Contributed by Julie Morris

Photo via Pixabay

It’s no secret that pets have the ability to make you smile, even when you are having a bad day at work, or things are not right in your personal life.

However, the advantages of having a pet can go far beyond that. Pets can play a positive role in people’s mental as well as physical health — even science backs it. All over the world, people are becoming increasingly aware of the many benefits of pet ownership for those with a mental illness.

On the flip side, though, owning a pet could pose a difficulty for someone with a mental illness. The daily routines and needs of owning an animal can actually contribute to feelings of anxiety, nervousness, or despair.

That’s why it’s critical to take a realistic approach when determining whether pet ownership is the right option for someone struggling with mental illness.

Stress relief or Stressor

For those who suffer from acute stress and anxiety, the simple act of stroking a dog can have an immediate calming effect. Researchers found that petting can reduce blood pressure, and  since people with mental illnesses feel better through physical contact with others, the act of touching, stroking, or helping with grooming a pet can work as therapy.

Alternatively, the neediness of a puppy or kitten can be too much responsibility for someone with a mental illness. Young animals especially need a certain amount of attention that someone with acute stress or anxiety might not be able to manage. It’s important to determine what you are capable of providing an animal before taking them into your home.

Reducing Isolation or Anxiety Boost

Isolation is a constant battle for many people suffering from mental illness. Having a pet or working with animals can reduce feelings of isolation to a significant extent since activities like walking a dog, going to a dog park, or meeting other dog owners increase the scope of social contact. People who have more friends and social relationships tend to be mentally healthier.

But for those with extreme social anxiety, dog ownership might not be the best option when it comes to having a pet. Having to walk your dog and interact with others can be a trigger that might cause feelings of resentment. When considering an animal, take the long view of what a pet’s requirements will be and how it will affect your life. It’s worth considering a range of pets that will fit a lifestyle and mentality.

Providing a sense of purpose or feelings of uncertainty

When someone feels helpless and overwhelmed with feelings of negativity and despair, having a purpose in life can make a big difference. By providing for an animal in need, negative thinking is reduced and you instead focus on the happiness and well-being of the living being under your care. The pet’s positive response also leads to feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment — things that are necessary for people fighting mental disorders.

Depending on the condition, a sense of purpose might take a back seat to uncertainty. Those with high levels of anxiety might find themselves questioning whether they can provide enough. Those what ifs (“What if my pet gets sick and dies?” “What if I can’t afford the vet bills?” “What if I don’t make it home in time to let the dog out?”) can be enough to paralyze someone’s thought process and detract from the benefits of pet ownership.

For those suffering from mental illness who feel the world does not understand them, a pet can be a perfect option. Pets make good companions as they intuitively seek people out when someone is sad. Moreover, pets are good listeners — so they will always be there to listen without judgment. And the unconditional love dogs give is an added advantage. But keeping an open mind and knowing your limitations is key when choosing to take in a pet. By doing so, you ensure that you make the right decision for yourself and the animal.