What our pets can teach us about managing stress, anxiety, and fear

My five-year-old cat has a condition which requires that he receive infusions underneath his skin, three times per week.  He seems to have begrudgingly accepted his lot in life, and generally just sits in the corner glaring at us until the process is over.  It’s what happens afterward that I find amazing.  As soon as it’s over, he returns 100% to his preferred activities; these include eating, chasing toys, staring unnervingly at empty space, and napping, all without a trace of anxiety, fear, or trepidation about the next infusion.  We have a lot to learn about our animal friends when it comes to managing our own stress, anxiety, and fear.

  • Your pet doesn’t worry about something unless it’s right there in front of her: Generally speaking, unless a feared object or event is right in front of her, your pet doesn’t worry about it.  My cat doesn’t worry about his next infusion, trip to the vet, or the extremely terrifying vacuum cleaner unless these things are right there in the open.  He lives entirely in the present.  As human beings, since we are capable of making more complex connections with our minds, it’s not quite so simple.  Seeing a television commercial for the flu vaccine reminds me that I have to schedule my yearly physical, which triggers me to hope that nothing is wrong with me, which triggers me to worry that something is in fact wrong with me, which leads to anxiety, despite the fact that I am not sitting in the doctor’s office, but at home on my comfy couch.  Taking a cue from our pets and learning to live more in the present rather than the future can really take a bite out of fear and anxiety.
  • They don’t seek out information that only serves to increase anxiety and fear: We’ve all been there.  It’s 2:00am, and you’ve just read a news report about a terrorist attack, or found a mole on your leg that you’re not quite sure was there the day before.  Then you start clicking.  One thing leads to another and before you know it, it’s 4:00am and you’ve descended down a rabbit-hole of fear and anxiety.  When pets feel anxiety, instead of seeking out feared situations, they seek comfort. This is different than avoiding anxiety provoking situations, which over time makes them worse, but there’s a world of difference between avoidance and dwelling on things that we are unable to control.  Our relentless information seeking is an ineffective way to control things that we cannot.  Take a lesson from Fido and Fluffy; the less time spent dwelling on the uncontrollable and unknowable, the lower your levels of stress, fear, and anxiety.
  • They know how to play:  When my cat was a kitten, he could and would, make anything into a toy or game.  Fast forward five years, and he still can and will play with anything and everything.  Pets do not have the belief, that seems to be ingrained into our culture, that play should stop once one reaches adulthood. Observe a pet, or a child at play for that matter.  When they play they are all in, no dwelling on the mistakes of the past, or ruminating about the problems of the future. Take time everyday, even if it’s just five minutes to get your play on!
  • They live a life of balance:  When your dog is hungry, he asks for food, when he’s tired, he sleeps, and the entire household sure knows when he needs to use the bathroom!  In general, our pets take care of their needs when they have them, and manage to communicate them to their owners pretty clearly.  I know that our modern society does not typically allow for us to gratify all of our impulses in that same way, but we can still take away some valuable lessons from how Spot gets her needs met.  We need sleep, food, play (and yes the bathroom!) at regular intervals. Ignore these things at your peril, and watch your levels of stress and anxiety rise.

Although most of us cannot hope to live the enviable life of the Western house cat, there are many life lessons that we can learn from our pets when it comes to better managing stress, anxiety, and fear.  What have you learned from your pets that improves your mental health?  Comment below!

Dr. Scrivani specializes in the treatment of anxiety and related disorders, and provides tele-mental health services to residents of New York and Florida.  Call (888) 535-5671 or email drjana@itherapymail.com.

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