Pets: Natural Stress Relievers
Stress is a major trigger for alcohol and drug abuse, especially among recovering addicts. Even non-dependent drinkers often look to alcohol as a way to “decompress” or “take the edge off,” which ends up leading to even more stress. So finding healthy, positive ways to relieve stress will decrease your chances for relapse as well as benefit your general health.
While most people think of massage, meditation, and yoga as natural, healthy stress relievers, there’s another option that’s fluffier and more loveable: getting a pet. Not only do pets help relieve stress, but they can also improve your mood, control your blood pressure, reduce loneliness, and provide social support—all of which are important for health and well-being, and for avoiding stress and depression that can lead to relapse.
Animals are usually relatively consistent in their behaviors (such as locations and times of eating, sleeping, and cuddling), which provides a stable and predictable (and thus less stressful) aspect in the owner’s life. Their unconditional love is also extremely comforting—pets greet you with excitement when you come home, they can usually tell when you’re upset, and most pets will cuddle up next to you, providing soothing contact.
In fact, a study suggests that spending time with a pet can be even more beneficial in reducing stress than talking to a loved one! In the 2002 study, researchers at the State University of New York at Buffalo showed that when conducting a stressful task, people experienced less stress when their pets were with them than when a spouse or close friend was with them. Pet owners also had significantly lower baseline heart rates and blood pressure than the participants who did not have pets. Those with pets also had lower “reactivity” to the stress tests and returned to baseline levels more quickly.
Owning a pet can also reduce depression. Pet owners tend to feel less lonely and isolated, and caring for a pet often results in a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. In addition, owning a dog increases the likelihood of going outside and interacting with others, providing opportunities for mood-raising socialization.
A 1999 study found that male AIDS patients were less likely to suffer from depression if they owned a pet. “Pet ownership among men who have AIDS provides a certain level of companionship that helps them cope better with the stresses of their lives,” said psychologist Judith Siegel, a UCLA professor of public health and lead author of the report. “This is one more study that demonstrates the health benefits that owning a pet can provide.”
In addition, pets have also been shown to decrease blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension, both in reaction to stressful events and over time. If you have a pet that requires daily walks, opportunities for exercise (another proven stress reliever) are also increased.
Of course, pets do come with additional responsibilities, which can raise stress levels for some people. If you are a recovering addict and struggle with high levels of stress, you should research different pets to see which types, breeds, personalities, and ages seem like a good match for you. For instance, if having to potty train a puppy sounds stressful to you, look into getting a dog that’s already trained. If you are away from home often, a more self-sufficient animal like a cat might be a better choice.
There’s nothing quite like having a warm ball of fur curl up next to you or being greeted by an excitedly thumping tail—and it’s even more satisfying to know that these furry friends are helping to improve our lives.