Relieving Stress with the Help of a Four-Legged Friend

by Ashley Alexander on March 22, 2012

Meet Moose, my giant pup!

Anyone who knows me knows that my Newfoundland dog, Moose, plays a leading role in my life.  I’m sure some people think I’m crazy for letting him do things like sleep in bed with me, but Moose is just as much a family member, if not more so, than some of my human relatives.  Not only is Moose a great listener and a superb cuddler, but our bond may also have benefits for my health—particularly in helping to fight off the negative consequences of stress.

Social support is widely recognized for providing both physical and mental health benefits, and is particularly encouraged as a means of managing stress.  A three-part study from 2011 explored the psychological well-being of pet owners, the extent to which pets have a role in social support, and whether or not they can provide a benefit in times of emotional stress.

In the first leg of the study, the psychological well-being of pet owners and non-owners was assessed through an extensive series of questions asking about things like depression, perceived happiness, attachment style, personality traits, and social relationships.  Overall, the participants who had animal companions were found to have higher self-esteem, were less lonely, and were more extraverted than those without pets.  These findings regarding well-being may suggest that pet owners’ are more resilient, allowing them to better cope with stress.

Sometimes the ability of animals to provide social support is criticized under the belief that such a benefit only occurs in the absence of human social connections.  However, the questions asked in the second part of this study found that while pets were often considered as important as family members, the owners reported having supportive human connections as well.

The third portion of the study examined how pets compared to close friends in warding off feelings of emotional stress.  Pet-owning subjects were asked to write in detail about a time when they felt lonely or socially rejected.  Immediately following this task, they were randomly assigned to write about their pet or their best friend, or draw a map (used as a control measure).  Afterward, their social stress level was evaluated.  Turns out, thinking about one’s pet was just as comforting as thoughts of a best friend.

This comprehensive study offers evidence that pets can provide social support which can help to relieve stress.  But, if furry friends aren’t your cup of tea, try one of these other recommended stress-relieving activities:

  • Connect with humans who provide social support
  • Exercise
  • Meditate
  • Reflect in a journal
  • Catch up on Zzzz’s
  • Practice yoga
  • Blast your favorite music
  • Laugh :)

With my hectic schedule weighing on me these last few weeks, looks like maybe those breaks I took to snuggle or walk Moose weren’t wasted time after all.  I wonder if my professors will let me bring him to my finals for some extra support…