The Benefits of Pets in Recovery

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Artwork inspired by FreehandMagic on Instagram and Etsy

 

Over the couple of weeks, I've been recovering from surgery, and, though it ended up being a relatively easy process compared to others I've had, it's still never a fun experience. (Though, to be fair, playing Scrabble with my mom while watching Hallmark Christmas movies was pretty enjoyable!).

Recovery in the physical sense it tough, and I've made it a little bit more challenging on myself by diving into Russell Brand's amazing book, Recovery: Freedom From Our Addictions, while in rest-up mode. The book is so good — I'd recommend it to anyone, even those who don't have substance abuse issues — but it's definitely put me on a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. (One of the highs: seeing my pup, Barkley, featured on Russell's Instagram page!)

As I've been working through physical and emotional pain, I've discovered one incredibly beneficial resource that I don't read about often enough: my dog. Studies have show that pet ownership, or just being in the presence of a companion animal, is associated with health benefits, including improvements in mental, social, and physiologic health status. Animals can have a majorly positive impact on our lives, but my awareness of this impact seems to be heightened when it comes to recovery of any kind. 

Recovery, of course, requires assistance from humans, too, but there's something different and powerful about the presence of an animal. Here are some of the benefits I've experienced, in both physical and substance-related recovery, as a result of having a dog in my life: 

 

COMFORT

Probably the most basic of all recovery benefits is the comfort spending time with an animal brings. It's been shown that playing with or petting a pet can help lower oxytocin levels in the brain, which helps you feel more relaxed and less stressed — two factors that definitely help with the anxiety that comes with any kind of recovery. Most of us who have pets know that petting an  animal is calming, and it's also been shown to help keep blood pressure levels lower. Pets also offer physical warmth. I've noticed that warmth — a cozy blanket, clothes fresh out of the dryer, a cup of tea, a soothing bath, or the snuggly body of a pet — really helps with my anxiety. Just feeling the warm pressure of a pup leaning against you (as Barkley is right now as I'm writing this!) can provide additional comfort. 

 

HONESTY

This one tends to apply a bit more to substance recovery, but the benefit is actually pretty universal for anyone who struggles with emotions (who doesn't?!). The great thing about pets is: they can't hide their emotions. When they're afraid or distraught, we know it (especially if we know them well!), and they, in turn, are often tuned into our emotions. This offers a two-fold benefit: (1) they can be a barometer we can use to assess how we're feeling because they'll often mirror our emotional states, and (2) they can inspire us to be more emotionally honest. Many of us (even those without substance abuse histories) try to numb or avoid our emotions, but, through the help of our pets, we can learn that recognizing and expressing emotions doesn't have to be so challenging. (The resistance to feelings is actually way more painful in the end!)

 

COMPASSION

Many animals are able to show compassion for those in emotional or physical pain. Anyone who's had a dog lick her face while she's crying knows that, while pups might not understand complex human emotions, they do appear to understand our feelings in some and often do what they can with their limited communication abilities to convey compassion and even empathy. This compassion can also be easier for some people to accept than the compassion from fellow humans. If you're feeling frustrated by your condition or even envious of those who can do things you cannot (i.e., walking post-surgery or drinking casually without self-destruction), accepting compassion from others can be challenging. With pets, there's no comparison or complex emotional acceptance involved when compassion is offered. The simplicity of it makes it easier to embrace. 

 

SELFLESSNESS

When in recovery of any kind, it can be challenging not to become at least a little self-absorbed. You're in pain and pain's an attention-seeking type of thing. It demands to be felt and attended to, which can lead to some selfish tendencies. While, of course, it's important to attend to pain, focusing too much on it can be dangerous. Pets can take us out of this me-focused mindset because they have many needs they can't attend to on their own — like food, walks, etc. Self-care and self-reflection are important in recovery of any kind, but having a little creature that needs you can be a useful tool for remembering that, despite your pain, the world doesn't (and shouldn't!) revolve around you. Pets give you a purpose, which can be a very big morale boost when you're in a difficult physical or emotional state. 

 

MINDFULNESS

I've written about this countless times before, but pets are such good motivators for staying in the moment. Animals can certainly think about the future and the past, but they tend not to dwell on them the way us humans do. When it recovery, we can learn so much from paying attention to how animals are just able to be. They have the benefit of not having some of the complexities that come with the human brain and, while we might not ever to be able to reach their level of supreme mindfulness, paying attention to how they pay attention be a positively transformative experience. Engaging in certain activities with them (like playing fetch, for example) can also offer opportunities to practice being in the moment. 

