In the emotionally turbulent months after the 2016 election, I spent far too many hours cruising social media and news sites trying to make sense of a world turned upside down. I was frantic in my search for reassurance and community. I consumed information and speculation indiscriminately until my nerves were stretched taut.
When it became too much, I retreated to a place sure to soothe all my jangled emotions, a place where I could escape from the uncertainty and anxiety.
That place? The dog park.
The dog park is a balm for my soul. I can go there and sit in a quiet, shady spot with lots of dogs and people who are happy to discuss nothing but dogs. I get tremendous satisfaction from watching my dog frolic, bright-eyed and curious, as she explores every single new smell in the park. My spirit is lifted, and my blood pressure lowered as I pet all the happy dogs who come over to say hello.
Science is more than happy to tell you that animals are good for what ails you. There are studies about how petting animals lowers your blood pressure and how living with pets can improve mental health. There are papers about the benefits of pets in elder care facilities and how they improve the mood and outlook of residents. Even the FBI employs victim assistance dogs to help crime victims cope with the process of cooperating with investigators. Pets help veterans and others deal with physical and mental trauma.
Having a pet is a major commitment and responsibility, and some people justifiable shy away from taking that on. But for many of us, pets can be a critical element of self-care.
The unconditional love of a pet is like no other.
Truthfully, the company of animals can often be superior to the company of humans. We all joke about being the person who spends an entire party in the kitchen petting the host’s cat but you know what? This is an entirely legitimate coping mechanism if crowds and noise overwhelm you! Pet that kitty, enjoy the purring, and go back to the people when you’re ready.
Spending time with pets is a great way to keep yourself emotionally soothed during the holiday season. Even if your human family relationships are difficult or challenging, your relationship with your childhood dog is probably great. Taking Fido for long walks to escape the complicated feelings that arise from spending lots of time with family is a perfect way to distance yourself without raising any eyebrows.
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Even virtual exposure to animals can be helpful. Flip on the National Dog Show on Thanksgiving and redirect conversations away from stressful subjects. A family debate about the relative merits of pugs versus English bulldogs is far better than a debate about politics. Or you could slide your phone out of your pocket and use the internet for its intended purpose: looking at Twitter feeds of cute animals. I promise you, a few minutes of cat videos will make you exponentially happier.
And if you want to skip out on the holidays altogether, pets give a great cover story. “Gee, mom, I know you really want me to come home so you can emotionally manipulate me and my siblings into open combat over the gravy boat, but I don’t have anyone to watch Fluffy, and I know how much you hate cat hair on the furniture," you might say. "I guess Fluffy and I will just stay home and have Thanksgiving by ourselves.” Then when you wake up on Thanksgiving morning, you can spend the day with a soft kitty cat purring her approval instead of swimming in treacherous filial waters.
Pets are ideal for self-care. They’re loving, ever-present, and good listeners. As Dave Barry once said, “You can say any foolish thing to a dog, and the dog will give you a look that says ‘Wow, you’re right! I never would have thought of that!’”
Seriously, have you ever been mansplained by a dog?
You haven’t. No one has. Because dogs are awesome. Some cats look like they might mansplain, though. But they’d probably be right. Because they're cats.
Let your pet be your partner in life. Let them show you how to love yourself as much as they love you. You won’t regret it.