The Surprising Thing That Really Helped Reduce My Anxiety and Stress Levels

Feb 8 2019 - 8:25am

I've always been prone to worrying and overthinking things, but a little while ago, I began suffering the worst anxiety I've ever experienced [1]. Unlike previous episodes (which usually involved stuff like making people let me out of the car on a road trip so I could get the train home to check I hadn't left the iron on), this time the anxiety was far more personal. I would lie awake for hours dissecting the day, worrying about tiny things I'd done or said, finding myself in a spiral of shame for no real reason. This wasn't just normal self-awareness (I know I'm not perfect); it was uncontrollable navel-gazing. And it definitely wasn't doing my any good.

Then two things happened. Firstly, I went on holiday, and I'm sure that did something to temporarily calm my overactive gray matter. But there was something else that I think has had an incredible effect on my anxiety levels, and that happened when a very sassy calico cat called Mina moved in. Gratuitous photo, because the internet is for cats.

Image Source: Gemma Cartwright

I didn't know until I'd spent a few weeks with Mina how much the presence of a feline friend can help with anxiety and stress. There's a reason animals sometimes get prescribed for emotional support, and I'm not alone in noticing the benefits [3]. Aside from the obvious — having something cute and cuddly to play with is awesome and keeps your mind off other stuff — spending time with a cat boosts serotonin levels in the body [4]. Battersea Cats Home should have put that on the adoption page: "Mina: scientifically proven to increase your happiness!"

There's also research to suggest cats can stimulate the release of oxytocin [5] (a chemical that's perhaps best known for its role during and after childbirth, bonding new mothers and their babies). No wonder I was smitten within hours. I was also blown away with how sensitive Mina seems to be to the moods and needs of her human companions. She's not really a lap cat, but she will seek me out and sit next to me if I'm in the house alone, almost as if she knows I need the companionship. The soothing sound of her contented purr as I stroke her relaxes me instantly. Thinking about her (and trust me, I do so constantly) stops me from (over)thinking about myself too much, but thankfully she's also fairly independent and self-sufficient so I don't flick over to "worry" mode the moment she waddles out the cat flap.

All this came as a huge surprise to me. I didn't consider myself a pet person at all. I didn't get what all the fuss was about when my friends posted dozens of photos of their kittens on Facebook or colleagues brought their dogs into work. I cringed when people signed Christmas cards "Love Bob, Jane, and Fluffy". I've never been responsible for anything larger than a hamster before. My husband was the one who wanted a cat and I went along with it mostly because I knew how much it meant to him. But within hours of bringing her home, I realized what a wonderful addition to the family she was going to be, and how much she was going to help me to calm down. I give all the cat fans in my life full authority to say "I told you so".

Since Mina's been in my life, my anxiety levels have dropped to almost nothing. I am back to my "normal" levels of self-obsession and worry: probably more than most people, but at least I'm able to sleep at night.

That is, until the dawn chorus of hungry meowing begins!

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