Mental health issues can affect anyone and everyone. Things like stress, anxiety, loneliness, isolation, depression, low self-esteem and beyond can impact our daily lives. Dogs can really help with mental health, though. Of course there are certified service and support animals, but a dog doesn't need to have a certification to be helpful. And while they aren't a substitute for professional help, they can aid in various ways:
1. Stress Relief
Stress is a big factor when it comes to mood changes and disorders, including depression and anxiety. Dogs can be great stress relievers. Studies have shown that people feel less stressed and happier after interacting with dogs. Depending on the stress level, simply spending time around a dog may help or perhaps a full-blown cuddle session is necessary. Either way, dogs are happy to spend time with us.
Loneliness and isolation are two contributors to feeling down, depressed and alone. Companionship is one great way to combat these feelings and dogs are one of the best companions out there. Especially because it's not always easy to socialize with people when you're affected by such feelings. Dogs are pack animals, so they naturally and instinctively want to spend time with you. They will even follow you into the bathroom, so you'll never really be alone with a dog. Studies have shown that spending time with your dog can have similar effects and benefits as hanging out with your friends or family. Interacting with dogs raises levels of oxytocin and dopamine, which are neurotransmitters that promote positive emotions and bonding.
Did You Know? People who are chronically lonely are at risk for other physical health issues including higher blood pressure, more inflammation, more sleep disturbances and weaker immune systems.
3. Social Connection
On a related note, dogs help promote socialization, which can also help combat feelings of loneliness, isolation and the related effects. At the very least, dogs need to go out to the bathroom. This means you'll be out and about at least a few times a day and have a greater likelihood of interacting with people (or even making friends!). Research has shown that dogs help their owners socialize and make friends and that people view strangers with dogs more positively and are more likely to initiate conversations with them.
4. Physical Exercise
Physical exercise is an important way to manage and alleviate mental health issues like stress, lethargy, and mood changes. Generally speaking, most people don't get enough exercise. But dog owners have an easier time getting there. Research shows that people who own a dog are more likely to get regular exercise, most often in the form of walks (unsurprisingly). It's not too hard to expand the types of exercise you can do with your dog though, from running to hiking and beyond.
Pro Tip: Doing activities outside with your dog has two layers of benefits - 1) physical exercise and 2) spending time in nature. Studies have shown that spending time in nature has several mental health benefits, such as relieving depression symptoms.
One way to manage your mental health is to establish a routine. Though this is often easier said than done. Dogs, however, need routine - between feeding times, going out to the bathroom, walks, etc. This helps people create a daily routine and that kind of structure can be really helpful for those struggling with mental health issues. And your dog will help you stick to your routine because they'll certainly let you know if it's time to go out or eat!