy
Any online therapist will emphasize the importance of the following: animals add value but are not a replacement. Unless it’s a very unique case, animals will be used as an add-on treatment or therapy. It’s not something that will replace psychiatric or psychological treatments and therapies.
It’s also incredibly important that any/all treatments or therapies be discussed with a medical and mental health practitioner. This is to ensure that it is to your benefit and won’t cause more harm than good in the long run. But, armed with the knowledge in this article, extra cuddles for your pet should be a priority today – doctor’s orders.
If you would like to know more about the impact an animal might have on your mental health and discuss some options, please don’t hesitate to contact an online therapist at firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact us via our Personal Online Therapy website. Alternatively, you can complete the form below and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible: