How Pets Can Significantly Improve Your Mental Health

how pets can improve our mental health

We all know how lockdown has affected people’s mental health this year and pets may have played a key role in our wellbeing. Pets could indeed be lifesavers through a period of social loneliness, but not only then. In so many ways, they can help us live mentally healthier lives! The healing power of the human-animal bond is real.

My story

I was only 22 and still a student when I adopted Miko (the tabby cat in the picture below). I was in the middle of a crisis in my life: I was just back from Australia (I lived 6 months in Brisbane), feeling nostalgic about my experience over there and started to question some of my life choices: Was I studying at the right school? What exactly did I want to do with my life? Where did I see myself in the upcoming years? I didn’t have the answer and I felt lost. Suddenly, the opportunity presented itself to adopt a cat, a friend of a friend didn’t know what to do with their new litter of kittens. We had cats in my family when I was younger so I felt educated enough on the matter, I didn’t hesitate and decided to adopt one of them.

miko and luna in their cat tree

It gave me stability

Another living being was now depending on me and I had no choice but to be responsible and take ownership of my life decisions. Since then, Miko has been the stability I didn’t have with my nomad life: I’ve moved 9 times in France and England within the last 13 years. Cats are creatures of habit and don’t usually enjoy changing their territory so regularly, but he has never seemed too bothered. Or maybe he knew it was my style. He’s the one who picked me after all, not the other way around, and that makes a huge difference.

“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” – Anatole France

Two is better than one

Now that he’s a senior cat (13 cat years is equivalent to 68 human years!), I thought it would be nice to give him a feline friend… A human’s company doesn’t always compensate the special bond they develop with each other. If you think cats are solitary animals who enjoy spending time alone, you couldn’t be more wrong.

I had to separate him from his sister when I adopted him, because I couldn’t afford both of them at the time. She was all black, that’s why I started to look for a similar cat online and found our second cat Luna. Sometimes I wonder if he knows exactly why I picked her. These two are so happy together now, it fills our hearts with joy every time we look at them. Of course they also fight sometimes (like siblings would do) but I know it was meant to be. Do you also believe everything happens for a reason?

miko and luna on the sofa

How pets help you make healthy lifestyle changes

Among all the things I can think of, they:

  • encourage you to exercise and help you lose weight (in case of dogs)
  • encourage playfulness and laughter
  • can make you socialise with other animal lovers (I strongly believe someone who loves animals can’t be a bad person)
  • give you a healthy routine (I have to wake up every day at the same time to feed my cats – no matter what my mood is…)

How pets impact your overall health

And they also:

  • are a great motivator
  • relax and calm your mind when you stroke them
  • can lower your blood pressure in stressful situations
  • are great company and give you a sense of security
  • fulfil the basic human need for touch
  • make you feel needed
  • increase our sense of self-esteem and wellbeing
  • teach you how to live in the moment (they don’t worry about the past or the future)
  • teach kids empathy and sense of responsibility, as well as building better relationships with other people
  • are great help to people in later life, but also to children with ADHD or autism

Note: By no means I recommend you to adopt a pet as the solution if you’re temporarily feeling anxious, depressed or lonely. An animal is a huge responsibility and it’s important not to take this decision lightly. A good animal charity would ensure your home is suitable for them. They’re not “just for Christmas”, or “just for lockdown” either.

Do you believe in the pet effect and the human-animal bond? You can get involved, support HABRI (the Human Animal Bond Research Institute) by: donating, becoming an advocate or simply staying informed!

Big Girl x

How to Deal With Uncertainty

If you read about my Fijian experience, you know how I found myself stranded in a foreign country far away from home, not knowing when I’ll be able to leave. I had to take a step back from the situation I was trapped in and learn how to appreciate the good things, I had a lot of time to reflect. The uncertainty was the hardest part but that was also an opportunity to test my ability to chin up and not fall into a black hole.

Besides the panic and anxiety level rising quickly, I felt powerless and vulnerable, caught like a rat in a cage. What can you do to preserve your mental health in this situation? Below are the 3 lists I made for myself at the time.

