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Four-Legged Physicians: How Dogs Can Aid Patient Therapy

Dogs and humans have shared a special bond for over 12,000 years.  Clinical research has shown that dogs increase quality of life, finding that those living alone with a dog have a 33% decreased risk of death.  A study published by the Complementary Health Practice Review also found that pet owners are likely to have lower blood pressure, better cognitive function, and decreased anxiety than their non-pet owning counterparts. For those fighting a long term or chronic illness, spending time with a dog can have broad health benefits for both the body and the mind.

Mental Health

A long term hospital stay is difficult for patients, particularly those in critical care units.  Even physicians with exceptional bedside manner can only do so much to mitigate the clinical nature of a hospital room. A study published in Critical Care shows that animal therapy can help ICU patients overcome the mental health issues associated with an extended hospital stay.  Bringing in a dog to engage with patients breaks up the monotony of the hospital, and improves mood. 74% of pet owners report improvements in mental health, showing that dogs lessen feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Dementia And Alzheimer’s

Patients in nursing homes go through many of the same problems as those battling in an ICU.  Nursing homes pose a particularly great challenge for those with dementia and Alzheimers, as unfamiliar settings and faces can cause distress.  A promising study published in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias shows that dementia patients enrolled in animal-assisted therapy had decreased levels of agitation and greater social interaction than a control group.  Notably, many of the patients involved in the study had owned dogs in the past.  A key part of treating dementia-type disorders is involving patients in activities that they have enjoyed over the course of their life.  For animal lovers in nursing homes, playing with a dog for even a few hours a week can have a massive impact on their quality of life.

Exercise And Physical Fitness

Most dogs are seemingly boundless, furry balls of energy – particularly high energy, social breeds such as Black German Shepherds. Walking and playing with a high energy dog is necessary for their happiness, and comes with the obvious benefit of weight loss and a decreased chance of diabetes for people as well.  The benefits of playing with a dog can be much broader than weight loss. Exercise is a vital part of physical rehabilitation, and has shown to cause remission of major depressive disorder on par with antidepressants in clinical trials.  Coupled with the effort required to keep them healthy, a dog can give a person recovering from an illness a greater sense of purpose, which helps patients mentally as well as physically.

Registering a therapy dog requires a bit of work, but is a worthwhile vocation for both dog and owner.  While medications and in-patient care are necessary for many illnesses, a visit from a dog can help make the arduous process of getting healthy a little less taxing and far more rewarding.

How Anxiety Impacts Sleep

Anxieties from the day can be inescapable by night. You can try so hard to sleep or to stay asleep, but worrisome thoughts cloud your mind and make it impossible to clear your mind enough to doze off. Issues like money, children, and work can seem overwhelming, where such anxiety-provoking topics develop into stress that causes your mind and body to stay awake. So what can you do?

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There are several comorbid factors to stress that can be problematic sources of your insomnia as well. Don’t let anxiety or these related matters control you though. Instead of trying to control the stressors in your life by thinking of them all the time, focus instead on what you can actually control:

Your Sleep Space

Photo by Brianna Santellan on Unsplash 

Make your bedroom a stress-free sanctuary. Keep your bedroom dark, quiet, and cool, and use it only for sex and sleep. Since you can’t completely control anxiety, eliminate any other threats to your sleep quality, such as what type of mattress you sleep on. Consider what would the right mattress feel like for you, based on your individual sleep preferences. Use a fan to drown out extra noise, and make sure your pillows are comfortable too. Turn any clock away from you so you don’t get stressed out by seeing it is very late, if you are still awake. If you don’t fall asleep in 15 minutes, leave your bedroom and do something relaxing in another room.

Your Routine

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 Establishing daily and nightly routines is key for regular sleep, even on the weekends. Block out seven to nine hours for sleep every night, and make sure you wake up at the same time on both weekdays and the weekend. Stop consuming nicotine, alcohol, or caffeine at least three hours before your set bedtime, and avoid working, watching TV, or using a handheld mobile device in bed right before you try to fall asleep. Make it habit to set aside 30 minutes prior to bed to read, listen to soft music, or meditate, so you can relax, clear your mind, and settle into your bed as a stress-free tranquil zone.

How You are Staying Active

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 How active you are during the day impacts your sleep quality as well. Exercise is excellent for both physical and mental health, where exercising regularly helps you establish regular sleep patterns. You can take out your frustrations in exercise, where you leave the gym with a worry and frustration free head. Exercise also produces mood-enhancing endorphins – just remember to exercise only in the morning or afternoon, as those same endorphins will keep you up if you exercise right before bedtime. And your exercise doesn’t have to be major – even one brisk walk around your neighborhood each day has been demonstrated to help alleviate chronic insomnia. As exercise has been demonstrated to help you develop strength both physically and mentally, remember that mental health is a factor to also be considered when placing value and effort in improving your sleep life.

While increasing anxiety and decreasing sleep can seem like a never ending cycle, you can put an end to what feels so frustrating. By putting these principles and guidelines into practice, you are being proactive in making a difference for you. If you still have difficulty falling or staying asleep, reach out to family and friends for support, and consider seeing a therapist.