Depression, anxiety, or any other form of mental illness can oftentimes feel unbearable. You feel physically exhausted and emotionally drained. You don't want to do anything except completely isolate yourself from the outside world. On what I refer to as the "black-cloud days," just getting out of bed in the morning can feel like an impossible feat. During those times, though, even when I wanted to hide under the covers, I didn't. It wasn't because I had found some miraculous way to remove the black cloud or had a sudden burst of motivation — that's not how it works. It was because I had two big, sweet brown dog eyes staring at me pleadingly to take her for a walk. It was because I had three purring furry cats curled up next to me nudging my hands to pet them. It's because of them, my three cats and my dog, Byrdie, I've been able to find purpose even on the days that have felt purposeless. Here are a few reasons I believe owning pets has played a pivotal role in my path to healing.
1. They Sense When You Need Them
My wife and I often joke about that our yellow Lab, Byrdie, isn't necessarily the brightest crayon in the box, if you know what I mean. But despite her dopey smile and her less-than-graceful 70-pound body, this pup is incredibly intuitive. If I wake up feeling anxious or am having a rough night, she's always right by my side. She seems to always know when I need her comforting head on my lap or a sloppy kiss.
2. Petting Them Increases Relaxation
Activating your senses can be an effective way to help deal with anxiety. Oftentimes you hear people suggest relaxing smells like lavender or listening to soothing music to help calm you down. For me, one of the most soothing activities is petting my animals. The softness of my cat's fur or the gentle movement in my hands immediately reduces my stress, and I feel not only peaceful, but more connected to my animals.
3. They Keep You Active
Dogs, especially mine, have a lot of energy. If they don't find a way to expel some of that boundless energy, they either get depressed or go nuts. For Byrdie, it's the latter. If I don't walk her daily, she'll be sprinting through the house like a bull in a china shop leaving three very pissed-off cats in her wake. When depression sets in and threatens to render me unproductive, I force myself to get off the couch and get moving. Since exercise has also been proven to reduce stress and anxiety, I almost always feel better when I get back from my walk and Byrdie is no longer wreaking havoc. Win-win situation.
4. They Give You Accountability and Purpose
If you really think about it, pets are essentially permanent babies. They depend on you completely. You have to feed them, wash them, walk them, make sure they do their "business." They can't communicate with words, so you have to learn to understand their needs in other ways. As dramatic as it sounds, they really do need you to survive. This notion in particular has been tremendously powerful. When I find myself consumed with depression, I remember that there are four beautiful fur babies that need me.
5. Their Love Is Pure and Unconditional
There is honestly no kind of love like the love your pet has for you. I know my wife loves me unconditionally, of course, but an animal's love is different. My dog has seen me at my best, my worst, and everything in between. She's seen me collapsed on the kitchen floor sobbing. She's seen me lose my temper and throw things at the wall. She's seen me sneak into the kitchen at night when my wife is sleeping and raid the fridge (most likely hoping I'd share). Even when I scold her for hiding my socks or chewing holes in my throw pillows, she doesn't hold a grudge. No matter what I've said or done, no matter what I've gone through, my pets continue to show me love and compassion.
I understand that pets aren't for everyone, but for me, they are one of the most important aspects of my life. No matter how crappy a day I've had or how messy my thoughts get, those four-legged bundles of love can always bring a smile to my face. I'm living proof of the healing powers animals can have when it comes to our mental health, and I'm grateful for every day I get to spend with them curled up next to me. They bring me an inexplicable sense of happiness, but most of all, they give me a reason to keep pushing through.