There’s no disputing that owning a pet can reduce your anxiety in general, but those working through social anxiety are particularly benefited by having a companion animal. If your life is severely impaired by social anxiety, you might benefit from not just a pet, but from an emotional support animal (ESA). If you’re disabled by anxiety, you may see great improvements by adding a service animal to your emotional toolbox (along with therapy and medication.)
The Health Benefits of Pet Ownership
There are numerous studies surrounding the health benefits of owning and working with animals. According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pets can decrease your cholesterol levels, the level of triglycerides in your blood and lower your blood pressure. Even though these are physical benefits, social anxiety warriors know that improvements in physical health can improve your mental outlook. When you feel bad physically, your anxiety can worsen and your outlook on life can become grim.
Pet ownership has also been shown to decrease feelings of loneliness and isolation. Additionally, the CDC cites pets as providing an increase in opportunities for outdoor activity, physical activity and increased socialization, all of which can be beneficial for those working through social anxiety.
The medical journal “Science” also published a study wherein researchers found that merely staring into the eyes of a dog can boost levels of oxytocin – the body’s natural “feel good” chemical, which reduces anxiety and increases feelings of bonding and affection between humans and animals alike.
The Drawbacks of Animals for Anxiety
Here’s the thing: Animals require care. Different animals require different types of care. If your anxiety is such that you’re unable to leave the house to reach the privacy of your yard, you won’t be able to provide the type of care a dog needs. In this case, a cat or a caged pet might be a better fit for your lifestyle.
If you know you have trouble remembering things, a caged pet or a pet that lives in an aquarium or terrarium might not be a good fit for you, as these animals rely on you to remember to clean their habitat and socialize with them on a regular basis.
If you can’t provide proper and adequate care for your companion animal, you might experience guilt, doubt and a lapse in self-confidence, all of which can worsen social anxiety. Choosing the right pet for your lifestyle from the get-go can circumvent this.
You might also find that pets can have a negative effect on your mental health if you’re prone to depression as well as social anxiety. Cases in point include discovering that your new pet’s personality is incompatible with your own or finding yourself pre-emptively mourning your pet’s passing immediately after adopting it.
Companion Animals, Support Animals and Service Animals
There’s a marked difference between companion animals (pets), emotional support animals and service animals. Pets are what most people have: a dog, cat or another animal that lives with them.
Emotional support animals are like pets, but serve a specific purpose in their owner’s life. If you’re impaired but not disabled by your social anxiety, you can benefit from having an emotional support animal in your life. Emotional support animals aren’t specially trained to minimize or mitigate your social anxiety, so they aren’t afforded the same protections as service animals. However, some jurisdictions do afford emotional support animals more legal protections than pets.
Service animals are specifically trained by a professional to mitigate your social anxiety. A dog trained to alert you to a panic attack and lead you away from overwhelming situations is one example of a service dog for mental illness. Service animals are protected under the law and are allowed anywhere their owner goes – even in places where pets aren’t normally permitted.
If you decide to work with an animal to improve your social anxiety, you may have problems finding adequate housing. Even if your housing is pet-friendly, your neighbors can try to make life difficult if your animal is seen as a nuisance or distraction. Not all people are understanding or ethical in this regard.
Pets are afforded no protections under the law. Only some jurisdictions provide limited protections to emotional support animals and service animals are definitely protected under the law. Having proper documentation for the latter two types of companion animals is crucial.
As far as documentation goes, there is no one type of acceptable documentation. Any organization, service or individual who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something. There’s no official ID or registry for ESAs or service animals.
A letter from your psychiatric health care professional or other health care professional stating your need is acceptable documentation for ESAs, but it still won’t get you around “no pet” laws – and rightfully so, as ESAs are not service animals.
Legally speaking, you aren’t required to produce documentation for your support dog, even if asked. The only time documentation might come into question is during travel or in a court of law. Any business or entity that demands proof is in direct violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Even so, if you must provide proof that your animal is a service animal, it’s necessary to prove that you’re disabled by social anxiety and your dog is trained (and not just naturally inclined) to mitigate the symptoms of your anxiety. To prove disability, medical records or an SSDI determination letter are acceptable. To prove training of your service animal, you’ll need logs from the trainer or a service dog certification from an accredited program, as well as independent evaluation by a qualified trainer. Even then, you could be required to demonstrate the dog’s training and abilities before a court of law, in the event of any litigation.
When you work with an emotional support animal, you have the same rights as a pet owner. Your emotional support animal is not allowed in shops, businesses or public places unless it’s stated emphatically and publicly that the establishment is pet-friendly.
If you have a service dog, however, you are allowed to have your service dog accompany you everywhere. Under law, a business owner is permitted to ask only two questions of you: Is your dog a service dog and what is he or she trained to do?
While a business owner or manager is not allowed to inquire as to the nature of your disability, some people find the second question invasive. Your service dog’s trainer or medical professional can help you formulate – and practice delivering, if necessary – an answer that does not reveal the nature of your disability but still satisfies the requirement for an answer to the question.
Are Pets Beneficial for Social Anxiety?
Pets, emotional support animals, service animals and companion animals are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, beneficial to those working with social anxiety. The physical and emotional benefits of pet ownership can lead to a healthier, fuller life and can help provide means and motivation to work through social anxiety.
More serious cases of social anxiety may allow you to use a service animal, which is a legitimate aid in treating your anxiety just like therapy or medication, providing you with legal protections for a trained, recognized service dog.