Having grown up with some pretty serious mental health issues within my family, I am very aware of how debilitating anxiety can be. My father and brother are extreme cases.
They were both hugely talented and hugely popular guys. If you met my brother, you’d think he oozed confidence (and charm).
Both of them took their own lives in their thirties. Having always thought that my brother was the confident one, it took the rug from under me. All of it had been a front.
Underneath all that charisma and nonchalance was a chasm of anxiety. He never felt confident. He never felt good enough. To say it turned my world on its head is an understatement.
I had to learn to navigate the world with a new set of rules. That what you see on the outside, for most people, is definitely not what’s going on underneath.
Through those months of grief, my cats really helped me get through (it was before I had dogs in my life). One of them in particular would not leave my side and I spent many an afternoon crying into him. He had all the time in the world to spare. So I didn't feel bad for taking up his time with this grief that seemed as though it would never end. It was an immense help.
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. Organised by the Mental Health Foundation, it’s a time to talk and think about mental health. This year the focus is anxiety, which I’m sure we have all suffered with at some point in our lives.
How our pets can help
Thankfully, pets don’t work like humans do. They don't hide what's going on (okay maybe if your spaniel is up to no good he may try!). They wear their hearts on their furry sleeves. A confident dog is a confident dog. A timid cat is a timid cat.
Bella (who as you know was co-founder of Chow Bella 🥰) oozed confidence. You could put her in any situation, she’d assess it, decide “yup, okay, that’s the deal”, and crack on.
For me, as an innately shy person, this was a HUGE bonus. I could go to new places (which always fills me with anxiety) with Bella by my side. She would just be happy and confident, and that gave me confidence.
It’s no lie to say that I hid behind her outgoing personality on many an occasion.
Dogs in particular can be fantastic if you’re anxious. They force you to go out for walks, and loads of people love dogs and will happily strike up a conversation with you.
You know when you go to the park and you know all the dogs’ names and none of the owners’? That’s your proof. We LOVE to meet and talk about dogs!
Here are some key ways that our pets can help with our mental health:
Pets require a consistent routine of feeding, exercise, and care. They give us a reason to have to get up, and add structure to our days. When everything else is falling apart, your pet will still need to be fed, cared for, and walked, if a dog. This can be really beneficial in keeping us moving forward.
Research has shown that simply petting a dog or cat promotes relaxation, reduces blood pressure, and lowers cortisol, a stress-related hormone.
I work from home. It means that my tendency can be to get very stuck in the house. I’ll empty the dishwasher on my coffee break. Put out the washing on my lunch break. If I’m not careful, I can easily go a little stir crazy because I don’t see anyone all day.
Having a dog means that you get to walk them or play with them. That’s the best excuse in the world to take a proper break and get outside!
Even if you are really busy, if your anxiety levels are creeping up, take 5 mins to have a quick game with your dog. If you have a bit more time, take them round the block, or even better, out for a proper walk in a green space.
Regular exercise is a proven method for managing anxiety and improving mood. If you’re a runner (I am), why not take your dog to your local ParkRun? Half an hour on a Saturday morning and both of you will be buzzing with endorphins - fantastic!
Pets are great ice breakers, especially dogs. Take your dog to your local park or beach and chances are, you’ll come across somebody else walking their dog. It’s a great way to strike up a conversation. It can be purely about your dog so you don’t have to reveal anything personal at all.
Social interaction, just having that one conversation a day, has huge benefits for your mental health as it keeps you connected to the world.
This Mental Health Awareness Week, let's pledge to take care of ourselves and each other. All of us, at one time or another, will suffer from stress and anxiety. That person who’s just snapped at you? They may be having a really horrible time at the moment.
The cost of living crisis is proving so difficult for so many of us. That person who seems really confident? They might be like my brother Andrew underneath. Be kind.
If you are having a difficult time at the moment then please, please don’t suffer in silence. There are plenty of organisations out there that can help.
What are you going to do with your pet this week to help relieve anxiety? Post about it on social media using the hashtag #ToHelpMyAnxiety.
We’re all in this together, and together we can all get through it. Now go and spend a few minutes cuddling your gorgeous pet. It’s good for your health!