Breathe, relax or meditate, but don't count on your pet to reduce anxiety.
I was on a recent teletherapy call with an anxious young college student. Let's call him Robbie. Halfway in he told me he thought he needed an ESA.
"ESA?" I thought. "Is that one of those texting anagrams I should know, like FOMO or YOLO?"
Before I had a chance to ask, Robbie said that having his long-time companion, his adored tabby, in his dorm room would make his anxiety manageable.
It came to me in a flash: Emotional Support Animal. I'd read about these.
A quick Google search after the call revealed that people are contacting teletherapy services, like the one I took Robbie's call on, to obtain virtually (pun intended) immediate certification to have their ERAs in dorms, pet-unfriendly apartments, and on airplanes.
Happily, I'd punted and suggested that, since he said the college counseling office at his school was "certifying" people to have ERAs, he ought to contact them if he thought it would be helpful.
I say happily because I didn't know step-one about what makes a pet certification-eligible. I never heard from him again which told me that his stated intention for teletherapy, to reduce his anxiety, was merely a ploy to get said certification.
I was relieved to be off the hook even before I read a recent scholarly article cautioning psychologists about providing such certifications.
The piece revealed that we assume being in the presence of animals has a therapeutic effect on people, "an assumption that does not appear to have substantial foundation in science."
The media was also blamed for incorrectly leading people "to believe that ESAs are effective for mitigating mental health problems."
Witness this headline that recently caught my eye, "How therapy chickens are helping people with anxiety." Really?
Just to be perfectly clear, I am NOT talking about Service Animals, regulated by the Federal government, which are animals (not pets) individually trained to perform tasks for disabled people.
Let me also clarify that there is a difference between the benefits of having a pet, and saying that a pet has a therapeutic effect on a psychiatric disorder like anxiety.
Pet owners, in one series of studies, were found to be healthier on a number of psychological dimensions and measures of well-being, like self-esteem, and they were less lonely and introverted.
But this does not mean that having a pet will significantly reduce serious anxiety or depression.
That same series of studies revealed that 25 percent of married or cohabitating pet-owners say their pet is "a better listener than their spouse." This concerns me, as does the comment I read in one article about ESAs: "Do I have to go to therapy to get a paper to keep an ESA?"
In other words, why talk to your spouse about problems or try therapy for your anxiety when you can just drag your pet around with you and talk to it?
Don't get me wrong, I love my kitties. They bring me joy, comfort and provide me with great company. I also love my partner, but I think he's a much better listener than either of my cats.
Notwithstanding the recent study finding that dogs understand language, I know my partner is a better listener because he's human. Not only does he comprehend everything I'm saying, he can respond in kind.
I also love my clients, some of whom have pets. But I don't think any find their pet a substitute for psychotherapy.
As I explained to Robbie, there were a number of things he might try to do to reduce his anxiety. Each of my suggestions was much more likely to significantly impact his anxiety than dragging his tabby to his dorm.
Instead of trying to find a mental health professional to confirm your need for an ERA, or paying one of those registries to certify your pet, put your energy to better use with effective strategies like these:
- Anxiety reduction (breathing, questioning problematic thoughts, positive self-talk).
- Stress reduction (meditation, music, getting in motion, gratitude).
- The relaxation response attained through a series of steps to relax the body and mind.
- Holding yourself accountable for using breathing, stress reduction or relaxation techniques regularly.
- Identifying issues in your life that might be contributing to your anxiety and spending time figuring out how to address said issues.
- Taking a hard look at your diet, sleep and exercise and working on needed adjustments.
- Considering whether you need a psychotherapist to assist you in customizing techniques that work for you and holding you accountable for practicing those techniques.
- Considering whether medication is appropriate to help you reduce anxiety.
I hate the fact that Robbie probably left our teletherapy session feeling like he didn't get what he needed. But I hope I planted the seeds that relaxation, exercise, sleep, a good diet and some time management skills might be more helpful to him at school, in the long run, than his beloved tabby.
Judith Tutin, PhD, ACC, is a licensed psychologist and certified life coach. Connect with her at drjudithtutin.com where you can request a free coaching call to bring more passion, fun and wellness to your life.