How Owning a Pet May Help Your Social Anxiety
What is pet therapy for social anxiety? It could be anything from a pet who is trained to help you do tasks related to your anxiety to a pet who is simply there to comfort you.
A study conducted in 2009 asked 177 people about how their pets helped them with their mental illness. What the results of that study showed were that pets showed empathy, made it easier for people to make social connections, pets were like family members, and pets helped their owners feel empowered and strong. What do you think? Is pet therapy for social anxiety something you would try?
Service Animals for Social Anxiety
What is a service animal? According to the March 15, 2011 revision of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal “is a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.”
Service animals are permitted by law to go with you anywhere in public, including all government offices, businesses, doctor’s offices, etc. If you stay in a hotel room, they must be permitted to accompany you without any extra fee.
Service animals are dogs trained to perform specific tasks related to your disability. IN the case of mental illness, this usually relates to medication reminders and providing assistance when going places in public.
If you wish to obtain an animal, you’ll need to follow these steps:
1. Obtain an assessment and diagnosis of social anxiety disorder (if you haven’t already).
2. Find an agency to locate an animal. Your doctor may be able to help with this.
3. Make sure you are financially able to pay to obtain the animal (this cost is your responsibility) as well as continue to pay for the costs related to keeping the animal.
On the other hand, emotional support animals are not trained in any way. Instead, they are there to provide you with comfort if you go out in public. As well, an emotional support animal doesn’t have to be a dog. It can be a cat, a bird, or any type of exotic animal.
Two important things to note about emotional support animals:
- Emotional support animals are allowed to fly in the cabin of the aircraft with you.
- Emotional support animals must be allowed to live with you even in no-pet housing.
To get these accommodations, you need to have your mental health professional provide a letter (and have it updated each year since it needs to be less than a year old).
The letter should be on letterhead and state that you have a mental health disability as listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). However, it does NOT need to state what your diagnosis is. It should also state that your pet is needed for your treatment.
4 Benefits of Pet Therapy for Social Anxiety
If you don’t have a diagnosis or simply don’t want to go the route of having an official service animal or emotional support animal, owning a pet could offer some of the same benefits. It’s kind of like DIY pet therapy for social anxiety if you will.
Remember, however, that you will be limited in where you can take your pet if you don’t have an official designation that it is helping you with your mental health disability.
If you’ve gotten this far, you might be wondering exactly how a service animal / emotional support animal/pet might help with your social anxiety? Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered below. Let’s talk about pet therapy for social anxiety in terms of how it could help you.
1. Basic Functions
Service animals, in particular, are trained to be on the lookout for ways they can help you with your disability. While you might still consider them pets, they are trained to do specific jobs, and they take those jobs very seriously. Here are just a few of the things they can do for you:
- Remind you when it’s time to take your medication.
- Monitor your anxiety level and send an alert that you need to leave a situation before you become overwhelmed.
- Stop people from getting too close if you are having an anxiety crisis.
- Find a seat for you to sit down if you are becoming disoriented.
- Lead you to a quiet spot so you can collect yourself.
In short, service dogs are amazing! While they are most often thought of as helping the blind get around, there are so many other ways that they are trained to help.
2. Social Connections
This is a biggie if you live with social anxiety. Pets, emotional support animals, and service animals can all help you make social connections.
Service animals are less likely to help with this because they are trained not to interact with strangers when you are out in public, other than in ways that helps them do their job.
On the other hand, emotional support animals and pets can certainly be a conduit to social connections. Most people love approaching and talking to others who have pets.
I remember one weekend walking through a mall in Toronto with my family and passing by a woman with what was clearly a service animal of some sort. I wondered, curiously, what disability the dog was supporting because the woman was not blind.
Of course, I did not ask, but my children were enamoured of the dog and got to say hello and give it lots of love. We chatted for a bit about the dog without ever mentioning the disability. It’s a lovely, low-stress way to meet people because the focus is not on you.
3. A Friendly Companion
Of course, we have to acknowledge the benefit of animals as friendly companions in their own right. A pet can offer you empathy and support if you’ve had a bad day. Dogs can be taken for walks, and cats can make you laugh.
I never would have thought it possible, but birds can be good companions too. My daughter has a budgie that has more personality than most pets I’ve known. This bird chirps and sings all day, vigorously swings all the toys in its cage, and flys back and forth eagerly awaiting the times that it can fly free around the house. If you’re not up for a dog or a cat, find a friendly bird who will make you smile.
4. An Empowered Owner
Want to feel more empowered? Get a pet. We’ve seen this in prisons in Canada where pet therapy has been introduced. Caring for a pet helps the prisoners improve their self-esteem. Looking after a pet will be a big responsibility, but it could also be very rewarding in terms of building your confidence.
5. Pets Are Fun!
A pet will help you see the lighter side of life. The right pet will keep you laughing and help you avoid falling into the trap of negative thinking. It’s hard to worry for too long when your pet is there to distract you. This may be one of the best benefits of owning a pet if you have any type of anxiety.
The bottom line—pet ownership, whether in the common sense or as a service animal or emotional support animal can offer many benefits for your social anxiety, including helping you with basic functions, making social connections, providing a friendly companion, and empowering you as an owner.