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woman watching tv with her dog who helps with her anxiety at night

Can Dogs Help with Stress and Anxiety?

Reading time | 4 mins

Humans have long considered dogs as “man’s best friend”, but what about as personal “anxiety aids”? Or “mental health helpers”?

I didn’t realise how powerful the (wo)man-and-dog bond could be until I found Rigby. 

The relationship between my pup and I was one of instant chemistry. She came into my life six years ago, and we’ve been pretty much inseparable ever since.

I was having night-time anxiety

We got Rigby during a particularly rocky time for me. Although I’d learned how to manage my anxiety, I was still struggling with insomnia and late-night panic attacks. Night-time anxiety packs more of a punch, as there aren’t the same distractions as during the daytime. During the day, I go to work, the gym, or socialise, but I’m stuck with my thoughts at night.

As the mental health counsellor, Nicky Treadway, explains, most people with anxiety are task-focused during the day: “They’re feeling the symptoms of anxiety, but they have better places to land them, moving from point A to B to C throughout the day.”

Yet, when the darkness hits, anxious thoughts take centre stage. I also get physical symptoms like heart palpitations, twitching and restlessness. It certainly made me a difficult person to share a bed with. I’d thrash about like an electric eel! 

Even though my husband was happy to sit up with me when I needed him, I felt guilty for keeping him awake. It would have a knock-on effect the following morning, and I felt like a nuisance and a burden. The guilt I felt during this period was crushing.

I would hope that “tomorrow night would be better”, which was a definite way of ensuring it wouldn’t be. I got so tired of explaining how I was feeling, and we were both fed-up and disappointed. 

Eventually, I just lied, creeping out of bed without telling him and dealing with my illness alone. 

It was a lonely time. 

My dog never asks anxiety-inducing questions

Then Rigby came along. To my amazement, not only was she happy to be awake at 2am, but she was also excited to see me! I’d shuffle into the living room and open her pen as quietly as I could. The look in her eyes was one of pure love.

Suddenly, it hit me. 

I never have to explain anything to her. I don’t need to tell her why I’m awake or what I need. Our relationship is blissfully uncomplicated. There was no guilt about disturbing her either, as she slept loads during the day. So, I’d make a cup of tea, pop her on the couch beside me, and we’d watch TV until I felt better. 

4 ways a dog can help with anxiety

1) Dogs can reduce stress naturally 

Research suggests that petting or cuddling a dog can trigger the release of the feel-good hormone oxytocin. A cuddle can also reduce the levels of cortisol (stress hormone) in the body. Sometimes, just thinking about our dog can increase oxytocin.

2)  Dogs give structure to your day

On bad days, my anxiety depletes my energy levels. It encourages me to curl up in bed with it, even though I know that won’t help in the long run. 

Rigby’s needs motivate me. She needs food, water, and lots of walks, which gets me out of the house. 

According to The Dog People, dogs give us a sense of purpose. 

They give people struggling with these conditions a tangible reason to harness positive energy into caring for something. 

The simple fact - being needed - is a powerful way to re-anchor a person’s place in the world if they’ve been blown off course by the effects of depression, anxiety, or stress.  

3)  You’ll get plenty of exercise   

Rigby needs two 15-minute walks a day, and this exercise is good for my brain. 

The endorphins triggered by cardio activity help boost my mood while reducing my adrenaline

According to John J. Ratey, MD of Harvard Health:  "Exercising regularly builds up resources that bolster resilience against stormy emotions".

So, “walkies” has several positive functions in our house.

4) Dogs provide unconditional love

One of the most brutal symptoms of my social anxiety is that it makes me doubt the love of everyone in my life. Of course, this has a huge impact on my mood and behaviour.

This sense of doubt doesn’t apply to Rigby. I know her love is unconditional, as she imprinted on me when she was a puppy. This provides a great sense of security and stability on bad days.

(Note: I also know, deep down, that my family and friends love me too.)

Rigby is the ultimate anxiety aid, and I’m very lucky to have found her.

But, remember, dogs need care too!

Caring for a dog is a huge responsibility and not to be taken lightly.  

They’re costly to keep, with requirements such as: 

  • Insurance
  • Dog walkers (if you work away from home)
  • Food
  • Beds
  • A pen
  • A harness or collar
  • Vet bill coverage 
  • Lots and lots of toys 

You shouldn’t leave dogs alone for hours at a time. If you have a full-time job, you need a dog walker to pop over once a day.

While dogs provide unconditional love, you need to return the favour and give them what they need. A dog requires lots of patience and time investment, so adopting an animal is not a decision to take lightly.

NPS-IE-NP-00309 June 2021