Uncertainty about the economy, jobs, finances and health can leave you or family members feeling stressed, anxious, powerless and depressed. Stress and anxiety are normal emotional responses that nearly everyone experiences from time to time. They can also trigger feelings of being overwhelmed.
But you can take steps — literally — to reduce stress and keep anxiety at bay.
If you live in one of the more than 71 million households with a pet, stress relief can come with a wagging tail or soothing purr. So let’s talk about the positive effects our furry, four-legged companions can have on our stress and anxiety levels.
The human-animal bond is powerful
According to the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), research shows that pet ownership, human-animal interactions and animal-assisted therapy can reduce stress levels and many symptoms of anxiety, which is a common mental health condition. In a survey of 2,000 pet owners, 74 percent of pet owners reported their mental health improved as a result of having a pet. Seventy-five percent of surveyed pet owners reported that pet ownership improved a friend’s or family member’s mental health.
How do pets help relieve our stress?
One theory that’s supported by science is that interacting with animals — whether pets or therapy animals — boosts our oxytocin levels. Called the “cuddle hormone” or “love hormone,” oxytocin is both a hormone and a neurotransmitter, chemical messengers that transmit messages around the body.
Studies have found that interacting with our pets increases the amount of oxytocin in our bloodstream and presumably our brains. Research has also documented significant increases in beta-endorphin, prolactin, phenylacetic acid and dopamine levels, in addition to oxytocin, after 5 to 24 minutes of petting a dog. These changes in hormone levels occurred not only in people but also in the dogs being petted.
(A quick science lesson here: Oxytocin is probably best known for its roles in reproduction, childbirth, breastfeeding or lactation, and bonding. However, oxytocin is also a natural stress reliever. Beta-endorphin is a neurotransmitter and a hormone that relieves pain and regulates stress responses. One of the body’s naturally occurring opioids, beta-endorphin contributes to “runner’s high.” Prolactin is well known for its roles in pregnancy and lactation but, like oxytocin, also plays a role in lessening stress. Phenylacetic acid is a chemical produced in the body when beta-phenylethylamine is metabolized and can be used as a marker for depression. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with reward and reinforcement of behaviors. Like serotonin, dopamine is a “happy hormone.”)
Oxytocin also produces other changes in the body, such as decreasing heart rate, slowing breathing, lowering blood pressure, and inhibiting stress hormones.
Although much of the research has involved interactions between people and dogs, we now know that cats form secure bonds with their humans, too. You can read about the ability of cats to bond with their owners here.
Pets also dial down stress hormones
When we perceive a threat or experience stress, our bodies go into fight-or-flight mode. Cortisol is a key stress-related hormone produced by the adrenal glands and, when released, it causes blood glucose (sugar) to be cranked out for a quick energy boost. Epinephrine, another stress-induced hormone, is also released to get our heart pumping for what’s coming next — regardless of whether we intend to fight or flee. While a little bit of stress can be a good thing, chronic stress takes a tremendous toll on our bodies both physiologically and psychologically.
The good news is that contact with pets has been shown to counteract the stress response by decreasing stress hormones and lowering heart rate. Pets also lower our psychological responses to stress. In fact, one study found that just 10 minutes of petting a dog or cat can lower cortisol levels in college students.
It’s the “pet effect”
Our pets can make our brains and our hearts happy. Although research into human-animal interactions and bonds is still relatively new, many studies have shown positive health effects. To learn more about the human-animal bond and the “pet effect,” check out the HABRI website.
RELATED POST: Can Owning a Pet Make You Healthier?
RELATED POST: Pet Appreciation Week Celebrates Life With Pets