 

COMPANIONSHIP

One of the greatest challenges in recovery is the sense of isolation one is likely to feel. Even if you're fortunate enough to have great people around you (thanks, Mom and Dad, for taking care of me!), you're still likely to feel lonely and adrift at times. Other people cannot be by your side 24/7 (nor would you probably want them to be!), but a pet can often be with you most of the time, providing companionship that can ease feelings of loneliness or isolation. While family and friends can provide love and support, unconditional love in the face of recovery can sometimes lead to enabling behavior. Human companionship, no matter how wonderful, is always a bit complex. With pets, it's simple: they love you no matter who you are or what you do, and they don't in any way use that love to enable any behaviors. 

 

SOCIABILITY 

Pets not only give you social interaction with them (no, it's not a substitute for human interaction, but it's still nice), they also give you motivation to get up and socialize with others. (Note: this might just apply to dogs, unless you have a leash for your cat, in which case you're either awesome or have an awesome cat.) When you're in pain (and particularly if you're introverted by nature), getting out and about while in recovery can be hard. If you're physically recovering, you might not really feel up to showcasing your ailment to the world. If it's an emotional kind of recovery, you might feel hesitant or unready to get out and about. But taking a dog for a walk and encountering neighbors can be a simple but effective way to slowly get back to your old self. At the very least, it gets you outside for some fresh air, which I'm pretty sure is good for all kinds of recovery! 

 

PLAYFULNESS

When you're in recovery of any kind, playing isn't really at the forefront of your mind, but pets can bring out a liveliness in you that you didn't realize was there. In general, most adult humans don't do enough playing (at least in my opinion!), and that's one thing pets can be really good at. Playing can have many emotional and cognitive benefits, and even if it's just a short session of tossing the ball or tugging at toy, playing with a pet can really boost your mood — which is a wonderful thing when you're in recovery and might be struggling emotionally. Play also gets you up and moving a bit, which can be beneficial when you either don't feel like (or physically can't) exercise. More endorphins = more healthy mood boosters! 

 

If you're going through any kind of recovery, I hope you have the opportunity to spend time with animals, even if just for a little while. There's something magical about the way they live, and, while it might seem like their lives are simple compared to ours, there's a lot we humans can learn from our four-legged friends. And there are certainly many ways we can benefit from their presence in our lives. If you don't have a pet in your life, you can always check out the adventures (and book recommendations!) of Barkley the Morkie on Instagram! And if you can think of any additional benefits (or even some helpful recovery tips), feel free to leave them in the comments below!  

    

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Seeking Sobriety? 9 Tips for Getting Started


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A little while back, a friend reached out to me and said she'd reached a point in her life where she thought it was time for her to seek out sobriety. She was wondering if I had any advice for her, and, as I was replying to her an email, I realized I was basically writing a blog post (I surprised even myself with how much I had to say on the topic just off the top of my head!).

If you're trying to get sober or even just considering the idea, here are some things I think are really important to know as you're starting out. And if you're not seeking sobriety, these tips still might be useful for you if you're trying to break a bad habit (or even just trying to live a positive and present life!).

 

  1. Surround yourself with people who get it and are encouraging. A lot of people won’t get it, won’t think you have a problem, won’t be very supportive. It’s often because they know that if they say you have a problem, that means that they also might have a problem and they don’t want to deal with that. When I first got sober, I was really lucky to have a partner in my life who gave up drinking in solidarity with me. I honestly don't know if I could have done it while living with someone else who was still drinking. The people you're around make a huge difference in getting and staying sober. 

  2. Don’t put yourself in tempting situations, especially at the beginning. Avoiding parties and social gatherings wasn't too tough for me at the beginning, since I'm pretty introverted by nature, but I did have to learn to pay attention to when I felt most tempted to drink and avoid those occasions. At the beginning, I had to turn down a lot of invitations because I knew I would be way too tempted. Because I started drinking so young, I had to learn how to socialize without alcohol, and that was (still is sometimes) tough, but avoiding temptation is key at the beginning. 

  3. Find something to take up your time and energy. For me, this ended up being Positively Present. I was able to fill my weekends with writing and creating the website, which made it a little easier to not be out drinking. I never would have been able to focus on Positively Present if I'd been hungover, so it became it's own reward, accomplishing something (a blog post) each week that I wouldn't have been able to do while drinking. Distraction and filling up your time with positive, non-drinking activities is essential to avoid not slipping back into old patterns. 

