I first began experiencing anxiety and depression at the age of 14 after being bullied at school for years. While at first it would come and go, anxiety and depression eventually became a constant presence in my life. It was like a perpetual cough that eventually starts to get better, only to come back worse than before. Only unlike a cough, where usually I am still able to function, anxiety and depression hits like a ton of bricks and even the idea of getting out of bed seems to be a goal that becomes less and less attainable. As time passed, more and more of my days started to be spent paralyzed by endless thoughts of regrets of the past and worries for the future.
I was so intent on finding the solution to overcoming my anxiety and depression that I studied mental health in school, from college to grad school for seven years. Yet, I still felt I hadn’t come close to grasping how to manage my own anxiety and depression. I felt confident about helping others, but horribly useless at helping myself. Something was missing, a piece to my puzzle I had yet to discover.
I tried everything, antidepressants, special teas, yoga, vitamins and anything I read about in books and from advice given by doctors. I bought a membership to the gym because of how beneficial exercise is for mental health. However, every day, I would drag my feet to the gym, hating every moment of it from beginning to end. Oh, how I loathe the gym. I even moved eight hours away from home in the hopes of having a new beginning, a new me, but that just seemed to make things worse. I felt isolated and lost in an unknown city.
This was my life for more than 10 years, getting better just to fall again and start over. It felt like a constant uphill battle, swimming against the current. I started to feel like nothing was going to work. I started to believe I’d have to live the rest of my life with this dark cloud constantly hanging over me, rearing its ugly head just when things are starting to look up.
Until one day, I fell upon an article that talked about how dogs were able to help people with their mental health, like anxiety and depression. I had always loved dogs. My family had many growing up and they had always been wonderful companions. So I decided I was going to get a dog. I settled on the idea of getting a Pembroke Welsh Corgi because if they were good enough for the Queen, they were good enough for me. (Not to mention they are hilarious and cute.)
When I brought my little corgi, Buddy, home in November of 2014, I didn’t realize at the time how much he would truly change my life, but it didn’t happen right away. Once the new puppy excitement went away, the anxiety and depression crept back as it always had. I woke up one morning and felt those familiar feelings again. The weight on my shoulders, the nausea in my stomach, the feelings of hopelessness and worry. I knew the anxiety and depression had come back hard and felt depleted. I didn’t want to get out of bed. It felt impossible. I turned to pull the covers back over my head and give up for the day. What I always did. That’s when I came face to face with Buddy.
Buddy started jumping all over me, kissing my face, letting me know it was time to go outside. It was as if he was saying, “It’s no time to be sad. The world is awesome!” For the first time in my life, on a day when my anxiety and depression was present full force, I got out of bed. I put on my winter boots, snow pants, gloves, hat, scarf, coat and went for a walk in the snow with my new best friend. I realized at that moment, walking down the street in minus 30 degree weather, my life was changing. I really was a new person. This was my new beginning, my missing puzzle piece.
It has been over a year and a half since that day and I have never spent another day unable to get out of bed. I have not cried myself to sleep or spent my days paralyzed by fear and regret. Sure, I still have days when I feel sad or anxious, but with my best Buddy by my side, I have finally learned how to manage these feelings and emotions.
I finally realized the answer to my decade-long question of how to manage anxiety and depression — exercise, laughter and love — all things that were unattainable for me before but were only achieved by getting a dog. The reason these three things are so key is they all trigger the release of the chemical serotonin, the feel-good chemical in our brains. By having increased levels of serotonin every day, symptoms of anxiety and depression can dramatically decrease.
Before Buddy came into my life, I was not able to get enough exercise because there was nothing truly motivating me to exercise, which made my attempts at changing my life to be more active short lived. I wasn’t getting enough laughter because as an introverted person, socializing is not my forte. So I don’t spend a lot of time with friends or doing activities that promote laughter. I had a lot of love in my life from my friends and family but not the kind of unconditional love you get from a dog. It wasn’t the kind of love that greets you at the door every day after a long day of work and just turns everything around.
A dog motivates you to get out the door for fresh air and exercise, even when it’s the last thing you feel like doing. A dog brings you so much laughter and joy, unlike anything I’ve experienced before, with their unique personalities and hilarious quirks (search “funny dog videos” and you’ll know exactly what I am talking about). Lastly, a dog brings you unconditional love, the kind of love that never stops. With these three things in your life, anxiety and depression can be part of your past as it has become a part of mine.
Getting a dog can dramatically change the way you are able to manage your anxiety, depression or simply your overall mental health; however, it’s important to consider many things before getting a dog. Thousands of dogs are abandoned at shelters every year because owners were unaware of how much time and money a dog requires. If you are considering getting a dog to help improve your mental health, then here are some things to consider:
1. Do I have time for a dog?
A dog requires a minimum of two hours a day of your time and attention. A puppy requires even more, around four hours a day. Not ready to commit to raising a puppy? Consider rescuing a dog in need of a home. Thousands of dogs are in need of homes.
2. What breed do I want?
If you want a dog who will motivate you to exercise, then pick a dog breed that requires the level of exercise you want to partake in. Dog breeds range from low to high exercise requirements. Also, dog breeds are known for different personalities. Pick one that suits you. I picked a Pembroke Welsh Corgi because they are known to be funny and loving.
3. Do I have the money?
While dogs do not need to be expensive, it’s important to make sure you have enough money to support their needs. This includes all of their accessories, training tools, food, treats and vet bills.
Getting a dog was the missing piece in my puzzle in helping me learn to manage my anxiety and depression and could be the piece that changes your life. No matter what your missing piece may be, whether you know what it is or not, never lose hope that things will get better.
“Even the darkest night will end, and the sun will rise.” – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables.
This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post.