Saturday, December 12, 2015

COMPANIONSHIP IN A LONELY WORLD


This year, fear and uncertainty seem to be as extensive as the cold that surrounds us.  In addition, even though we are more connected than ever via electronics, data shows face-to-face interaction has diminished.  We appear to be looking more at our phones than at each other.  As a result, feelings of loneliness can permeate our day-to-day existence.  Advertising compounds that feeling by its relentless message that the holidays are only enjoyable through loving family bonds.  For many, however, the holidays can intensify not only the feelings of loneliness, but also of anxiety and depression. 

Psychologist Robert Weiss defines loneliness as being more than physically alone. “Loneliness is a distressing mental state where an individual feels estranged from, or rejected by, peers, and is starved for the emotional intimacy found in relationships and mutual activity.”  Multiple studies have shown that chronic loneliness can adversely affect physical health.

What you may not be aware of are the numerous physical and mental benefits of having a pet.  The American Heart Association has determined that having a pet, especially a dog, can reduce the risk of heart disease.  Other studies have also shown that pet guardians are less likely to suffer from high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and stress.  In addition, pet owners generally suffer fewer instances of depression and have a tendency to exercise more than people who do not have pets.  As a result, statistically, pet guardians over the age of 65 make 30 percent fewer visits to their doctors than those without pets.

Pets are, and have been, a part of my existence since birth.  They have been my closest friends, constant companions and have provided stability in an unstable world.  I can honestly say that my life, and as a result my health, would not be the same if they were not, or had not, been in it.  Ask any pet owner and I am sure they will expound on the numerous joys that come with having a pet.  They will enthrall you with stories of their pets’ antics that brought belly laughs and smiles to their faces and others.  They will also extoll the many ways their pet has provided companionship during the darkest of times, or unconditional affection when they, themselves, felt unlovable.

Dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins are responsible for our happiness.  Dopamine motivates us towards goals and gives a surge of pleasure when we achieve them.  Serotonin arises when we feel significant.  When serotonin is absent, loneliness and depression appear.  Playing with, or petting, a pet can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine which help to calm and relax us.  Often called the “cuddle hormone”, oxytocin promotes intimacy and helps us build healthy relationships.  Scientists have found that dogs and their owners experience surges in oxytocin when they look into each other’s eyes.  Endorphins are released in response to pain and stress and help alleviate anxiety and depression.  Laughter is one of the easiest ways to induce endorphin release, and pets can play an instrumental role in making us giggle.  The pleasure of playing with, or snuggling up close to, a furry companion can truly supply a sense of contentment and happiness. 

When I toss a toy for one of the dogs and watch him bound with glee, I again feel the joy of childhood.  How often as adults do we yearn to experience that feeling?  Engaging with a pet has the ability to take our minds off the plaguing issues bothering us, even if it is only for the briefest of moments.  Because, when you are fully in the moment, you are not concerned about the mistakes of the past or fretting over possible future disasters.  It is just you and your pet.  As humans, we have an overwhelming need to touch.  Touching an animal can soothe us when we are feeling stressed or anxious.  I cannot help but notice how less tense I become when I slowly stroke my cats’ fur and listen to their purrs.  Our pets can also be the perfect ones to go to when we want to talk about our day, our life, or our hopes and dreams.  They “listen” but do not judge, and the extra blessing is that we never have to worry about potential repercussions over what we have said.  


Having a pet can give us purpose, enrich our lives, and help alleviate those feelings of depression, anxiety, and loneliness.  Perhaps now is as good a time as any other to consider adopting a pet.  It will not only benefit the animal, but you, too.



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