Pets and mental health
Sometimes the best kind of friend is a furry friend! Alex writes about her dogs and the positive impact they have on her mental health.
30th July 2018, 2.41pm | Written by Alex Osborne
I can’t imagine life without dogs. When I was growing up I had my own terrier, Tilly. She was my best friend and I used to tell her everything. I always felt better after unloading to her. I’m a firm believer in the help dogs can bring to your physical and mental health. Medical evidence shows that fussing a dog can lower your blood pressure and many people talk about how their pets make them feel better.
Looking back I can see I was struggling with anxiety a lot through school. I would come home and shut myself away in my room, I wouldn’t want to see anyone. But I’d sit down with Tilly, give her a good fuss, and my heart rate would get better and the general feeling that something bad was going to happen would reduce.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I struggled more with my mental health in university when I had more stress and no dogs. As I finished my undergrad and went into my Masters, my anxiety and depression got a lot worse. I started to withdraw more and I didn’t want to go anywhere. I moved home for my Masters, which I’m really glad I did, as I had my very supportive mum then and, of course, my dogs. My mental health still wasn’t good though and just a few weeks into my Masters I started to think that I just couldn’t do it - I couldn’t concentrate on work.
While at my computer, failing to work, I came across an advert for Chihuahua puppies. I’d wanted a Chihuahua for a while as a physical condition means I can’t walk far. The next day I had Hugo.
Hugo gave me the push I needed. I took him to puppy classes and while my social anxiety screamed at me not to, that there’d be too many people, with Hugo there I managed. Having him by me helped keep my anxiety levels down and he gave me a topic to talk about.
Later, anxiety and depression started to raise their ugly heads again. My partner Jack and I decided to add another dog to our family, and so Dora joined us. Dora has changed my life in ways I never considered. When I stand silently at social events, too anxious to approach people, Dora is so happy and friendly that people come to me. They don’t ask questions about me (always anxiety inducing) but ask about Dora and talk about their own pets. I’ve been to places I couldn’t imagine going alone before, like fun dog shows and play dates, but with Dora it was possible.
It was Dora who gave me the confidence to sign up to be a Time to Change Wales Champion and talk about my mental health struggles. I made her a therapy dog as she loves people, and she often joins me when I do talks and help out on stands for Time to Change Wales – she’s become such a star within the team that she’s been given a badge to show she’s an honorary champion!
I’ve always found doing stands hard as I feel a lot more vulnerable in places where I need to start up conversations. When I have Dora with me I’m able to talk, but her presence also means people are more comfortable talking about their mental health. A lot of people will talk about how their dogs have helped them and given them something to live for.
When I have Dora with me I’m able to talk, but her presence also means people are more comfortable talking about their mental health.
As well as helping me feel more confident, Dora also provides therapy to the audience. Listening to mental health stories and talking about people’s own struggles can be very hard, so Dora sits on their laps and helps them feel better. She loves going to the National Assembly with me, everyone makes such a fuss of her, and being able to take her with me has meant that I love going there and talking. Even if Dora isn’t with me for talks, the confidence she’s helped me gain means I can now do talks in front of hundreds of people without worrying.
Dora has helped me in many ways. If I’m having a bad day she comes and sits on my lap. If my anxiety is bad she’ll jump up at my knees so I can fuss her. She helps ground me. She’s also helped me by making me more fit. I have a rare bone condition so I can’t walk far, sometimes I can’t walk more than a few steps, but Dora has given me the want to still get out even when my pain level is high. My doctor is very happy about me doing some exercise, it’s good for my joints to keep them from becoming very stiff. I always have pain when I walk, but I love going out with the dogs and feel the mental health benefits are worth the pain.
My friends and I meet up most Sundays to have a walk or, if my joints are bad, have a seat somewhere while the dogs play and wear themselves out. It also gives us a chance to talk – it’s become a safe space for us all to be able to share if we’re having a bad week with no judgement, and I find just talking when I’m having a bad time makes me feel a lot better. Our dogs brought us together and keep us going.
Holly shares her story of living with anxiety and developing post-natal anxiety and depression to raise awareness and end the stigma around mental illnessFind out more
I hope that, when reading this, you realise that you are not weak for feeling helpless, it is not normal to have thoughts of harming yourself of taking your own life, there are people out there just like me and you, who are struggling, there’s help…Find out more