Things I felt grateful for:

  • A roof over our heads
  • No need for medical assistance or medications
  • Access to food and water
  • Some money in our bank accounts
  • Internet to stay in touch with the rest of the world
  • Friends and family
  • My fiancé

Things I missed / wished we could do (so I can appreciate them better when I’ll be able to do them again):

  • The most obvious one was our liberty of movement – Just being able to book a flight and go wherever we wanted…
  • Open the windows wide and get some fresh air (it was very hot and humid, sometimes stormy, in Fiji during wet season)
  • Go for a long walk
  • Shop online (it’s silly but I missed Amazon Prime)
  • Go to the restaurant (or order a takeaway – Pizza!)
  • Bake a nice cake
  • Go to the cinema
  • Watch movies on Netflix (or just UK TV channels)
  • Take a warm bath
  • Sleep in our own bed
  • Cuddle our cat (I missed my feline friend so much)
  • Feeling at “home”

My learnings from this whole experience:

  • Don’t postpone things too much, we never know what happens in life
  • Don’t wait until it’s too late to do what makes you happy
  • Don’t “save the best for last”
  • Identify who you need in your life and who is toxic to you
  • Prioritise your health, you owe it to yourself
  • Going through challenges together makes your relationship stronger
  • It doesn’t take much to be happy, it’s all about simple things
  • Be thankful for what you have, every day
  • You’ll never get back the time you wasted
  • Don’t force yourself to do something you don’t want to do
  • Don’t think “it’s not going to happen to you”
  • Mental health has a strong impact on your immune system
  • Even when you feel lonely, you’re not alone
  • There is no rainbow without any rain…

It’s important for me to go back to these lists regularly and remember nothing can be taken for granted. Everyone should have the chance to realise how lucky they are because their situation can change anytime, without notice.

“There are only two days in the year that nothing can be done. One is called yesterday and the other one is called tomorrow, so today is the right day to love, believe, do, and mostly live.”

Dalai Lama

What have you learnt since the pandemic started?

Big Girl x

Stuck in Paradise? Not Really…

Stuck in paradise

Let me go back to the most traumatic experience of my life. It was something that on paper most people would probably dream of… Which makes it even worse. Let me explain.

Earlier this year my fiancé and I were travelling. We were in New Zealand when the pandemic was officially becoming a worldwide problem. Our next destination was Fiji and they had no case at the time. We thought we would be much safer there, perfect occasion to rest a bit before our last destination (Japan). But things didn’t go as planned and everything escalated so quickly… We didn’t see it coming. Maybe we underestimated the danger at that time. Maybe we didn’t feel anxious enough to make a better decision (the right dose of anxiety can be useful sometimes!). But most importantly, we refused to let go so easily on our once-in-a-lifetime travelling experience. We paid the price for it though, we got stranded for 3 weeks in Fiji.

Our first days in Fiji

For the first few days we were in a rather empty holiday resort. Their first case of coronavirus was diagnosed a day after we arrived. Day after day, everything closed down: the gym, most of the restaurants, even the swimming pool. Of course no activity was available and the number of employees at the resort was decreasing quickly. It was pretty scary and we started to feel like we shouldn’t be here. 3 days later, our flight to Japan was cancelled. We had to accept the fact that we had no choice but to go back home earlier than planned… Although it was not so simple.

How we tried to leave

We booked ourselves a last minute flight to London via Brisbane and Singapore. But once at the airport and ready to leave, we found out Singapore has closed its borders, even for people transiting only. We were also informed we needed an authorisation from Australia to stop there too, which contradicted what the British embassy told us the day before when we called them for reassurance. So we couldn’t board on that plane and there was no other flight available for us. Breathe… The next day, we came back to the airport and talked to the embassy again. They were clearly overwhelmed by the situation. A handful of trapped tourists was doing the same thing but no one had any idea what to do.

stranded in Fiji

How we got stranded

A couple of days later, the Fijian Government made the decision to close the airport completely. No planes were authorised to fly off abroad. That’s how we got trapped in a tiny island far far away from home. It was not pleasant at all, we didn’t know how long the situation was going to last… The uncertainty was difficult to cope with. It wasn’t like we could ignore the situation and enjoy our holiday no matter what, everything was closed and the atmosphere not so good.

So we rented an apartment near the airport and stayed inside all day, only going out for necessary food shops around the corner (our diet was mainly based on rice, tuna and sweetcorn). We were using our free time to reflect on things we were grateful for, things we wished we could do (so we could appreciate them more once back home) and what changed in our mindset. The list is long but the main thing we took out of this experience is that when everything is uncertain, everything that is important becomes clear. I’ll come back more in detail to the entire list in another post.

