I’ve had anxiety for as long as I can remember, but I only realized there was a name for the condition when I was in my 30s. One day at the library, I found a book aptly titled Overcoming Anxiety for Dummies. As I flipped through the pages, it was as if the author described all of the quirkiest components of what I previously had thought was simply my personality. It turns out that generalized anxiety disorder is so common that it is an actual diagnosis shared by millions. If misery loves company, then I suppose the knowledge that I am not alone in my mental illness provides some twisted sense of relief.
When I got involved in animal rescue, I soon discovered that dogs would provide me with a type of relief that I hadn’t experienced in my younger years, when I sought to ease my anxiety by abusing drugs and alcohol or by being in unstable relationships with similarly afflicted men. Perhaps the greatest gift from my dogs is their unconditional love and exuberance. I hadn’t understood this strange phenomenon before, and once I discovered it, I found it far superior to any substance or person I had previously used to mask my lifelong struggle with angst.
My dogs don’t eliminate my anxiety, but they do help relieve it. Let me share with you the ways.
My mind is a busy place; it has trouble slowing down. I often think of it like a turbocharged engine that won’t stop. As a creative type, sometimes my ideas flow so fast and furious that it’s hard to record them during the busy life I live. My dogs demand all of my attention and help me to focus on their needs instead of all the other frantic thoughts in my mind.
I sometimes get painfully lonely, especially when my kids are gone. I don’t have a large human family, and those that I do have live in Oregon. Most of my closest friends are also there, because that is where I am originally from. My dogs, however, help me feel more connected to the world at large. Of course, I feel a connection with each of my canines, but I also feel connected to the animal rescue community, which means a lot to me. Plus, my dogs get me out of the house every single day for a walk or trip to the dog park.
Like so many others, I am constantly overwhelmed by the number of homeless dogs in the world. I’d be lying if I said the issue of pet overpopulation didn’t profoundly disturb me. But I am comforted by the fact that providing safe housing, high-quality meals, regular walks, and love to my rescue dogs is act of service that I can do on my own time.
I think this is the most special part of being a dog person. Dogs have a great reputation for being sources of unconditional love. They follow you throughout the house, because they want to be with you every second of every day. Even the most hardened of us need to feel loved.
Compared to the average middle class American standard, my life has been rough around the edges. I grew up poor, and while I no longer live in poverty, I still struggle to make ends meet. I often feel as though my heart is larger than my pocketbook. I’d like to do more for my kids, my cats, my dogs, and my community than I am currently able to do.
But I know lots of people face much more difficult challenges than I do, and relatively speaking I am quite blessed. I love hearing stories of people who overcome challenges to become better people. My dogs help me stay focused on my goals, which include writing a memoir about my life with cats and dogs. Having tangible goals relieves stress and also makes me feel like an integral part of the larger world.
I didn’t know when I adopted my first dog that I would be doing something that would help with my anxiety. Fortunately, I have learned that the healing power of a dog by my side is at least as powerful as my Prozac. And for that I am grateful.
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About the author: Also known as the Breadwinning Laundry Queen, Kezia Willingham lives with her family, which includes a pack of rescued cats and dogs, in Seattle. She works as the Health Coordinator for an urban Head Start program and writes for Catster and Dogster in the early mornings and weekends. Her writing also appears in the New York Times, xoJane.com, and Seattle Times. You can follow her on Twitter.