The Benefits of Emotional Support Animals in Substance Abuse Recovery

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The opioid crisis has received a lot of attention from the media and the federal government. Heartbreaking and terrifying statistics about the number of lives lost to addiction each day in America make national headlines.  

But if you’re one of the millions of people suffering from substance use disorder (SUD) in the US today, then you know that your disease is not about numbers and every single life lost was far more than a simple statistic. You also know that SUD is far more complex than learning to abstain from your drug of choice, whatever that may be.

Substance use disorder is an enigmatic and crafty beast. It is merciless and opportunistic, and it involves the whole person: it’s not just about behavior. It’s also about physiology.

The fight is a long and difficult one, but the power of a new weapon in that fight is only just beginning to be recognized. And that’s because this particular weapon usually has four legs, a furry coat, and a wet nose. 

The benefits of emotional support animals (ESA) for patients suffering from anxiety, depression, PTSD, and related disorders have long been recognized. Now, however, ESAs are increasingly being used to help those in treatment for substance use disorder. And, the results are very promising.

The Why and the How

Anyone who’s ever been a pet parent knows how much an animal can enrich your life. But if you are suffering from a physiological or psychological disorder, the benefits can be profound. 

The simple act of holding and petting an animal has been shown to lower blood pressure and reduce stress, which is one reason why emotional support animals are so effective for people suffering from various types of anxiety disorders.

Persons who are living with substance abuse disorders, likewise, have difficulty managing strong emotions, from coping with stress to dealing with depression. This, combined with the physiological craving for the drug of choice, compels the addict to use even when the original “high” isn’t there any longer. 

The drug becomes a way of numbing themselves to the emotional demands of living. When you have an emotional support animal, though, emotional numbing isn’t an option. You have a living being that doesn’t just need your physical care, but also needs your love, affection, and attention. 

Being with your animal helps you to develop emotional mindfulness, learning to experience your feelings, rather than running from them. Best of all, your support animal will not judge you, will not reject you. They will give you unconditional acceptance, love, and companionship. And that means you can feel what you need to feel, do what you need to do, and say what you need to say, rather than masking those negative emotions, thoughts, and impulses with drugs.

Don’t Go It Alone

Your emotional support animal may well make your life worth living, but you mustn’t put the burden of saving your life and keeping you sober entirely on the tiny shoulders of your fur baby. Getting an emotional support animal is only one facet of your recovery.

If you’re going to stay clean, then you should combine animal therapy with other forms of treatment. If alcohol is your drug of choice, then in-patient residential care may be needed while you detox and stabilize. Likewise, if your addiction is to opioids, you’ll likely require a regimen of medication combined with on-going counseling to help support your recovery. As you work with your counselors and caregivers to develop an addiction treatment strategy, you can incorporate your ESA into the plan. 

In addition to registering your ESA, it’s also vital that you plan to give them the happiest and healthiest life possible. Even if you’re living on minimum wage, you can still make a budget to plan for your baby’s care, including veterinary care and emergencies. No, you don’t need to serve your companion’s meals in a diamond-encrusted bowl, as much as you may want to, as much as they may deserve it. 

But having an emotional support animal means making sure they have the care they need, topped off with all the love and snuggles they can handle!

The Takeaway

Substance abuse disorder is as cruel as it is common. But that doesn’t mean it’s an unconquerable foe. And one of the best ways to win your fight is to enlist the help of a new kind of soldier: one with deep, soulful eyes, a wet nose, and four legs!

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