Does animal-assisted therapy provide relief from mental disorders?

It is a well-known fact that spending time with pets can make one feel happier, calmer and much more relaxed. The sense of security, healing and unconditional love felt when in proximity to pets can help people take proactive methods to ensure a blissful life. But, can this healthy interaction with animals be converted into a therapeutic tool to create a balance in one’s life?

The American Humane Association has defined animal-assisted therapy (AAT) as, “goal-directed intervention in which an animal is incorporated as an integral part of the clinical health-care treatment process.” While critics have questioned the effectiveness of animal therapies, research has shown that animals possess untapped therapeutic powers that can be beneficial for people suffering from a wide range of psychological and physiological problems.

While dogs and cats are the most common animals used to treat health issues, including depression, horse or equine-assisted therapy (EAP) is also a great way to improve the psychological health of those with mental disorders. EAP is a form of experiential treatment that enables the mental health patient to introspect in order to find happiness. It is extremely useful in mitigating the excruciating pain associated with traumatic experiences.

In an experiential healing, the patient is required to focus on the present while channelizing different emotional experiences associated with a problem and finding answers without the outside help. EPA as a form of experiential therapy used to deal with mental health problems such as behavioral issues, low attention span, anxiety and depression. A common link in all these disorders is social maladjustment and communication failure. With EPA, these can be readily addressed.

Benefits of AAT

While it is well known that having a pet can have a definite impact on one’s psychological well-being, its role in aiding a successful therapy has always been a point of discussion. A successful therapy is one that can harbinger lifelong changes, which not only heal a person but also provide a meaning to his or her life. For the success of any therapy, it is essential that the patient does not fall back to maladaptive behavior once the therapy is over.

Interestingly, studies have revealed that AAT results in long-lasting positive changes. The most important aspect of AAT is that it helps in the development of self-awareness, which is a prerequisite for overcoming major challenges in life. As most animals are uncritical and unbiased, it is easier for a psychotic patient to connect with them. As the therapy progresses, an element of trust is built that makes it easier for the patient to establish healthy relationships with the animals.

Some of the other benefits of the AAT are:

  • Provides a calming effect
  • Helps in inculcating a sense of grooming and hygiene in people diagnosed with depression
  • Promotes the development of nurturing spirit
  • Fostering a healthy relationship especially in those dealing with eating disorders
  • Helps in the development of social skills, especially in those dealing with anxiety disorders
  • Brings in behavioral improvements in children
  • Provides a calming effect on the elderly dealing with brain impairment issues such as Alzheimer’s and Dementia

Research has shown that within 20 minutes of an AAT session, there was a significant drop in stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. There was also a significant increase in hormones associated with happiness. Also known as “health and social inducing” hormones, oxytocin, dopamine and endorphin were found to be released post therapy.

Road to recovery

AAT that began in the 1990s has since gained a widespread popularity. However, most of the times, AAT is used in combination with traditional healing practices, such as talk therapy and medication. AAT is based on the humanistic principle and enables the process of transition from social exclusion to inclusion.

If you or your loved one is suffering from any mental health problems, contact the California Mental Health Helpline for guidance on mental health centers in California offering comprehensive treatment programs. Call us at our 24/7 helpline number 855-559-3923 or chat online with our specialists to get advice on the best mental health rehabilitation centers in California.

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