How my pets help me cope with my anxiety

I’ve been asking my family for a dog pretty much from the moment I could speak. Tragically, many members of my family were allergic to dogs, which seemed to shut down the idea of pets repeatedly when I was a child. Obsessed with all furry four-legged critters, I would jealously scan our local pet shop every week, fantasizing about what I would name my pet and keeping a list of names like expecting mothers might do for their human babies (Sebastian and Fiona were always close to the top of this list). I convinced my parents to let me have small creatures that live in cages, which eventually prompted years of getting guinea pigs, hamsters, mice, and rats. I connected the most with my highly affectionate and intelligent pet rat, Alistair, who I had through much of middle school. But after he died due to a cancerous tumor, I was determined to renew my quest to get a dog. Once I started researching a ton of hypoallergenic breeds, my parents finally gave in. We’ve had three dogs since: Minnie, Moe, and Winnie. While I was living at home, these pups brought me so much joy.

Animals are adorable and fun to cuddle, of course. But I became obsessed with all the other ways I could interact with my pets. I watched the Dog Whisperer religiously and corrected many of the negative behaviors of my dogs and dogs in the neighborhood I would petsit. I also watched Animal Planet’s Animal Cops all day long, daydreaming about my future as an officer of the ASPCA, because more than anything, I wanted to save animals. I wanted to do everything in my power to care for and protect them, helping them move through the traumatic responses they were dealing with as a result of abuse. Little did I know how much they would save me.

Despite all the pets I had and the animal-related volunteer work I got involved with, my childhood was difficult. I suffered from mental illness, my father was abusive, and I was chronically ill for the entirety of my middle and high school years. And then in college, I dated a number of manipulative men and was assaulted by one of them. So, the past couple of years have been all about healing for me. And though my loving relationship with my partner has helped me a lot, I needed something more. I officially moved out of my parents’ house, away from the abuse and a lot of the bad memories, and into my partner’s family apartment last summer. In the spirit of healing and in the hopes of getting another helping hand to get me out of bed on the mornings where my schedule was irregular, I got a baby pet rat.

My one-month-old Albino critter, who I named Bean, was the first pet I’d ever had on my own since my mom did much of the work with my animals when I was too young or too sick to be responsible for them. Playing with him and taking him for rides on my shoulder gave me so much joy, while the care and keeping of him was just the jumpstart I needed on days when I was too sad or anxious to do anything but lay in bed. Knowing that Bean would be waiting in his cage to play with me, eager to eat, get his water bottle refilled or get his cage cleaned, I would greet the day no matter what my mood was. A year later, he’s still helping me get through my days, just as an older and chubbier version of himself.

And then, the longer I lived with my partner’s family, the animal friendships multiplied. Formerly afraid of cats, I became great pals with our Calico kitty, Frida. I tend to keep the cat occupied with endless play sessions with her favorite mouse toy, and I clean out her litter box every day. And our recent addition, a Chihuahua named Tahlulah (who is as small and anxious as I am), has become my lap-warmer for the days I spend in the apartment writing by myself. Taking care of all three animals has given my days a much greater sense of purpose, and helps me distract myself from the sudden mood swings that I’m prone to.

Just by having any responsibility to these animals helps me feel more comfortable with easing into daily interactions with my partner’s parents, something that was initially difficult for me as I was hung up on the fact that I might be perceived as a mooching stranger. But my animal responsibilities have helped me feel like I’m truly part of the family, making me more comfortable with coming out of my partner and my shared bedroom to socialize with their lovely parents. And since I know so much about the care and behavior of animals, their reliance on me for critter-related guidance has helped me build up my confidence even further. I feel like I get to give back to the universe for bringing so many centering beings into my life by giving them all the loving they need. And of course, snapping the occasional photo when they’re being TOO cute is a fun time as well.

I’ve been through a lot of trauma and abuse in my life, and continue to struggle with multiple health issues (both physical and mental), but the gentle and unconditional nature of my animals’ love helps nurture me and heal from the darker times in my life. Because although I have intense social anxiety, my connection with animals has always come easily to me. And now that I get to enjoy the constant companionship of three very special animals, I’m really beginning to understand just how therapeutic animals really can be. Bean, Tahlulah, and Frida help me get out of bed everyday, remind me to engage in self care rituals with their own daily needs, and never fail to make my whole body relax when we play, cuddle, or exchange kisses. And as someone who has struggled to find balance and peace for years, that’s pretty powerful stuff.

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