What Pet Ownership can Teach Us about Human Wellness
More than 50% of U.S. households own a pet. Evidence, both quantitative and qualitative, is building supporting that animal interaction creates positive psychosocial and biophysiological changes in the human body. But what if you can't have a pet for housing or allergy reasons? What if you're not an animal lover? You don't have to miss out on all of the animal interaction benefits. Here are 6 self care and wellbeing activities and behaviors that are highlighted by animal interaction.
Self Hug/Cross Body Effect
Touch. Touching soft things, touching living creatures, skin on skin, etc. have all been shown to make significant change in biophysical functions. Close proximity to animals has been linked with decreased cortisol (stress hormone), healthy heart rate, healthy blood pressure, and subjective reports of increased general satisfaction.
Reaching across your body's midline - like right hand to left shoulder or left hand to right knee - is a proven useful exercise for brain functioning. Consider the concept of Amy Cuddy's "power pose". Animals often encourage us to reach across our midline as we are petting, following, or playing with them.
You don't need a pet to reap the benefits of these physical strategies. A self hug is a two-for-one strategy where you wrap your arms around yourself, crossing your midline with each arm, and then give yourself a nice physical squeeze. This has been correlated with similar biophysical results as is correlated with pets listed above. Schedule 3 minutes in your day to remember to give yourself a hug and exercise your brain with a few more cross-body stretches.
Short Reprieves = Significant Stress Relief
We've all been told to "take a break," "get a fresh perspective," "stand up and move at least once per hour," and the similar suggestions. The research supports it. Then, in the moment, we think "It would be silly to interrupt this focused groove I'm in," or "I'm so unfocused and inefficient right now that it would be silly to take a break and spend even less time on this."
Well if you don't trust people telling you to do it, maybe you can trust the example that animal interaction illustrates for us. Animals are a natural interruption whether they just walk through our peripheral vision or come up to us and ask for some love. It's a short break in focus that pet owners barely notice, yet it seems to really help them focus and be effective at the "task at hand".
Even if you don't have a pet, adhering to fitbit reminders or scheduling alarms on your phone to 1. stand up and move once per hour, and 2. take 3-5 minutes to disconnect from the task at hand at least every two hours. 3-5 minutes of grounding (mindfulness/relaxation) has been shown to create 3-4 HOURS of focus later in the day. You're not jipping the task at hand of 5 minutes, you're investing 5 minutes into the task at hand.
Manifestation of Emotions
Bottling emotions up will ultimately never end well. We all have limited storage space for those bottled up emotions. Any way that you manifest those thoughts and feelings outside of your head is helpful processing. It's called an outlet. Talking, writing, composing music, choreographing a dance, etc. the possibilities are endless. All of these strategies require you to put words/pictures/moves (something tangible) to your thoughts, you have to use muscles to express that action, and you get to re-experience that information when you hear, or see, or feel what you expressed.
Pet owners have a natural magnet for these outlets. We talk to our pets; we move and interact with them based on our feelings. We assume their feedback is caring or positive. I may be scared of public speaking or socially anxious but I'll talk to the dog/cat/bird. I may not like to share pics of myself but I'll share pics of the pet and focus on good parts of the day when I retell a story. Verbalizing good things is equally helpful to outletting stressful thoughts.
Pets may make it easier to talk to an empty room but they are not necessary for doing so. Talk aloud to the mirror, the steering wheel, the tv, etc. Set aside 5 mins per day to write and reflect on the day. Make a mood contingent playlist to play. Dance a dance. Let it out!
Would I adopt this relationship if I had the choice?
People CHOOSE to adopt a pet. Respectfully, whether it's for safety or lifestyle reasons, people CHOOSE to rehome or surrender pets to shelters. As a mental health counselor who has seen her fair share of domestic violence and abusive relationships, I wish we all looked at human relationships in our lives as equally expendable.
I encourage you to consider a human relationship in your life and ask yourself: if this person were a pet, would I keep them in my life or would I choose to adopt them at the shelter? If not, then honoring that information by brainstorming some options that you have never given time considering before.
It only takes one. If dog owners at dog parks have proven nothing else, it's that it only takes one thing in common to spark wonderful functional relationships. Dog people, often have nothing else in common yet they relate deeply on one important topic in their lives and build on it for long term relationships.
I often hear the complaint of "I had nothing in common with anyone at the party" or "The one thing we had in common could only last so long." Worse yet, predicting "I won't have anything in common with anyone there." I urge you to take comfort from dog people even if you are not one of them, it only takes one topic in common to make a conversation possible.
It may seem obvious for dog owners, but even cat and bird and pocket pet owners when surveyed together - on average - get more exercise than the general public without pets. Pets give you a REASON to move.
So, if you don't have a pet, what is your reason to move? Why? If you don't know why then your overworked brain will not support the fleeting idea to move more than necessary.
If you have a pet (or pets) at home, then I encourage you to be purposeful with the attention you pay to them and maximize the natural benefits they bring you. If you do not have a pet, I hope this article has given you a couple ideas for self-self-care (take a break, outlet, meaningful relationships, etc.)
Life is yours for the taking, one second at a time. Live, love, learn, and enjoy!
Amanda is a behavioral health counselor, coach, writer, and midwest farmgirl. She owns Ripples of Hope Counseling, LLC and enjoys helping a variety of clients. Get immediate access to her free download "Three Invisible Barriers to Self Love and How to Hurdle Them" by signing up for her newsletter.