  4. Take it one day at a time. Yes, I know this is the most cliched thing in the world, but it's stuck around because it's true. Whenever I would think about never drinking again, my mind would go into a panic. But if I told myself, I'm not going to drink at this party, it was much easier to cope with than I'm never, ever drinking again. Sometimes I even broke it down further (I'm not going to drink for the next hour / 30 mins / 5 mins, etc.) It sounds silly, but taking that "never ever ever going to drink again" idea away made it so much easier for me. 

  5. Know you’re likely to slip up or have a relapse. Almost everyone I know who has given up drinking has had a relapse. I was eight months sober and then my sister's wedding came around, and the back of the limo with all of that champagne and excitement (and nervousness about my maid-of-honor speech) was just too much for me. It was awful to feel like I lost all of that progress in one night, but the key is not to use a relapse as excuse to give up. I woke up the next day and decided I was going to start over again, and here I am, seven years later! 

  6. Consider going to meetings, like AA, or therapy. It wasn't until I found the right therapist, one with alcohol and addiction expertise, that I realized I had a problem. Because of my environment, I thought my behavior and the repercussions of it were normal, but the right therapist showed me there was a totally different way to live. I also tried AA, but as an atheist, it was a little too god-focused for me, but I know a lot of people who find that community really helpful. 

  7. Make a list of things you’ve done while drinking that were unhealthy. This was one of the first things my therapist had me do, and it was a game-changer for me. When I saw, in writing, all of the ways my life had been negatively impacted by my drinking, it became really difficult for me to justify mixing another drink. Almost every single bad thing that had ever happened to me was a result, directly or indirectly, of alcohol consumption. Once I saw this clearly written out in a list, it became really hard to rationalize my old ways. 

  8. Understand that it’s gonna be really hard at first. Especially at the beginning, it feels really bad. It feels like you're not having fun, that a whole big part of your life is missing, but, I promise, if you stick with it, it gets so much easier. I can't say it's ever easy (there aren't many days when the thought of a drink doesn't cross my mind), but every single time I say no to that impulse, it gets easier. This probably won't be too much comfort in the beginning, but it's always good to have hope that things won't always be as hard. 

  9. Think about your future self. Whenever I'm really struggling, I remind myself that I’ve never once regretted not drinking, but I sure as hell have a regretted drinking many, many times. If you find yourself in a situation where you’re struggling, remember that you'll never wake up regretting that you didn’t drink. Of course, I try my best to stay present, but looking out for your future self — the one who will be waking up and dealing with last night's repercussions — can be really helpful. 


Staying sober is really hard work, but I've always found that the work always pays off. If you're looking for more insights on staying sober, check out the Sobriety section here on Positively Present or my 6 Lessons from 6 Years Sober video. And if you have any questions about how I got and stayed sober, feel free to leave them in the comments below! 

 

    

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Self-Love + Sobriety: The Perks of Being Sober

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Last week I celebrated seven years sober, which is pretty crazy since it seems like just yesterday that I wrote this post: Pick the Weeds, Keep the Flowers: My Year of Sobriety. It's easier now than it was then, but as the Kelly Clarkson sings in the song,"Sober," that inspired that post, "Picked all my weeds, but kept the flowers / But I know it's never really over." As anyone who's sober knows, it's never as easy as it might appear to others. But, even when it's hard, it's worth it. 

Like most of us, I'm still a self-love work-in-progress, but removing alcohol from my life is one of the best things I've ever done for myself. It's hard to even list the benefits I've received since I gave up drinking. When you're newly sober, these things are wondrous gifts, things you never imagined you could experience. But when you've been sober for awhile, you start to take them for granted, the negative memories of the past becoming hazier, and I've found it really helpful to remind myself each year of why I'm doing this, why my life is better because of it. 

Sobriety is one of the ultimate acts of self-love because the positive repercussions of that single choice — not to drink — reverberates throughout your life in ways you might not expect. Sobriety isn't necessary for everyone, but if you've wondered if it's something you should do, here are some of the (many!) perks I've experienced from seven years of sobriety. 

