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:
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!