According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 18% of the adult population. Further, anxiety disorders, in most cases, are highly treatable, yet only 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment.
The most commonly diagnosed form of anxiety is generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and it represents 3.1% of the U.S. adult population. In most cases, GAD presents itself as a continual, exaggerated, and impractical worry about everyday things that the majority of the population would not worry about, or would be concerned about to a far lesser degree.
In order to be diagnosed with this disorder, patients must exhibit both of the following characteristics:
Disproportionate anxiety and worry for at least six months
Difficulty controlling the worrying
Additionally, anxiety and worry must be tied to at least three of the following circumstances:
Restlessness or feeling on edge
Easily fatigued, irritability, or difficulty in concentrating
Tension in the muscles
Poor sleep or occurrence of sleep disturbances
There are a variety of risk factors tied to GAD. A risk factor is simply a presence of something that can lead to an increased likelihood of developing a particular disease or condition. With GAD, it is possible to develop the illness without risk factors, but the more risk factors that are present, the more likely it is that you will develop it. If you present with more than one of the risk factors listed below, it is recommended that you consult with your physician for treatment, or to develop practices that can lessen your risk of developing GAD.
Cultural Factors – A lack of friends or engaged family members can be a contributor
Depression – GAD often occurs alongside depression
Family History – Anxiety disorders tend to run in families
Gender – Women are more often to be diagnosed with GAD than men
Genetics – One-fourth of first-degree relatives will be affected
Medical Conditions – Those with chronic illnesses are more prone to develop GAD
Socioeconomic and Ethnic Factors – Immigrants and members of poor minority groups are at greater risk
Stressful Events – The loss of a loved one, being the victim of a crime, or a serious or debilitating injury can be a significant risk factor
Substance Abuse – Use or abuse of alcohol, drugs, and smoking can increase the risk of acquiring GAD
When people decide to bring a pet into their home, it is usually to serve some sort of purpose. In most cases, people choose to get a pet for company, for socialization, because they are fun and cute, as a status symbol, or to encourage activity.
However, for those who suffer from GAD, an emotional support animal can provide a plethora of other benefits. Similar to how emotional support animals can help with ADHD, those with GAD will benefit from increased activity and social interactions, the ability to lean on a non-judgmental companion, and a healthy distraction. Many people suffering from GAD express feelings of loneliness, which contributes to increased anxiety. In these cases, the presence of a pet in the room can help prevent those feelings of being alone.
These animals can help in other ways too:
Those who have pets, especially dogs, tend to walk more, which is good to help lower blood pressure. For someone with GAD that might struggle to get out of the house, pets can help to provide an additional boost of confidence.
Petting a dog or cat, or even an emotional support chicken, feels good. The soft fur or feathers feel good on the skin, and the process of petting the animal actually helps to release a relaxation hormone in the body.
Pets attract other people. As many people who live with GAD find it difficult to make friends or to strike up conversations with someone they don’t know, an emotional support animal can help to bridge that gap by providing a conversation starter. It is common for pet lovers anywhere and at any time to approach those out walking with their pets, and asking to pet them or learn more about the animal. As the person with GAD starts to participate in the friendly conversation, they will start to release their endorphins which will help them continue the conversation, and feel good about it when the conversation comes to an end.
Those with pets tend to be in better moods overall, likely because loving an animal and spending time with a loyal companion helps to increase dopamine in the brain, and dopamine helps to influence happiness.
Pets are known to bring health-boosting benefits to pet owners, and this is especially the case for those with anxiety, or GAD. This article from Help Guide indicates that:
Pet owners are less likely to experience depression
People with pets are less likely to experience high blood pressure than those without pets
Playing with a dog or cat can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which aid in a feeling of calm, or relaxation
There is a lower triglyceride and cholesterol level in those with pets compared to those without pets
If you’ve had a heart attack and have a pet, you are more likely to live longer than those without a pet
Pet owners in general, especially those over age 65, are 30% less prone to need to visit their doctor than those without pets
Studies have shown that simply having an animal around has the ability to lower blood pressure, improve sleep, and help owners stay active. If you would normally sit at home and find little inspiration to leave the house or even get out of bed, then a pet can create a routine that requires you to get up and get moving for the day. Further, pets are often creatures of habit, so getting out of bed at the same time every day, going for regular walks, and remembering meal times not only provides pets with stability and love, it sets the owners up for a healthier lifestyle too.
For many that experience GAD, new situations can be extremely stressful and can trigger an anxiety attack. With an emotional support animal, they help to create a routine that many can find reassuring. Further, the endless loyalty of a pet and their ongoing demonstrations of affection with reckless abandon and joy can help lift the spirits of someone who might be feeling down.
For someone with GAD who is often feeling down and depressed, the ability to accomplish a task successfully can make a lasting impression and have benefits that last for several hours, if not for the entire day. For example, if someone struggles to get out of bed each morning is nudged out of bed by a dog that needs to take care of his business, then the moment that person puts their feet on the floor and gets out the door, they have accomplished something that they normally would not have. Follow that up by giving the dog a treat and seeing the pleasure in the dog’s excitement, and that excitement can be contagious, spreading to its owner.
As most pets have the same needs over and over, the repetition and need to satisfy those requirements demanded of a pet, provide consistency as well as a growing list of accomplishments each day, as each task is successfully completed.
In most situations, those with GAD will qualify for assistance from an ESA. If you think you might qualify, or know someone who could benefit from an ESA, participate in this free screening to learn more. If you do qualify, there are resources available to get an ESA letter from a licensed health professional. If your physician, for any reason, does not write ESA letters, you can request a letter here.