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Interview with Mental Health Expert Lisa about Dogs in the Pandemic

Discover the psychological approach on how dogs affect our mental health and well-being, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.

We know that pets enrich our life quality and contribute to our happiness. Today, we want to focus on dogs in particular. 

For this topic and for our June Interview, we have our lovely Lisa, Mental Health Expert,

Hypnotherapist and Founder of the Global Mental Health Business "The Lisa Zimmermann" which offers online mental health support in the form of online consultations and virtual online courses on a global scale.

We are excited to listen to her psychological approach, where she will dive deep into the role of dogs in people's lives and the impact it has on their mental health, especially in these hard times.

1. Could you share with us the benefits dogs have on our lives and on our mental health in particular?

Sharing our lives with animals, especially dogs, creates a healthier more harmonious environment and enriches our life while positively impacting our mental health. While cats and dogs both have positive effects on our mental health, dogs have been domesticated for a longer time and offer a level of companionship that intensifies the psychological effect.

Owning a dog encourages physical activity which triggers inner biochemical processes, strengthens our immune system and promotes the release of positive hormones. The release of endorphins enhances our overall mood. The increased blood flow to our brain helps us think more clearly while connecting with nature balances our inner system and has a grounding effect. The mindfulness of being in the moment lowers our stress response we experience in response to feelings of fear by redirecting our focus to the Now and thereby lowering anxious & depressive thoughts. This is always one of the most crucial aspects in the work with my clients.

Sharing our life with a dog also positively impacts our social interactions. For one, it motivates crossing our own borders of limitation and training courage on a daily basis through simple acts of exploring new environments and expanding our circle of people we interact with. These simple everyday mental trainings go a long way. Secondly, owning a dog also strengthens our self-esteem, as the American Psychology Association concludes.

The act of caring for a dog at the same time boosts our happy hormones, activates the reward area in our brain and teaches, especially children, strong life qualities like being altruistic, compassionate and eventually even prepares for the inevitable experience of dealing with death.

Finally, dogs are highly empathetic companions as they become strongly attuned to humans and can assess our energy, tone of voice, and mood. It's almost like having your own personal therapist with you at all times.

2. How can dogs have a positive impact on our stress response to everyday stimuli?

When agitated our body produces a stress response that results in an increase of the stress hormone cortisol. Research has shown that patting and stroking a dog provides a sensory stress release and reduces our blood pressure, lowers our heart rate, and our breathing rate as well as relaxes our muscles. Studies have also found that sharing time with a dog triggers similar neural pathways to the parent-baby bond which gives us a strong feeling of connection.

Further research has concluded that even just 30 mins. of exercise like taking your dog for a walk may significantly decrease anxiety and depression. And, a study from the National Library of Medicine has found that people suffering from depression can especially benefit from the feeling of being needed by a dog as it calms their negative thought spiral of having no purpose in life. Another study even found that pet owners have lower triglyceride & cholesterol levels which are both prominent indicators for developing heart diseases.

The simple act of just even playing with a dog can already elevate our levels of serotonin and dopamine which increases calmness and relaxes our mental state. A study conducted with university students concluded that the interaction with dogs motivated a decline in anxiety and significantly improved mood scores among college students.

3. Let’s take a specific look at this past year. Dogs played a huge role in keeping people same during isolation. Can you elaborate on that?

Absolutely. Dogs in particular play a critical role in acting as a buffer for the psychological effects throughout the pandemic, especially during strict lockdown periods. Social isolation causes a state of loneliness that is detrimental to our mental health which I have experienced first-hand within my clients throughout this year. As stated by Academic & Psychologist June McNicholas "pets can be a lifeline for socially isolated people".

Needless to say, dogs are directly benefitting the basic human need for touch. As stated before, spending time with a dog measurably lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol that we release as part of our response to mentally stressful situations. A study by Washington State University has concluded that spending just 10 mins. with a dog significantly reduced the levels of cortisol in the bloodstream.

Caring for a dog also automatically enriches our lives by adding a predictable level of stability to our day which is especially beneficial to our mental health through times that are dominated by anxious and depressive thoughts. Hal Elrod shares in his book "Miracle Morning" the enriching power and calming effect of implementing your own personal healthy morning routine. More than ever, is the power of these mental tools crucial for our mental health & self care.

4. Could you give some specific examples of cases in which dogs would enrich our life quality?

Nowadays, you can find dogs in all different fields. Animal Therapy is a very prominent field. Queensland Children's Hospital works with therapy dogs to calm & soothe their patients and help them heal by literally "holding paws" with a dog. In general, dogs have a strong potential to humanise hospitalisations and aid the treatment and healing process of patients. Therapy dogs are also used in prisons to calm prisoners, make them feel better and more peaceful. An interesting effect is that these feelings persist even after the dog has left.

In the UK, animal therapy is even integrated into high-security psychiatric hospitals as it helps the patients develop problem-solving skills, strengthens empathy, and most importantly channels aggressive thoughts which is especially powerful in those patients who have proved hard to reach with conventional psychiatric drugs & talk therapy.

Furthermore, the benefits of interacting with dogs are being leveraged in assisted living facilities, nursing homes, and hospice programs. Service dogs have even proven to alleviate symptoms in veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In the corporate world, a new business concept of so-called "Puppy Parties" has sparked a new movement for corporate health. The service offered is a corporate wellness experience that brings mood-enhancing, morale-boosting connections to corporate companies and their employees.

5. Now, needless to say, the enriching qualities dogs can bring to our lives is something that most of us would like to benefit from. What is your advice if we cannot have our own dog but would still like to experience the positive effects a dog will have on our mental health state?

Needless to say, the benefits of owning your own dog are irreplaceable. However, owning a dog comes with a lot of responsibility, costs, and a long-term commitment which not everyone can afford or integrate into their lifestyle.

Luckily, there are several alternatives that can stimulate a similar positive effect and positively impact our mental health. A very easy alternative is obviously reaching out to people who own a dog inside your inner circle for some shared dog moments.

Another great alternative is volunteering in dog shelters or becoming a part of a pet rental program. Fostering a rescue dog is also a great option especially since there are countless options for "temporarily fostering" here as well.

Finally, the most natural and beneficial alternative would be to sign yourself up for a trusted petsitting service. You are providing an excellent service with "Pets Ahoi" that doesn't only give pet owners a service they can rely on but also offers pet sitters an opportunity to enjoy the mental health benefits of caring for a dog. It's a win-win! 💞

We thank Lisa Zimmermann for the interview.

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Photo Credits: ©️ Schleilicht and Ira Efremova


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