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Emotional Support Animals and Recovery

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People in recovery from alcohol or drug addiction may find that emotional support animals can be an invaluable resource. Those in recovery might find themselves without the friends they had before recovery and not visiting the places they once did. New friends, acquaintances, new places can make someone feel insecure and uncomfortable. Your new, healthier, substance-free life may seem more isolating than your old life before recovery.

Additionally, those struggling with a co-occurring disorder, such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD, may find the added stress of managing a mental health disorder overwhelming. It may seem like there are insurmountable challenges in this new post-substance use life.

Fortunately, there are good resources available for you that can provide assistance, encouragement, and support and even may help you make new friends and enjoy healthier activities. Some of the new changes in your life might include an emotional support animal.

What Is an Emotional Support Animal?

There are several different types of assistance animals in our society, such as service dogs, therapy dogs and horses, and emotional support animals.

Service animals, primarily dogs, are specifically trained to learn and respond to their owner’s needs. Service dogs might be guide dogs or dogs that retrieve objects that their owner may not be able to easily get to because of a physical disability. 

Under the Americans with Disabilities (ADA), “a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.” 

The ADA also states that a service animal does not have to wear a vest that indicates it is a service animal. Some organizations that train service dogs do provide a certificate when training is complete, but the ADA states that they do not convey any rights under the ADA.

Emotional Support Animals

A person in recovery may obtain an emotional support animal, like a dog or cat that gives them the affection, unconditional love, and support they need. The American Kennel Club notes that an emotional support animal (ESA) “provides emotional support and comfort that helps (people) deal with challenges that might otherwise compromise their quality of life.” 

An ESA must be prescribed by a therapist, psychiatrist, or psychologist who determines that the animal’s presence is needed for the mental health of the patient. Emotional support animals should not be confused with service animals.

That said, how can an emotional support animal help in recovery?

 Benefits of Emotional Support Animals in Recovery

There is no denying that animals can provide the kind of support you may need in substance use recovery.

Emotional support animals, such as dogs or cats, may help you with transitioning back into daily life by way of providing you with a regular daily routine. Animals need to be fed, given fresh water daily, and need exercise to remain healthy.

Animals can lower cortisol levels (a stress-related hormone) and lower blood pressure, as indicated by the National Institutes of Health. Animals can also decrease loneliness, increase your feelings of social support, and boost your mood. The most immediate effects of an emotional support animal are unconditional love and companionship. Plus, animals are rarely judgmental.

When in active addiction, your brain is often filled with dopamine, the powerful neurotransmitter that’s associated with the feelings of pleasure and reward. When in recovery, an emotional support animal can naturally increase the feelings of pleasure and reward. Those feelings can also increase your sense of confidence, create happiness, and give you an overall sense of well-being. An emotional support animal may also:

  • Decrease your level of stress
  • Decrease self-isolating behavior
  • Prevent relapse
  • Help you to open up in therapy sessions
  • Develop a new daily routine that is not focused solely on yourself
  • Help you develop a new sense of purpose

Emotional Support Animals and People with Co-Occurring Disorders

Someone with a co-occurring disorder has a substance use disorder and a mental health disorder. Examples are:

  • Substance Use Disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Substance Use Disorder and Anxiety
  • Substance Use Disorder and Depression

If you have a co-occurring disorder, an emotional support animal may be of significant value to you. Emotional support animals can help you in a variety of ways. Some of them include:

  • Easing anxiety by pawing, nudging, or leaning
  • Distract you from a specific occurrence by licking, pawing, or nudging
  • Wake you up when you are having night terrors or nightmares
  • Create a personal space for you in crowds by standing in front of you or circling you
  • Notice when a panic attack is about to occur and lead you to safety

How Animal-Assisted Therapy Can Be Beneficial in Recovery

As mentioned above, there are many ways in which emotional support animals can be helpful when you are in recovery. It might also be useful to know that animal-assisted therapy (AAT) could be a good resource for you.

Animal-assisted therapy has been in use since the 1860s when Florence Nightingale found that animals were helpful to her patients.  Dogs, cats, ferrets, rabbits, and other animals involved in AAT can be quite beneficial for you as you continue through recovery. It can:

  • Help remove psychological and social obstacles
  • Encourage you to engage in a group setting
  • Change your patterns of thought and behavior
  • Increase your internal strength
  • Give you meaning and spur meaningful activities
  • Give you hope

If you feel you are not worthy of love or that there is “something wrong with me,” emotional support animals in AAT will remind you that you are worthy of love, and there is nothing wrong with you.

Some people in recovery may feel isolated from the people who were once very present in their lives during active addiction. Animals have the healing power of dissolving feelings of isolation by the simple act of showing you love. The wag of a dog’s tail, the purr of a cat, a nose bump with a rabbit are signs of instant love and acceptance.

How to Become Involved with Emotional Support Animals

If you do not have a pet but feel an emotional support animal would be a good addition to your recovery, there are other avenues to pursue. If your therapist approves, check with local animal shelters to see if they need any volunteer help. Imagine the emotional support you can give back to an animal in need. 

Some recovery centers offer equine therapy. Some local stables might also need volunteer help or run a program for people in therapy. The small act of giving back might even boost your mood, self-confidence, level of happiness, and feelings of worthiness.

Never Alone

The recovery journey does not have to be a lonely, self-isolating time. It can be filled with activities that you enjoy, meeting and sharing stories with new people who are in the same situation, and relearning who you are and why you are worthy of love.

Animals can be the panacea for you. Whether you have a beloved animal at home or have just met one in therapy, emotional support animals might be the one thing you need to continue on the road to recovery.

Sources

ADA National Network. Southwest ADA Center. (2014) Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals. Brennan, J., Nguyen, V. from https://adata.org/guide/service-animals-and-emotional-support-animals

American Kennel Club. (2019, October 3) Everything You Need to Know About Emotional Support Animals. Gibeault, S. MSc, CPDT. from https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/news/everything-about-emotional-support-animals/

National Institutes of Health. NIH News in Health. (2018 February) The Power of Pets. from https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2018/02/power-pets

PDR Resources. (2017, January 3) Animal Assisted Therapy – A Brief History. Brady, L.J., MA, CCC-SLP, CAS. from https://blog.pdresources.org/animal-assisted-therapy-a-brief-history/

The Dog People. The Role of Assistance Dogs in Recovering from Substance Abuse. from https://www.rover.com/blog/role-assistance-dogs-recovering-substance-abuse/

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