Professional Perspective: How Pets Help Heal PTSD

Today, Joy Paley outlines the benefits of incorporating a pet into your post-traumatic stress recovery.

How Pets Help Heal PTSD

Living with and recovering from posttraumatic stress is a long process. Unlike related illnesses like depression and anxiety, PTSD can be more difficult to alleviate with talk therapy and medication alone. Survivors may wonder how they will continue coping with the disorder, if they are among the unlucky people for whom these treatments are not effective.

Pet facilitated therapy is another treatment option for people with PTSD, one that you might not have heard of. Unlike going to talk therapy or taking medication, pet owners don’t view their pet as a “chore” or something they have to do—it’s a part of their life that they naturally enjoy. This integrated approach is one of the biggest benefits of pet facilitated therapy, for those facing PTSD.

Psychological Benefits

PTSD survivors, especially those who have experienced sexual assault, may find themselves uncomfortable in social situations and unwilling to make connections with new people. The presence of a pet has been shown in numerous studies to provide a non-threatening but very real partner who can help end a cycle of social withdrawal, dis-attachment, and loneliness. Pets aren’t judgmental, and you don’t have to worry about verbalizing how you’re feeling with them. It is a stress-free way to reach outside of oneself and form a real bond with something in the world.

Other studies have shown that pets can provide emotional stability and a needed routine to sufferers of mental illness. PTSD can lead its victim into an emotional Pandora’s box; one stray thought can plunge a sufferer into a world of fear and paranoia, dominated by memories and all the bad situations that have the potential to happen. Taking care of a pet provides a concrete, simple set of tasks that one has to perform. Feeding a pet, brushing them, taking them for a walk: these basic obligations can offer a needed distraction and keep victims from letting their emotions overwhelm them in a vicious wave.
With the depression that can come with PTSD, many sufferers could benefit from an excuse to laugh, play, and feel good for no reason. Pets are funny and a source of entertainment in themselves. They also draw their owner into their play—whether it’s a dog that wants you to throw his ball or a cat that won’t stop mewing until you pet her, animals can bring a smile to your face even when you don’t want them to. The presence of humor can slowly help the sufferer realize that one’s traumatic past does not define every part of life.

Health Benefits

Many symptoms of PTSD manifest themselves in physical ways. Anxiety can lead to a racing heart and feeling tense; particular triggers can remind you of the incident and bring on a full-blown panic attack. Studies with pet facilitated therapy have shown that owning a pet can actually lower blood pressure and heart and respiration rate, something that can help keep these symptoms of anxiety under control.

Unique Benefits for Children

Children who have observed violence or suffered some other type of traumatic past may be the most difficult type of patients to treat. While talk therapy and medication can be helpful, experiencing such an illness can make children feel like an outcast, separated from their peers. Pet therapy is one form of treatment that won’t make a kid feel strange or different. Pets will also get kids off their guard in a way that regular treatments can’t—the child doesn’t consider the pet to be medicine, they are simply an enjoyable, fun part of their life.

The Take Away

Pet therapy is a very effective and very special type of treatment that has been shown to work well for PTSD sufferers. From healing the psychological aspects of trauma to decreasing your blood pressure, pets can be a key part of your life and your treatment. If you are interested in pet therapy, talk to your doctor about the opportunity. And, pet therapy is a treatment without side effects—besides cleaning up a little unwanted mess now and then.
Sources:
An exploration of the potential benefits of pet-assisted therapy. (1999) Journal of Clinical Nursing.

Joy Paley is a science and technology writer based in Berkeley, California.

 
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