There is absolutely loads of research out in the world that clearly shows a link between pet ownership and mental health. The vast majority of it states that owning a pet such as a dog or cat is a good thing for a person’s mental health and can alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression.
This popped into my head this morning as I watched the family dogs wander around the garden they love (but treat very badly!) whilst they went about doing the kind of things that dogs do. I am often fascinated by these creatures, fascinated and infuriated in equal measure! This is in part because I did not have such things in my life as a child. My siblings and I desperately harassed our parents to get a dog and for a brief period when I was about eight years old a ball of manic energy we bizarrely named ‘Sally’ appeared in our home. I don’t remember much detail about her other than I was miffed that big piles of poo had suddenly appeared in the garden which fascinated but also repulsed my eight year old self.
This was a brief encounter. Sally might have annoyed me somewhat, but she had the ability to send my mother apoplectic with her constant bounciness and magical ability to escape outside from almost any room in the house! Eventually the classic statement ‘It is me or the dog’, were uttered and after a 24 hour family meeting of the council of siblings we decided to keep the dog! We didn’t obviously, it was clear things could not go on and Sally was given away to what turned out to be a very happy home. My mum bumped into the gentleman we gave her to years later and Sally had had a lovely life and was well trained and happy, so it was a good decision to let her go as it turned out.
This meant however when my siblings started to leave home to go to university and I wanted a pet my options were limited. I already had an ancient goldfish called Little who was about as much company as deflated balloon. His/her (who knows!) companion Large had died many years before, but little went on outlive most of my elderly neighbours, before finally floating up to the fishy pond in the sky when I was in my late 20’s, which was a great relief to my parents who had been looking after it for most of its life!
As fish were a failure I took a risk on another furry type of animal and got a gerbil called Zabre (please don’t ask, it was a toy thing!). Interesting choice and the O’Leary curse seemed to kick in again when he appeared to have a stroke after around six weeks. We took him to the vet and they said he would likely pass soon, but he was not in any distress or pain so they saw no reason to put him to sleep. Poor Zabre spent the next eighteen months gently rocking back and forward atop the little wooden house my dad made for him. It was a strange experience and not one I wished to repeat and therefore I had been pet free all my adult life until around five years ago. This leads us to the dog dialogue and my musings this morning.
I was sat outside enjoying the autumn sunshiny morning and eating my toast. I had a lovely coffee and was quite content watching the pooches mooch about. I always leave a bit of crust for the dogs and it was after I gave them this to eat I started really watching them. Ted is older and we got him later in life, he is strong willed and stubborn with an edge I think attributable to being mistreated in a previous home. At his heart he is soft as butter though and when he gets a piece of toast it is gone in seconds. Izzy is younger and we have had her since a pup. She is without doubt the softest creature I have ever encountered. She trusts us so much we could probably swing her around the room and she would not bat an eyelid (we would not do this obviously!). When she is given a piece of toast, she walks away with it, pops it on the floor, looks at it for a bit and then dependent on its size with either slowly chews it and eats it, or she will bite a bit off and repeat until it is all gone.
This mornings toast was quite big, so Izzy was biting bits off and slowly chewing, like some kind of connoisseur of toastyness making an assessment of the bread, toasty browness, butteryness etc. I chuckled as I noticed this as when she was a puppy she would often follow her brother around the garden, wait for him to have a poo and then eat said poo direct out of his bum like some kind of evil Mr Whippy!! She was not dainty or delicate back then and I found it funny she would eat poo so readily and yet take so much time over a bit of toast.
Izzy and Ted finished their snacks and on realising there was no more food began their morning squirrel patrol around the garden. It was while I was watching them potter around completely content that I suddenly felt an overwhelming desire to swap places with them. Their tummies were full of lovely food, they were safe, warm, cared for and had everything they need. In their minds there were no worries or anxieties around money, work, covid-19, traffic, politics, sociological issues or any of the myriad of things us human beings are prone to think and worry about every day of our lives. Izzy and Ted have nothing to worry about and if they do get anxious, they are quickly able to get what they need in terms of comfort and reassurance from one of the convenient humans that are constantly wandering about their house.
Yep, as I sat watching them I had the classic ‘I would give anything to swap places with them at the moment’ moment. This led me to think about my own self care, a recurring theme in these blogs because it is not just important to counsellors and therapists, it is vital for each and every one of us to look after ourselves if we are to maintain good mental and physical health. Especially at the moment.
We are still living through the covid-19 pandemic with a government and political class that appear to have lost the plot and are rudderless in their leadership and direction. Brexit is happening in a way that nobody voted for and again as a population we are only able to sit in our boats and watch and the SS United Kingdom slowly disappears from view under the water of populist rhetoric and hubris. I am trying to be as apolitical as possible here as I think all politicians are as bad as each other and besides the main point I am making here is that every day I am reading something somewhere that reports the mental health of people in the UK is deteriorating at a rate we have not seen in our lifetimes because of the combination of covid, sociological issues (jobs, community, work, finance, etc), politics in general and the increasing polorisation of the general populace. This makes it ever so much more vital we take steps to look at ourselves and make sure we are doing what we can to alleviate our own stress and anxiety so we are able to plot a healthy, positive course through the choppy waters of 2020 and look positively towards 2021.
I am not immune to anxiety and stress, as a human person I feel it like everyone else does and for me 2020 has been especially challenging. Which is why as I watched my dogs this morning happy in their world and I compared that with the stress and anxiety that exists in mine at the moment and in the absence of actually being able to become a dog for a period of time, I made a decision to make some long overdue changes to my daily routine.
I have a week off next week and self care is going to be top of the agenda for every day of that break. I will be looking at the things I know help me reduce my stress and anxiety levels and putting them into a daily routine that will give me time every day to address both the physical, mental and emotional stresses of everyday life in these difficult and uncertain times. I will also start a search to try and find new things that might help me in this quest as I am certain there is a lot out there that I have not yet found that I would enjoy and would be useful in helping me manage life more effectively.
I would encourage every person reading this blog to do the same over the next week or so. Spend some time with yourself and notice how you are feeling. Are you anxious? Are there things that you are stressed about? How do you feel physically? Are there any aches and pains that are obvious that you have not been paying attention to? Sometimes we don’t notice what is happening in our bodies and minds unless we actually take some time to stop and notice how we are feeling physically. There are many good ‘body scan’ mindfulness exercises and meditations out there in the interweb and if you have never done one, I would recommend it. I have put all my meditation and mindfulness cd’s onto a little mp3 player and I will be going through them in turn next week as I know it will help me be more aware of how I am as a whole and also where I might need to pay more attention to in terms of my sense of wellbeing and health.
Again, I would encourage everyone reading this to look at how they are spending their downtime, if there is not a good balance between work/play/responsibility/relaxation, then look at your routines and habits and see if there are things that you have not done – or maybe never done – that you can do or try that would help you to let go of some stress or anxiety. I will be doing that assessment over the next couple of weeks and I am rather looking forward to having a much more robust and refreshed weekly routine that involves not just work, but the important self care, nurturing, relaxing hobbies, habits and practices that we all need to help us through these especially turbulent and often stressful times.
So, when the dog days come round again as I am sure they will, I will be in a position to enjoy them, relax into them, appreciate them and feel comforted and grounded in them. I wont wish my time away wanting to swap places with a dog as I did this morning! I will be very appreciative I am a human that is a self aware as I can be at this moment and there will also be a tremendous sense of relief that there is no chance I will be swapping places with Izzy as some of her culinary habits are not compatible in any way to my own!!