3 Ways Animals Can Calm Your Anxiety

I have a yellow Labrador Retriever named Sampson who is a sweet, sensitive eight-year-old. He’s naturally intuitive and can tell when someone’s upset, in which case he will come to them and lean his head into their leg as if to say, “I’m here for you.”

As a psychotherapist and shamanic practitioner who sees clients in-person in my home office, occasionally — with the client’s permission of course — Sampson would join us for the session and after greeting the client would lie nearby very quietly.

A while ago, I met with some parents who had some concerns about their 14-year-old daughter Stephanie (not her real name). They reported she seemed very anxious much of the time and didn’t know what to do to help her. We arranged for Stephanie to have an initial session with me, and she liked the idea of Sampson joining us.

After the initial greeting, Sampson laid down in his usual spot and we formally began the session. I asked Stephanie a simple question about how she was doing and somewhat to my surprise, she broke into tears without saying anything. Sampson got up immediately, placed his head against her leg and looked up at her face. She started gently petting his head and neck and as she did, I noted her breathing changed from quiet sobbing to a steadier rhythm and slowly the tears stopped.

I set a box of tissues nearby and sat back and waited. Sampson stayed with her for a few more minutes and I quietly marveled at the way he was able to calm her. We continued the session from there as Sampson gradually took his place lying nearby where she was seated. Every session after that, Stephanie made it clear that she wanted to have him join us and he became an integral part of her therapy.

This is an example of how an animal can calm your anxiety. As most people know, anxiety can become debilitating when excessive and prolonged, to the point where it can greatly affect your mental health.

Over a three-year period from 2019 to 2022, there was a 38.8% increase in requests for mental health services among 7 million adults who had private health insurance. Spending on mental health services also increased by 53.7% during that period. This was during the pandemic, of course, which kept many of us in a continuous state of alert, which was often experienced as intense anxiety.

These days, we hear many stories on the news of various catastrophic events that have been attributed to global warming, and that has undoubtedly increased the preponderance of anxiety. It’s an experience where the nervous system remains activated for no logical reason, preparing us for fight or flight but with no tangible way to resolve and release the activation.

Here’s where animals come in.

Although the list of benefits we can receive from animals is extensive, I’ve narrowed it down to the three main ways that they can calm your anxiety, much like Sampson did and continued to do for Stephanie.

    1. Companionship — Having an animal companion gives you someone to care for and receive the benefits of their support. For instance, dogs will listen attentively to what you have to say, even if they don’t exactly understand — which doesn’t matter! They can also reduce loneliness, provide support and comfort, encourage you to be physically active, help you feel loved, and will often invite you to play.
    2. Grounding — Animals add structure to your day by helping you keep to a daily routine which can lead to you being more grounded and focused. Having to exercise, feed, and provide other types of care for an animal can give your day purpose and generate a real sense of achievement.
    3. Health — Interacting with animals has been shown to decrease levels of cortisol (a stress-related hormone), lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety, and decrease depression. They can increase feelings of social support and reduce the sense of isolation. In addition, scientists have observed how interacting with animals (even fish!) increases levels of the hormone oxytocin, which has a number of beneficial effects on the body. Oxytocin slows a person’s heart rate and breathing, reduces blood pressure, and inhibits the production of stress hormones, resulting in a greater sense of calm and comfort.

Although there are other means to reduce your anxiety that don’t require pharmaceuticals, I personally can’t think of a better way than having a relationship with an animal. Try it out and you’ll discover from your own experience how simple and yet beneficial interacting with an animal can be.

share tweet