How we finally escaped

It’s actually a tropical cyclone that saved us. The Fijian Government wanted to protect their brand new planes and agreed to let them fly abroad, using desperate tourists to absorb the costs at the same occasion of course. That day was 6 months ago today, the day we finally escaped that nightmare. I feel like I can relate to people who have been released from a foreign prison for a crime they didn’t commit.

This experience taught me many things. Sometimes you just don’t know what people are really going through. I heard so many times: “Well I would love to be stuck in Fiji, it doesn’t seem so bad!”. Although I can understand why some people would say that, I think it’s also particularly inappropriate and shows a lack of empathy. It made me become less judgemental and more understanding of others. I don’t make the mistake anymore to underestimate the impact that words can have on people. We need kindness now more than ever. Stay safe all!

Big Girl x

How to Deal With Anxiety

I would have never described myself as someone anxious by nature. I always saw anxiety as a form of weakness. A couple of years ago, one of my friends suddenly cancelled all the upcoming plans we had together, including a weekend in Iceland. She said she was going through a lot of anxiety and panic attacks. At the time, I pretended to be understanding but in reality I couldn’t really understand what would cause this behaviour. We haven’t seen her for a couple of months and one day she said she wanted to meet up again. I found her slimmed down a lot (she was already slim) but back to her normal self, almost cried when she said “Girls, you don’t know how happy I am to see you again today”. What was that invisible monster who did that to her?

Now I know better. Anxiety is not a form of weakness. Anyone can experience anxiety at some point in their life. Like I said, I would have never described myself as an anxious person… Until this year. For example, I experienced anxiety twice already in the last 2 weeks:

Situation 1 – Going out with friends for lunch

I had this lunch planned at the restaurant with 2 ex-colleagues I haven’t seen for a year. It required using public transport as we live opposite sides of London. I was really looking forward to seeing them but I was scared of travelling by myself. I already postponed this lunch several times and I wanted to see them before another potential lockdown.

Environment

We were officially entering a second wave of covid19 infections, new rules have been put in place in restaurants and public places. It’s allowed to meet up with people from different households, up to 6 people max.

Thoughts

I have not taken the tube by myself this year… And we’re already in September. Scary stuff. What if I lost my independence and self-confidence since this pandemic started? Would I know how to react if something unexpected happened?

Physical Reactions

My guts were in the front line in the battle with my anxious thoughts. I was constipated all week until the day when I couldn’t stop going to the loo, something that looks like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). My guts are like my second brain.

Situation 2 – Going to the dentist

I lost a filling on one of my teeth when I was stuck in Fiji during lockdown. I was obviously very anxious back then because I didn’t have an easy access to medical facilities, it didn’t cross my mind to try and go anyway. I just thought I would be careful when eating and just wait until I’m back in London to go to the dentist. It took me 6 months to motivate myself to book an appointment… And the day finally arrived last weekend.

Environment

Same period, same regulations. My dentist has reopened for several months now and is reassuring when it comes to safety measures and hygiene.

Thoughts

I really need to get my tooth sorted out even if I don’t feel any pain. Isn’t a dentist the last person I want to see though? What if I get infected there? I’ll be vulnerable with my mouth open and this virus is invisible…

Physical Reactions

IBS symptoms again.

What I learned…

So, can I still say I’m not an anxious person? I guess not, not after that. These 2 situations would have never been a source of stress for me until this year. Perception of danger is very subjective after all. We make judgements about danger and our ability to cope every day. But sometimes when we feel too anxious, we overestimate danger and underestimate our ability to cope. It’s that balance we need to maintain to avoid unnecessary “what if…?” questions.

If I listened to my anxiety and let it dominate me, I would have avoided these situations in a first place: I would have cancelled on my friends and make up an excuse, and I would have convinced myself I didn’t need to go to the dentist. Instead I decided to be brave and it boosted my self-confidence. I feel less anxious about going out, although I still prefer staying home as much as possible because it feels safer. It wouldn’t be a good thing to not experience anxiety at all nowadays, it would lead to stupid behaviours like thinking bad things never happen to you.

Have you experienced anxiety lately because of the pandemic? If yes, how have you overcome it?

Big Girl x