Dogs can be more than a beloved pet; they can also help relieve social anxiety and depression
Anxiety comes in many different shapes and forms.
There isn’t always a physical expression of someone who has a mental disorder. You can’t always look at someone and tell that they’re panicking on the inside. People who are suffering from anxiety in movies are often dramatized as pale, biting their nails, wearing oversized sweaters, and walking hunched and unconfident.
Someone who didn’t know me wouldn’t be able to tell whether or not I was on the urge of having to run to the bathroom to start crying uncontrollably. I learned to hide it well; from the outside, you’d never know. If you sat next to me on an airplane, with my emotional support animal on my lap, you may roll your eyes and think “there’s nothing wrong with this girl”.
My anxiety takes many different forms. It can be anything from uncontrollable crying for no specific reason that I can pinpoint to feeling complete full-body panic in the middle of doing an ordinary task like grocery shopping. When I started college, I started taking medication for anxiety. I needed to be able to go to class and function like all of the other students. I was able to go to class, but I still wasn’t “okay”. I felt incredibly alone and vulnerable, I lacked confidence and feared I’d become agoraphobic and stop leaving the house other than to go to class. One of the few things that brought me joy at the time was visiting the local animal shelter. The dogs and cats had plenty of love to give and didn’t see me as any different than the other people who came to visit.
When I decided that it was time for me to get a dog of my own — who I named Calvin — my life started to change. It was like the constant clouds that hung over my head were beginning to fade away.
I now had a reason to leave the house: I had to go on at least three walks a day. I was no longer alone, and I had a responsibility. Even when I was feeling terrified, plagued with panic, I had a purpose. I had to be strong; my new dog needed me. We became inseparable, and my therapist started noticing a positive change in my behavior. I was showing confidence and empowerment that I had been lacking. She recommended I make my new dog my emotional support animal (ESA). I had seen therapy dogs on campus during exams but had never heard of an emotional support animal.
Flying on an airplane was the biggest fear that I had. I felt vulnerable and forced to interact with strangers who were just inches away from me. If you suffer from social anxiety, airports and airplanes can be a nightmare — but I love to travel. Travel is very limited when you are afraid to get on a plane but being able to travel with my ESA was soothing. When I felt anxious, I petted my dog and focused on him, not the plane or where I was. When I walked through the airport, I was determined to make sure ‘we’ got to the right place.
Whenever I see his little face, I feel instantly happier and like there is less weight on my shoulders. Even on my darkest days, he’s there to lick my face and force me to go outside. There are days I wouldn’t have stepped outside without him. I feel less alone and even when I break down and it’s all too much, he’s there when I’m done crying to bring me his favorite toy to play with.I put him first and seeing that I can make him happy gives me the inner peace and calm that I was lacking. Everything else can be going wrong and he doesn’t care; he looks at me with the same amount of love no matter what I look like or how my day went.
Emotional support animals provide relief to those suffering from common mental disorders like anxiety and depression.
If you rely on your dog or another animal as much as I do for my mental health, it’s important to be able to take them with you on a flight and to be protected from discrimination in housing. I am a renter and have lived in a few different cities. It can be tough to find an apartment when you have a dog. Moving is already an extra stressor that can be almost too much on its own, so it’s such a relief to know I can’t be turned away because I have a dog that helps me cope with my anxiety.
Emotional support animals can be an excellent way to improve your mental health if you have a mental disorder or disability. ESAs are not service animals, so they can’t sit inside restaurants or go in the grocery store with you, but they are allowed to sit with you in an airplane and live in housing that does not allow pets. Everyone won’t understand how an ESA works and the benefits they have on mental health. Undoubtedly, there will be people that roll their eyes or complain when you take your emotional support animal on a plane. Yes, having as ESA can cause stress and uncomfortable situations, but it is worth it.
I wouldn’t want to fly without my ESA with me, and I am glad my landlord can’t evict me for having him. He helps me every single day and I am so lucky to have him. Life would be harder without him by my side, so I spend as much time with him as I can.
When we’re at the park, you’d never know that Calvin was an ESA. We look like the everyday dog and owner. You wouldn’t know how he helps me with my anxiety. I’d just be another happy dog owner. My landlord doesn’t see the change in me and those sitting next to me on a plane have no idea when I’m petting him that I’m trying to reorganize my focus. Everyone might not ‘get’ having an ESA because everyone doesn’t suffer from mental disorders — but emotional support animals dounderstand.
If you think an emotional support could improve your mental health, click here to learn more about how to get an emotional support animal.
You may also enjoy reading Soul Dog: A Journey into the Spiritual Life of Animals, by Elena Mannes