animals in recovery

How Can Animals Assist in Recovery?

Published on February 26, 2020 by First Responder Wellness

For those in recovery from an addiction or struggling with a mental health disorder, it is important to remember that mental wellness usually requires a multifaceted approach to heal entirely from the inside out, as well as to maintain that level of healing.  Every individual is different, and every treatment plan should cater to the unique needs of the person with the addiction and mental health issues.

For many people struggling with psychological issues, especially those with post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, animals have been found to provide companionship, comfort, reassurance, and a sense of purpose. 

Animals have long been used in the treatment of the elderly and terminally ill, but now experts are increasingly recognizing the power a pet, emotional support animal, or service animal for those working towards mental wellness.  

Pets and ESAs

Having a pet or an emotional support animal has been shown in studies to provide several benefits to those with mental health disorders.  A large part of winning the battle against depression, anxiety, PTSD, and even addiction is overcoming isolation and loneliness.

Dealing with these issues can make you feel alone in the world, and the consequences of extreme mental health issues and addiction often involve the destruction of close relationships.  Having a pet to provide emotional support can help end isolation and give some individuals a sense of purpose. Even for those who are not struggling with serious mental health issues, having a pet has been shown to reduce anxiety, lower rates of depressive symptoms, and generally improve overall satisfaction with life.

Pets require a great deal of care and can often come as a welcome distraction during difficult times.  Additionally, emotional support animals can help their owners stay calm in triggering situations, such as while traveling or in crowded places. However, it is important to note that ESAs are not protected by law in the same ways as service animals, so be sure to check rules and regulations before bringing an emotional support animal into a public space.

Many people choose dogs for the purpose of emotional support because they tend to be easiest to bond with and the most eager to please their human companions.  However, some individuals find comfort in caring for other animals such as cats, birds, and more. 

Animal-Assisted Therapy

In addition to the benefits that come from caring for a pet, some animals work directly with people dealing with mental health disorders and addiction in a therapy environment.  A therapist may use animals to assist in therapeutic techniques in a variety of ways. For example, some therapists may use a dog during sessions that are trained to provide comfort to the patient by sitting near them when they are feeling stressed and letting them pet them for relaxation. 

Having an animal in the room can help some individuals feel safe and help to build the patient-therapist relationship. Additionally, animals may be used in group therapy to improve the interaction between participants. During equine therapy, horses are used to teach patients how to get in touch with and change their own emotions. 

For example, someone who is carrying a great deal of anxiety or worry will have a hard time connecting with a horse because the animal can sense their negative emotions. In order to form a bond with a horse, the individual must first acknowledge their emotions and learn to calm themselves.

These skills can be used later when the individual needs to manage their anxiety or prevent a panic attack.

Service Animals for PTSD

While emotional support animals are important for the health and safety of their owner, it is important to understand the distinction between ESAs and service dogs.  The Americans with Disabilities Act does not protect the rights of those with ESAs, however, it does protect those with service animals specifically trained to perform an action that helps treat a mental health disorder, most commonly PTSD. 

For example, a service dog that is trained to assist someone living with PTSD may be able to retrieve medication when that person becomes incapacitated, wake their owner up during a night terror, search the house for intruders if the individual is experiencing hypervigilance, and ground their handler during a panic attack or flashback. 

In contrast to an ESA who provides support by simply being present, a service dog is skilled and able to perform specific tasks that can be especially helpful to people with PTSD.

Animals and Addiction Recovery

Many people struggling with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with their symptoms.  In doing so, it is common to develop an addiction and further exacerbate mental health issues.

Individuals who seek treatment for addiction must address mental health problems at the same time to achieve and maintain sobriety.  Many people in this situation use animal companionship, therapy, or even service animals to help them manage their symptoms and assist in recovery.

The First Responders Treatment Program at Simple Recovery uses trauma-informed strategies to cater to the unique needs of law enforcement, firefighters, paramedics, and other first responders with substance use disorders and co-occurring mental illnesses. We recognize that first responders encounter job-specific barriers and obstacles that come with the culture of their careers, and that existing stigma may make seeking help for addiction and mental health issues especially difficult.

Addiction does not have to mean the end of your career or a lifetime of struggling with your health and relationships. By taking a holistic approach to treatment and addressing the underlying causes of addiction, Simple Recovery makes it possible for first responders to regain control of every aspect of their wellbeing.

First responders dedicate their lives to protecting their community, and at Simple Recovery’s First Responder Treatment Program, we believe in dedicating our time and expertise to helping these compassionate individuals find a path to lasting sobriety and mental wellness. If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, call us now at 888-743-0490.