Are you feeling a little low this winter? Find out how your dog could be the answer to beating the winter blues
It’s that time of the year again, when the days seem shorter, the nights grow darker, and feelings of loneliness can creep up on us when we least expect it. It’s at this time of the year when we are exposed to less natural sunlight, experience reduced vitamin D production, and where many people find themselves feeling lower than normal. Whether your low mood is a direct cause of reduced sunlight exposure, or you may have gone through a particularly tough and challenging time, the winter months can certainly exacerbate feelings of loneliness and sadness. For me, I used to feel at my lowest on a Sunday evening, when I was alone, my surroundings were dark, my future somehow seemed bleak, and I could sense Monday morning was just around the corner.
It almost seems ironic that our constant contact with the outside world and growing social media presence have caused our feelings of loneliness to increase. As we scroll through our newsfeed, our connection with the outside world is leading us to feel even more disconnected than ever before.
Shining a light on winter
As we brace for the winter months, the psychological effects caused by a lack of natural sunlight can lead to a form of depression known as ‘Seasonal Affect Disorder’, also known as SAD. Interestingly, SAD is a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons, and symptoms tend to subside during the spring and summer months.
Why is sunshine so important?
Did you know that sunlight exposure stimulates the hypothalamus, a small part of our brain responsible for a range of vital body functions. The hypothalamus is also acknowledged as our internal body clock (circadian rhythm), which operates to keep all of our functions in sync. The exposure to sunlight will interact directly with the hypothalamus. When you are not exposed to enough sunlight, this can throw off your circadian rhythm, and your brain will begin to produce an excessive amount of the sleep hormone, called melatonin. As your brain produces more melatonin, the less serotonin (the ‘feel-good’ hormone) will be produced. This chemical imbalance causes us to feel low, depressed, and, of course, will heighten our feelings of loneliness.
Bring the sunshine indoors
There are many things you can implement to improve your mood and beat the winter blues. For example, why not bring the sunshine indoors with light therapy? Light therapy is a form of therapy used to trick your brain into producing the chemicals that make us feel good. Light therapy usually involves a lamp that emits bright, white light, and functions to lessen the effects of sunlight deprivation in darker months and regulates our circadian rhythm. Plus, you could also start eating a little healthier and meditating or practicing a more consistent exercise regime to get your own daily dose of self-producing endorphins.
However, did you know, the answer to beating your sadness could simply be down to spending more time with your dog? Unlike any other animal, your dog has been bred and domesticated to work alongside humans, and are experts at reading human emotion, and serving as the best companions we could ever wish for. Whether you’re going through a breakup, lost a spouse, or simply just waiting for the winter months to pass, your dog could be the surprising solution to many of your problems. I’ve had so many days where I feel like things will not get better and I can only see darkness, then I simply take my dog out for a walk, and things don’t seem so bad after all – and I soon feel at peace and can see things with more clarity than before.
5 ways your dog can help you reduce loneliness
1. Become a social butterfly
Dogs can act as a catalyst for increased human social interactions. By simply going outdoors and taking your dog for a walk, you will inevitably speak and engage with other fellow dog-lovers. Personally, I can’t go anywhere with my dog without interacting with other owners. There really is no trouble striking up a conversation when dogs are involved! We both share the same passion and love for dogs, and it’s a great way to interact with likeminded individuals. Plus, you’re also moving your body and exercising at the same time, which will only increase endorphin (our ‘happiness hormones’) production even further! Walking is a fantastic way to boost serotonin and endorphin production, while also helping your dog feel more calm, relaxed, and sleepy.
2. Better health, better life
Unsurprisingly, being sick can make you depressed, and being depressed can make you sick. When we experience illness, our mood tends to worsen. New research has proven that many chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, have a two-way connection to depression. However, did you know, your big-eyed and wet-nosed pooch could really make you a heathier human being – with improved physical and mental health? Owning a dog has been proven to:
- Lower blood pressure
- Increase cognitive function
- Lower heart rate
- Reduce anxiety and depression
- Lower cortisol
- Promote a positive mood
- Increase physical activity
- Reduce risk of heart disease
- Boost your immune system
- Help fight chronic pain
- Increase life expectancy
3. You are responsible
Having a purpose is good for our physical and mental health. Ultimately, you are responsible for the overall care of your dog. Your dog is dependent on you, and therefore you have the responsibility to walk, feed, water, and play with your dog – regardless of how you may feel in a given moment. A high-level of responsibility means that you will genuinely struggle to find the time to feel lonely for prolonged periods. You simply have too much to do, and a dog that demands your constant attention could be the best thing that they can offer you.
Plus, there is no better feeling than giving back, and also feeling needed. As Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others,” and this couldn’t be more true! Remember, when you provide and help a person or animal in need, you’re going to feel a whole lot better – physically, mentally, and emotionally. Giving back is rewarding for all of us. If you don’t believe me, do a random good deed for another person and see how it makes you feel.
If you dog is anything like my Miniature Dachshund, Reggie, he or she will want to spend as much of their time with you as possible. From following you around the house, to snuggling up with you while watching the TV, you will have a friend wherever you are. Your dog is your constant companion, and the happiest living creature to see you when you walk through the door. During these times, the feelings of dread and loneliness will disappear when you’re with your pooch. You may currently feel sad, but this will unlikely last for long periods of time with your dog around.
5. The therapeutic touch
Did you know the physical act of touching your dog can significantly reduce your levels of anxiety, depression, and loneliness? Touching your dog fulfils the human need for touch, and also boosts our production of oxytocin, the ‘love hormone’, which has anti-inflammatory effects. Dogs affect our oxytocin levels in a similar way that human babies do – the bond we have with our dogs can feel like the loving bond between mother and child. Plus, physical touch is thought to ease anxiety and aggression in our dog too. Why do we usually cuddle and pet our dog as soon as we walk through the door? Because it feels good, and suddenly, you don’t feel as low anymore!
Touch is a form of tactile stimulation, which helps to stimulate the release of dopamine, which is the hormone associated with bonding and motivation, along with serotonin, which is associated with a positive emotional state. When these hormones are reduced, we feel more impulsive, aggressive, and anxious.
No matter how low you are currently feeling, bad times do not last forever. Take advantage of this fact and know this feeling will certainly subside and pass. Remember, your dog really could be your saviour to getting you through this particularly tough time, so enjoy the companionship, and keep moving through the pain until it is a distant memory.
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