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Why Rescuing a Puppy Helped With My Anxiety

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I have struggled with anxiety for 10 years.

As anyone with anxiety knows, some days are good and some days are bad. For me, most of 2016 was bad with my anxiety. I started having semi-regular panic attacks and felt like I could never get my brain to turn off. I had gone through a lot in just a few short months — started dating my boyfriend, began a new job, had to move out of my apartment on short notice, moved in with my new boyfriend (we had only been dating two months at this point), then moved to my own place for five months, then moved back in with my boyfriend. Work had never been busier and my sister’s wedding coincided with an extremely important event I was responsible for planning with work. On top of that, in May of 2016, I experienced the worst panic attack of my life; I got stuck in a large crowd at a concert, tried to elbow my way out of there while panicking, eventually passed out in the middle of the crowd and had to get carried out.

It was a lot to handle and I still get tense at the memory of that panic attack. After that moment, my anxiety was at an all-time high at all times. I found myself sitting in meeting rooms at work, trying to breathe my way out of hyperventilating. Hiding my shakes at the water cooler. Smiling through the endless thoughts of trying to juggle everything my boss was asking me to do. To call it “overwhelming” is an understatement.

But that July, I found the “best medicine” for my anxiety: a 7-month-old puppy we named Lucy. My boyfriend Jason and I had talked about getting a dog for a while, pretty much since we had started dating. So that day in July, we decided we would just go look at the shelters and see what dogs were around. We poked around at two shelters and while I wanted to bring home every dog we saw, Jason didn’t feel like we had found one. We were on our way home and I saw we’d be going by one other place. I asked Jason if we could stop quickly and “just look” — with some hesitation, he agreed.

We walked into the shelter and the receptionist directed us to the dog kennels. When we opened up the door, we could immediately see one kennel and that’s where we saw our girl. She jumped up, tail wagging as soon as she saw us. I thought she was cute but too young. Jason, on the other hand, kept going back to her. Now it was me who was hesitating and eventually agreed we would ask them if we could take her out of the kennel. They took the three of us to a play area where she trotted around with a little puppy smile on her face. I kept saying she was sweet but too young. I was about to eat my words – as soon as I sat down on the ground, that sweet, young pup crawled into my lap and I was done. I felt something right away and I knew we had to bring her home.

And the next day, we did just that.

It didn’t take long until I felt my daily anxiety ease up – I had to concentrate on Lucy and what her needs were, not the millions of thoughts going through my head at one time. My thoughts now became checklists – “Did Lucy go to the bathroom? Check. Did Lucy get her breakfast/dinner? Check. Did Lucy take a long walk around the neighborhood to get some energy out? Check.” Being able to check things off my “Mental Lucy Checklist” made me feel accomplished and distracted me at the same time.

About a month after we brought Lucy home, I had gotten into a big fight with a family member that left me inconsolable, and I began a panic attack. I sat on the armchair in the bedroom, hyperventilating and shaking. Jason, who at the time was still struggling with what he should do when I had a panic attack, stood on the other side of the room, finishing laundry. Lucy, on the other hand, followed me to the chair and was sitting intently watching me, licking my hands and eventually sitting in my lap. I didn’t realize having a little weight like Lucy’s 30-pound body helped me feel stable and eventually I was able to catch my breath again.

A couple of days later, things at work were getting busy, stressful and very tense. I woke up dreading to go to work each day because of the workload I had. I finally forced myself out of bed and started getting dressed – only I couldn’t figure out what to wear. That’s one of the worst parts of my anxiety — making a simple decision like what clothes to wear can make me so anxious, and it sends me into a panic attack. I was sitting on the floor, going through the clothes I was choosing between, getting quickly frustrated. I could suddenly feel my heart rate speed up and before the full panic attack even had a chance, Lucy was in my lap. Just the distraction of her near-perfect leap from the bed into my crisscrossed legs was enough to make me feel calm and even made me giggle at her a little.

Time and time again, Lucy has amazed me with her skills to sense any kind of anxiety from me before I can even realize it. What is even more amazing to me is her ability to keep me calm. She’s still a puppy, just slightly over a year old with no formal therapy or comfort dog training. We haven’t even had her a year and she has bonded with me and Jason in a way that one cannot explain. She can sense our emotions and knows when we need those puppy cuddles. Don’t get me wrong — this silly girl is still a bonafide puppy and loves to tear up her toys, but she will always drop them if she feels we need her.

I will never underestimate the power of animals and I now understand, more than ever, the slogan and the bumper sticker I have seen on cars: “Who rescued who?”

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Originally published: March 23, 2017
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