For people who are experiencing depression, however, pets can provide something even more important: a reason to live, and to keep on living.
"Research shows that emotional support is incredibly important for recovery, and guess what? That support doesn't have to come from humans," says Graeme Cowan, author of Back from the Brink: True Stories and Practical Help for Overcoming Depression and Bipolar Disorder (New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 2014, ISBN: 978-1-608-82856-2, $16.95, www.IAmBackFromTheBrink.com). "In fact, many individuals who are coping with depression identify pets as a huge part of their support system. Amongst the benefits of pet ownership, they say, are unconditional love, fostering a sense of responsibility, activity, routine, and better health overall."
Cowan, who has experienced severe depression himself, is a staunch advocate of using holistic methods, including pet therapy, to combat this disease. In Back from the Brink, he tells the story of his multiple suicide attempts and five-year episode of severe depression. The book is filled with real stories of hope and healing, information about treatment options and medication, and tools for putting the book's lessons into practice. A free excerpt from the book, which contains Cowan's full research results, can be downloaded from www.IAmBackFromTheBrink.com.
Here, Cowan spotlights six reasons why pets have the power to help fight depression. He also shares several poignant, brave, and sometimes raw personal stories he has collected:
1. Pets are medically beneficial. Owning a pet can be a natural way to treat depression and part of an overall treatment strategy. Chances are, you've read about studies showing that petting and interacting with animals can reduce our heart rate, lower our blood pressure, and release endorphins. And the act of walking a dog, for instance, is wonderful exercise.
"These outcomes can be a major help in coping with depression," Cowan comments. "Plus, I've noticed that when you're petting or playing with an animal, you tend to be more ‘in the moment,' instead of ruminating on your worries and problems. Mina, who draws strength from her faithful Staffordshire mix, says, ‘I know that dogs can help you through just about anything; all you have to do is love them.'"
2. Having a pet means that you're never alone. Pets can be an important-and sometimes the sole-source of love and strength for those who are isolated by depression. Lucy, a vet nurse, is an avid dog lover and swears that her faithful Kelpie mix played a major part in helping her through a time when she felt incredibly alone.
"After moving to a new town, Lucy experienced a temporary separation from her husband after becoming pregnant, and to make matters worse, she lost her job," Cowan shares. "She says she felt that her dog was her only friend and guardian. He gave her a reason to get out of bed each morning, and was generous with endless cuddles no matter what the situation. When you're depressed and feel alone, simply having a warm body to hug can provide you with the support, comfort, and motivation you need to not give up."
3. Pets can help you focus on making healthy decisions. Frank isn't sure whether he rescued a kitten during his darkest days or whether the kitten rescued him. Battling with depression after losing his mother to illness, he saw a small kitten being threatened by crows two days before the funeral. This was the beginning of a life-affirming experience.
"Losing his mother, and the two-year depression that followed, was one of the worst experiences Frank has ever faced," Cowan says. "The kitten gave Frank something to focus on and saved him from making very bad decisions. In fact, he says he owes his life to Lulu the kitten! That doesn't surprise me, since caring for a pet injects a certain amount of structure into your life. You have to perform certain caretaking tasks at certain times. And knowing that another creature is depending on you can keep you from making self-destructive decisions."
4. Caring for a pet gives you a fulfilling purpose. In his book, Cowan reveals that fulfilling work is among the top ten most effective treatments for depression, according to those who have survived it. And it's important to note that when it comes to the psychological benefits of fulfilling work, a paycheck doesn't matter.
"Caring for an animal definitely falls into this category," Cowan confirms. "One young woman named Angela fought a long-running battle with depression for over nine years. What helped her turn the corner was a gift her mother gave her: a beautiful kitten named Indie. Taking full responsibility for Indie, and later, a pug named Mowgli, gave Angela a purpose. In fact, Angela found the work of caring for her pets so fulfilling that she now fosters dogs and helps others to train and exercise their own pets."
5. Animals listen without judging. It is crucial for individuals who are suffering from depression to talk to someone about their experiences, whether that's a psychiatrist, psychologist, peer support group, loved one-or pet. Suffering in silence doesn't make depression go away; if anything, it causes the condition to worsen.
"It can be very difficult to reach out and ask for help when you're in the throes of depression," Cowan confirms. "And pets can help to fill the gap when, for whatever reason, you aren't receiving support from other humans. For instance, Sarah's dog Milo is the perfect listener as she battles depression. Sarah says, ‘I recall breaking down at home and just falling to the ground in desperation. Milo gently licked my face and just sat near me. He was like a friend that would just listen, with no judging. I guess I wanted someone to share my feelings with, but I was too scared to tell anyone. Milo was the perfect ear.'"
6. Pets can even keep you alive when you feel you have nothing to live for. Alexandra has no hesitation in proclaiming that her dogs literally saved her life: "Seven years ago, I was very depressed. I was driving along a straight road, and the only thing that stopped me from swerving into a tree was the thought of my two little dogs and who would feed them, walk them, and look after them if I were gone."
"Today Alexandra is on the road to recovery and has even rescued another dog," Cowan shares. "And she's far from alone. I have encountered many people who say that the love and responsibility they felt for their pets motivated them to keep going when they felt that it would be easier not to be alive."
"If you are struggling with depression and feel like nothing is working, why not take action and find a pet that can become a special and valuable part of your life?" Cowan asks. "Consider adopting a pet from your local shelter or animal welfare organization.
"Even if you don't feel like you have the strength or energy to take responsibility for the life of another creature right now, why not work up to that responsibility in stages? Start, for example, by volunteering
once a week at your local pet shelter. This way, you can be surrounded by animals without the ongoing responsibility you may not feel ready for. But be warned-these animals can capture your heart quickly!
"Remember that if you feel nobody else will listen, your pet will," he concludes. "If you feel nobody else is there for you, your pet will be. Most importantly of all, if you don't feel that you have the energy to take responsibility for yourself, at least take responsibility for your pet."
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