A natural calming agent – with a heartbeat - Cape Cod Healthcare

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Published on July 10, 2017

A natural calming agent – with a heartbeatA natural calming agent – with a heartbeat

Can anything top the calm you feel when a cat is cuddled on your lap purring to be petted?  Does it make you smile just thinking about how happy your dog will act when you get home?

You aren’t imagining the sense of well-being pets bring to your life.  Science supports the positive impact they can have on your mood and health.

The pleasure we feel when we are with animals causes the body to produce oxytocin, a natural calming agent that helps lower blood pressure, explained Sandra Sawyer, a psychotherapist in Dennis.  It is accompanied by a decrease in cortisol, a stress hormone, she added.

Sawyer is a passionate animal lover who routinely makes pet therapy part of her practice. She has two dogs, two cats, and two horses. All of them bring comfort to her and her family, and the dogs, she says, are her co-therapists in her practice.

 “I have clients who request appointments on days when the dogs will be in the office,” she said.  “Pets are very comforting to people because animals are so innocent, kind, entertaining, fun and funny!  Our lives are complex.  Animals have the natural ability to help us relax and focus, showing us how to live in the moment.”

People benefit by living in the present, thinking about something joyful instead of their problems, and seeing the beauty in the moment.  Examples of animal-assisted therapy are varied and growing.

  • Pets are helping vets returning from war, children with anxiety disorders and elderly people struggling with loneliness.
  • The principal at Nauset Middle School in Orleans brings a dog to school for children who are anxious; students are able to quiet and calm themselves while petting the friendly pooch in the principal’s office.

Science supports pet therapy

Scientific studies support the benefits of pet therapy or of simply having a pet.

For instance, a study published in BMC Psychiatry says pets can help people manage their long-term mental health conditions.  Respondents say their pets provide:

  • An immediate source of calm
  • Acceptance without judgment
  • Validation through unconditional support
  • Distractions from symptoms and upsetting experiences

Pets are also considered particularly useful during times of crisis—and Sawyer shared one of those incredible breakthroughs.

The day after she was sexually assaulted, a young girl sat in Sawyer’s office, frightened and unable to articulate her feelings. She was in a state of post traumatic stress.

Sawyer’s rescue dog, who had also been mistreated by her previous owner, sensed the young girl’s pain, stood, left her own safe, familiar place in the room, and gently placed her head on the victim’s lap. The young girl began stroking the dog.

Soon, the girl began to cry. The dog didn’t budge except to nestle closer to the young girl in need.

Sawyer instinctively allowed both to quietly connect before explaining to the rape victim and her mother:  “This dog was abused herself, and through a lot of love and guidance, she has been able to heal from what happened to her.  Just like my dog learned to trust again, I hope you can trust that people can help you.”

The young girl began to cry harder, shaking as she sobbed.

By the end of the session, the young girl was talking—the first steps to healing.

“My dog is my co-therapist,” Sawyer affirmed.  “She could feel this girl needed comforting.  Although this rescue dog seldom left my side because she was so timid, she walked over to comfort the young rape victim.”

Pets have a kind of simple grace that people can connect with.

“In the presence of animals, people can become calm and grounded very quickly,” said Sawyer.  “We have a lot to learn from animals if we allow ourselves to be open to them, focusing solely on them as they do on us.”