Spring is my favorite season of the year. Spring is when beekeepers can get inside the hives and check on the bees. The daffodils are blooming, and spring wildflowers are everywhere. I make tea with dandelion blossoms, and I can eat my weight in hot cross buns. Yet spring is not always a happy time for everyone. I was shocked when I read that suicide rates spike in spring, not in the dreary winter as many people might guess. Depression is an ever growing global problem that was made significantly worse during the pandemic. A recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation stated that 26.2% of Americans reported symptoms of depressive disorder over the last 12 months. Clearly the need exists to develop strategies for managing depression. As someone who struggles with periodic bouts of depression, I have spent significant time researching tools that can help manage this unwanted guest that periodically takes up residence in my brain. One of my favorite coping strategies is dog ownership. Canine companions can be really helpful in managing symptoms of depression.
Disclaimer – Before I go any further let me clearly state that I am not providing medical advice, and I am not a healthcare professional. I am a blogger who once wrote about how my pumpkins are male chauvinists, so don’t design your treatment plan based on my writings. Some people with depression may require medical intervention such as medication, and that is a decision to make with your healthcare provider. If you are severely depressed and considering self-harm, contact the National Suicide hotline or seek emergency medical treatment.
If you don’t know what depression feels like, then I am really happy for you. Some people describe depression as seeing the world only in shades of grey with no color. (This is a metaphor people use. Otherwise you might get the idea that the problem is color blindness instead of depression.) I have also heard depression described as feeling like you are in a long dark tunnel. I think depression feels like you are walking in a swimming pool in waist high water with a talking parrot on your shoulder. You know where you want to go and what you want to do, but even the simplest task feels like it requires extraordinary effort. Meanwhile the parrot says nasty stuff to you while you are struggling such as, “Everything is pointless. It doesn’t matter, so why bother.” That parrot is ruthless.
Here is how dogs can be a powerful weapon in the fight for maintaining good mental health.
- Dogs make you move. – Studies have shown that exercise is very important in fighting off depression. Some studies suggest that exercise is as effective at treating mild depression as prescription antidepressants. When you are depressed, you may not have the ambition to go to a gym and workout. You may just want to stay on the couch and binge watch Netflix, but you can’t if you have a dog. Dogs need to be walked, which gets you moving and helps you exercise. Even if you have a dog like our German shepherd Forte who doesn’t like to take walks, you still need to go outside and move around while you play with your dog.
- Dogs get you outside. – Spending time in nature has been shown to help manage anxiety and depression. Feeling the sun on your face and seeing trees and flowers and grass can all help in elevating your mood. Unless you have a doggie treadmill in your house and a doggie litter box, you are going to have to take your dog outside multiple times a day.
- Dogs keep you on a schedule. – You may want to sleep late, but my desire to do this has never outweighed my desire to keep a steaming pile of dog poo off my carpet. Dogs need to be taken outside to relieve themselves, so you have to get up at the same time each day. Some of you may have dogs that can self-regulate their eating. You fill up their bowl in the morning, and the happy canine nibbles along all day without your intervention. My dogs aren’t like this. Breakfast is at 5:00 am, and dinner is at 3:30 pm. If I am late for breakfast, Forte wakes me up. If I am late for dinner, Carmen glares at me until I get her food.
- Dogs force you out of your head. – Overthinking or ruminating on negative thoughts can worsen depression. Being too much “in your head” is a real danger for certain personality types. Petting your dog focuses your brain on pleasant tactile sensations and can help disrupt those negative thought patterns.
- Dogs don’t judge. – Many libraries allow young children to read to trained dogs because children don’t feel self-conscious when they make reading mistakes if they are reading to a dog. Dogs don’t judge your mistakes. They love you for you. They don’t tell you to snap out of your depression or give you all the reasons why they think you shouldn’t feel depressed. They just sit there with you. – As I was writing this I thought of one time a dog has judged me. If I accidentally let the water bowl go dry, Forte will stand by the bowl and look at me with such disgust as if to say, “I can’t believe you let this happen.” Other than that, dogs don’t judge.
- Rescue dogs are powerful reminders that bad times don’t last. – The five points above apply to all dogs, but I think rescue dogs can offer one additional benefit to a person fighting depression. Rescue dogs remind you that even though your situation seems bad right now, that doesn’t mean your situation will stay that way forever. Carmen spent six weeks in a foster home before she was adopted by us. It was a nice foster home, but Carmen spent most of the day in a crate. Carmen loves to be outside in the yard, so I am sure the crate time was hard for her. Before she was rescued by the foster organization, she was in a high kill animal shelter in one of the poorest areas in Kentucky. Animals are killed in that shelter if they aren’t adopted within 7 days. I think about what it must have been like for Carmen in that animal shelter. Was she afraid? Did she sleep on concrete all night? Now Carmen gets to spend sunny days happily patrolling her yard for squirrels and birds. Every night she gets treats, a full body rub down, and tucked in under a fleece blanket. Carmen leads a pampered life now, but once she was alone and abandoned. Carmen reminds me daily that even if things feel very bad at the moment, good things are still possible.
Look for a future post about how gardens can be useful in fighting depression. You can also find other posts about my dogs here and here. If statistics are true, then dozens of people reading my post know what it is like to struggle with depression. I hope my story has helped you in some small way. Remember that you aren’t alone, and you can always reach out to me through my contact link on www.marriedwithbees.com.