 

NO MORE HANGOVERS

This is probably one of the most obvious ones, but, for me, it's been one of the greatest benefits. I'm typing this post right now at 8:30am on a Saturday morning, a time of day I used to miss out on completely (and if I was awake to see it, I was so plagued by a hangover that my mind was mush). Hangovers used to rob me of entire days of my life. This isn't to say that I still don't have (a lot...) of lazy days where I waste my time now, but when I waste time now, I do so in a more productive way, and I feel a lot less ill while doing it. 

 

MORE FREE TIME

Hand-in-hand in with hangover-free mornings comes more free time. Not only do I wake up earlier and feel well enough to get things done on the weekends, but I also have a lot more free time to do things I actually want to be doing. Without hangovers, my weekends start earlier and, as a result, feel longer. Plus, I spend less time going out, which saves even more time. I still go out, but it's not my priority in the way it once was, leaving more time for things I truly enjoy. 

 

PERSONAL GROWTH

Giving up a big part of your life is hard. Like, really hard. But it's amazing for personal growth. Getting sober has taught me that I can do hard things if I really want to do them. It's shown me how strong I can be, even when I don't feel very strong. It's taught me that, even when you don't do what everyone else is doing. you can still be okay. It's opened my eyes to what matters to me, and helped me re-prioritize my life in so many ways. 

 

EASIER TO SAY NO

When you get sober, you have to say no a lot. I've never been much of a people-pleaser so, while I wasn't one of those people who struggles with the word no, I was the type of person who had a lot of trouble saying no to myself. I still struggle with this a lot. My desire for instant gratification still gets in my way much too often, but practicing the art of saying no to myself — turning drinks I really wanted to indulge in — has helped me get better at saying no to other things I want but shouldn't have. 

 

MOTIVATIONAL MANTRAS

It's no surprise that I love motivation and inspiration, but getting sober opened my eyes to a whole new category of inspiration. Sobriety is a unique experience, and unless you've been through it, you're probably not aware of how truly powerful the right words can be. There have been days when I've read something that made me feel stronger, reminders to keep going that came when I needed them them most. This phenomenon of seeing something at the exact moment you need it most isn't unique to sobriety, but sobriety's made me more aware of it. 

 

SPECIAL ANNIVERSARY

Sometimes it feels a little silly celebrating an anniversary of sobriety (especially seven years in!), but then I'm reminded of all the mistakes not made, all the mornings I woke clear-headed and certain of what I did the night before, all the stress-inducing words I didn't say, all the times I didn't break my own heart, and I can't help but think that all of that deserves a celebration. Plus, who doesn't love a special anniversary to celebrate? 

 

TONS OF LIFE LESSONS

I've learned so much about life just from getting sober. I could write an entire post just on these lessons (some of which I touched on last year's 6 Lessons I Learned from 6 Years Sober), but some of the most important ones I've uncovered since getting sober include: learning who my true friends are, discovering that who I am is more than what I do, and recognizing that avoiding problems doesn't work. (As Frida Kahlo put it: "I tried to drown my sorrows, but the bastards learned how to swim.")

 

MORE MONEY

Seven years in, this one has faded from my mind a bit, but I used to spend so much money on drinks, on getting ready to go drinking, on late-night snacks, on cab rides to and from the bar (no Uber back then!), on hungover breakfasts. With those items removed from my budget (among other spending changes), I was able to save enough to leave my job and pursue my life-long dream. That, alone, is a pretty amazing benefit of sobriety. 

 

FRESH PERSPECTIVE

For me, drinking and going out was a big part of my life. I spent a lot of my time thinking about and preparing for the next opportunity I'd have to go out, and while I do still enjoy going out from time to time, it's not my life's focus. Removing such a big part of my life gave me an opportunity to explore what I really wanted to spend my time on, which is what lead to all of the amazing things I've been able to do with Positively Present.  

 

When I write these sobriety-related posts, it's my hope that someone out there will read it and it will inspire him or her to choose a sober path. It's not the path for everyone, but if you're considering it, I highly recommend it. It's hard as hell sometimes, but benefits outweigh the hardships tenfold. If you want to know more about my journey, here are some things to check out: 

6 Lessons I Learned from 6 Years Sober

Sublime Sobriety (Pinterest Board)

Pick the Weeds, Keep the Flowers: My Year of Sobriety

Sobriety Playlist (YouTube)

Staying Sober Playlist (Spotify)

Positively Present Sobriety Section


If you have questions about my personal experience or want advice on how to get or stay sober, leave a comment below and I'll do my best to reply ASAP! 

 

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