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Five Ways Pets Are Helping Us In Self Isolation, According To Mental Health Experts

Our furry friends may be enjoying our social distancing a whole lot more than we are, but their presence is extremely important -- psychologists explain the power of the pet.

Heeding the advice of health authorities amid the coronavirus pandemic, many Australians have begun social distancing and working from home.

Experts stress that minimising human contact is imperative right now in order to 'flatten the curve' and slow the rate of transmission. But in doing so, we must be aware of the impact sudden isolation can have on our mental health.

According to Queensland-based Neuropsychotherapist Joanne Wilson, "as a human race, we are designed relationally and thrive on interaction with others."

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Speaking to 10 daily, she explained that as social beings, humans rely on things like love and touch in order to flourish.

"Look beyond the real symptoms of anxiety and you’ll see the social fragmentation behind it," she said.

In my experience, loneliness and disconnection is the root cause of addictions. Enter a pandemic then forced isolation and we ‘stack’ a sense of global fear to already high anxiety levels for many Australians.

Sydney Clinical and Developmental Psychologist Romy Kunitz agreed, telling 10 daily: "human beings need to have contact with each other. From the first moment that we're born, we are held. It's one of the senses that we really rely on."

Kunitz is concerned that social isolation "goes against all of what we know, all that is safe for us."

It's time to give your fur baby a cuddle. Image: Getty

Fortunately, in all the darkness there is light -- the unconditional, ever-wonderful love of our pets.

Psychology and Animal Assisted Wellbeing (fittingly abbreviated to PAAW) is an Australian psychology practice that specialises in Animal Assisted Therapy.

Speaking to 10 daily, Animal Assisted Therapist Samantha King explained why we will be relying on our pets now more than ever.

Pets and animals provide the companionship that people are so desperately going to need, as the situation in our community becomes more uncertain.

"If people are required to self-isolate, the love and support provided by their pets can help them to get through this trying time."

Understanding how a doe-eyed, cuddly pup can make us feel so warm and fuzzy inside is certainly not rocket science -- but it is psychology.

According to the experts, there are a number of ways our pets can positively impact our mental health while we brave through social isolation.

1. The power of the pat

While many of us are in the fortunate position where we can maintain relationships digitally, it may soon surprise us how a lack of touch can alter our mental state.

"We don’t realise how much touch communicates positive emotions: joy, love, gratitude, and sympathy," said Wilson.

For Kunitz, finding affection with our pets is an effective alternative.

"When we have trauma in our lives, our senses are very much in tatters," she said.

When we need to self-regulate or need to feel better, touching a dog, feeling the softness of their fur, talking to them other than oneself -- that's really important.

"It's important for loneliness and isolation. It's important for one's sensory state."

2. A sense of purpose

Wilson recommends a pet, especially to those who live alone, amid this time of social distancing.

She said, "those that consider their pet as a 'family member' benefit immensely from the love and connection that brings."

"During fearful times of doomsday reports and social distancing, those that live alone or in a small household can enjoy the sense of purpose that pets contribute."

To experience the warm snuggle of a larger pet or hear the sound of a  chirping budgie contributes to a sense of belonging and purpose that without, could contribute to loneliness and depression.

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3. Responsibility and empathy

Kunitz explained that pets can help people, especially young children, develop empathy skills. And weed out the occasional psychopath, of course.

"In my work with patients, I often talk to people about getting a pet. For children, it teaches them how to take care of something," she said.

"When we look at people who have antisocial personality disorders or are psychopathic, sometimes they're cruel to animals. It's one of the very first things we look at because it is very important to the development of empathy."

Image: Getty

4. Pets make us better partners

The way we respond to animals can be wholly indicative of how we treat our fellow human beings, especially our loved ones.

In Wilson's work as a psychotherapist specialising in relationships, she often asks couples to step back self-evaluate the love and affection they give to their pets compared to that they give their partner -- especially in regards to 'hellos and goodbyes'.

I’ve become so accustomed to individuals rating themselves very poorly after they realise their cat or dog receives a far greater, attentive loving greeting than their intimate partner.

5. Exercise and mental health

Exercise is one of the most recognised ways a person can protect their mental health. And certain pets, particularly dogs (or a cat in a pram, said the psychotherapist), can encourage you to stay on top of your health and fitness, even when abiding by the World Health Organisation's rules for distancing.

"Being forced to walk an energetic dog longing for some action is an obvious benefit," said Wilson. "Even those who pop that cat or small designer pup into a pram are still out exercising their lungs for the greater good."

"Dog owners can continue to enjoy socialisation at the doggy park or on the beach with the fresh air whilst getting physically fit and still meet the 1.5 metre social distancing suggestion," recommended Wilson.

So put your lizard in your handbag and get strolling.

Featured Image: Getty

Do you have a lifestyle story or personal experience to share with us? Reach out and tell us about it at alenton@networkten.com.au