How my dog helps my anxiety

Look at this face. Look how cute. I get to come home to this every day, and it’s amazing.

I say all the time that I don’t know how I would have gotten through all of the really intense anxiety stuff without the dude and my sister. And I really don’t. But I also wouldn’t have gotten through it without the dog. There are a lot of things that she helped me with that I didn’t even realize until later, and to this day, she keeps helping.

She gives me unconditional love. Anyone who has a pet knows how much this matters. There’s a person who I adore who adores me back? SIGN ME UP. This is especially helpful with anxiety and depression. So much of the self talk that comes up in people dealing with these conditions is negative: something is wrong with me, it’s my fault, I’m broken, I’m a mess, etc., etc. There was a lot of this going on for me when the anxiety stuff first started because I was so used to keeping my emotions to myself, and also because it’s very common in my family to put others ahead of yourself. A lot of the work that I initially did in therapy was discovering that anxiety comes up for me in situations that I can’t control or when I feel like something has the potential to make me look selfish, incompetent, or thoughtless. Having the dog around when I was thinking these things was so helpful because she was always happy to see me, and she showed me so much love. None of it was based on who I was or who I was trying to be; she loved me no matter what.

She gives me a purpose. When I got back from that first trip to Florida, I got up each morning intending to go to work and then ended up sobbing over the sink and dry heaving. It was rough. Physically, I felt awful, and it wasn’t helping that I just kept thinking What’s wrong with me?. The dude was still down at his parents’ house, and I was on dog duty. I hated the prospect, as all I wanted to do was stay in bed and cry and watch Bob’s Burgers, but in retrospect it was probably the best thing for me during that time. Interacting with her, feeding her, and walking her gave me a purpose. It gave me a reason to get up. It reminded me that taking care of people helps me feel like myself, which I sorely needed. And it got me outside. It got me moving. The science behind anxiety and depression shows over and over that exercise is really important because it releases endorphins, which help to elevate mood. It would have taken me longer to recover, longer to feel like myself, if I hadn’t had the dog to force me outside.

Her level of concern is just right. Anxiety can be maddeningly inconsistent. During one attack you really need physical comfort, the next you don’t want to be touched. This has been the subject of a lot of conversations for me and the dude, and we’ve navigated our way to having a system for check-ins in place that really works for us. To be honest, that process would have been a lot longer and harder without the dog. Whatever she did always seemed just right, and it helped me to articulate to the dude what I needed and why, which I was really struggling with. The first thing is that it was obvious she cared. She would follow me around with a concerned look on her face, and if I left the room, she was right behind me. She was always in a place where she could see me. She would also sit next to me instead of on top of me, so I got to decide how much contact I wanted, if any. And because she’s nonverbal, she wasn’t asking me a million questions that I was in no shape to answer. She let me know she was there, that she cared, and then she let me take it from there. Noticing this pattern is what helped me articulate to the dude what went on during an attack, and now he does the same thing, except in his own extra special and human way.

She motivates me to actively manage anxiety. This one is more subtle than the others. The catalyst for going to therapy was two-fold: having panic attacks on our trip to Florida, and listening to my sister tell me that when she looked at me, she saw someone who was in a lot of pain. They’re the reasons I started going, but the reasons I kept going were the dog and the dude. (And also my own stubborn determination to get it figured out, but we’re going to ignore that for now.) I started having panic attacks right around the time when I realized that shit was real with the dude, and that was a big motivation for therapy. I didn’t want anxiety to be the reason we weren’t together. But a bigger question for me was if I could parent with this happening: all my life I’ve thought that being a parent is the most important thing I will ever do and I was terrified that anxiety would end that dream. As mentioned above, I learned that I could still take care of someone while I was anxious, and a few months later I learned that I could do so while in the middle of a panic attack. I will never forget sitting in the back seat of our rental car with the dog, telling the dude to keep driving as I cried my eyes out, doubled over with nausea, and yet still somehow held up the garbage bag for the dog to vomit into and gave her water. Obviously an infant is a whole different situation, but having to take care of her in the middle of the attack helped me to see that it was possible, and that if I kept working hard on treating anxiety, it was a situation I could actually function well in. It blew my mind to realize that.

Do you guys have pets? Do they help you? I’d love to hear about it.


3 thoughts on “How my dog helps my anxiety

  1. YES! My cat Scout is almost nine, and she’s really good for my anxiety. Having Scout rely on me for food and water and love and a clean litterbox helped me to keep going when my anxiety was so bad. Three weeks ago, a family member committed suicide. (This is the second one in seven years, so there’s a bit of anxiety rumbling around. Not as bad as I expected, but it’s there.) I went to the funeral, and then my husband and I went on a trip overseas that we’d been planning for a while. Since we’ve been back, Scout has slept on me the way she used to when she was a kitten. I’m waking up in the middle of the night, sometimes because of dreams and sometimes because it’s just what I do (even when I’m not dealing with grief), and it settles me to realize that she’s right there, that I can pet her and love on her while I calm myself back to sleep.

    My husband brought a dog to our relationship, and he is a very anxious animal. Buddy was abandoned when he was about a year old, and my husband (at the time I didn’t know him, though) adopted him. Buddy is horribly afraid of storms and fireworks. He gets very jittery, tries to put his ninety-pound self into the smallest, most compact place he can find. He also scratches (sometimes to the point of creating holes in the drywall–fortunately, only in the basement bathroom). While I get annoyed with his antics while he’s anxious, my own experiences with anxiety help me to be a much more compassionate dog owner with him than I would be if I didn’t have my own anxiety attacks. It’s so hard to see him get scared, but it’s also interesting how similar the processes of anxiety are for human and animal. Now that Buddy has a stable home life, he seems to do a lot better. (I say stable since he was in a small apartment with my husband for a while, then we were in a crappy house for a few months, and then Buddy and Scout had to figure out how to live together. Lots of changes–for all of us.) He still doesn’t like storms, and I will always be home with him on the Fourth of July instead of going to my husband’s music gigs, but at least he knows that we love him through his anxiety.

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  2. I have been on/off struggling with anxiety for a year or so now. It comes on randomly and with no warning and I’d get crippling heart palpitations that wouldn’t leave me for the best part of the full day. I’d get sweat patches down to my waist and generally feel lethargic and unwell. My mood and mental well being has just generally suffered this whole time. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t pay a lot of attention to my dog for this period of time (she has always been an indoor pet and is fed and watered but I just didn’t shower her with attention). Recently I’ve been making an effort to enjoy her, she’s always so freaking happy to see me! She loves me and I just never noticed how much before. We go out on walks two times a day now and I look forward to seeing her face when I get home from work every day. I haven’t had any anxiety issues since I started spending more time with her. I feel so much better! I swear- my beautiful, happy, adorable pup is helping me every day. I love her! I love me! I love life!


    • I’m so glad you’re feeling better! Taking care of my dog is definitely one of those things that helps my anxiety- it gives me a purpose and allows me to step outside of what is happening to me.


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