Drug addiction recovery means total war. For treatment, professionals will use any and all available tools to combat the disease. No stone is left unturned, no treatment us left unconsidered. To treat substance abuse, science has focused on many areas, especially with respect to neuroscience. They’ve studied how neurotransmitters work in effort to find more effective ways to treat this disease.
Neurotransmitters are powerful, and artificial stimulation of receptors in our brains has powerful medical applications that can transform lives. That’s the good part, but there’s also a dark side. These same receptors leave humans vulnerable to drug abuse, a process which stems from complex pathways in the brain to make the recovery process very challenging, physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Fortunately, research has shown that people who are going through drug addiction recovery and are trying to break the cycle of substance abuse can find alternative methods of stimulating those receptors–safely and naturally–through (and here’s the good part) emotional support animals. This includes animal-assisted therapy, and service dogs. These animals can also help recovering addicts in other essential ways, such as establishing daily routines, forming healthy bonds, and providing loyal support.
You may have seen TV shows about prison inmates and dogs. This show focuses on what scientists already know – people who are having emotional, psychological or mental health issues can often find peace and solace through animal companionship. It also speaks to the link between anxiety and addiction.
Dogs are naturally gifted with a host of attributes that help their owners live longer, happier lives. They also have a long history of assisting people in difficult circumstances. In recent years, treatment protocols have expanded to take advantage of the ways that dogs can help prevent relapse and give patients in recovery a better chance at leading full, meaningful lives. There is life beyond addiction, and assistance dogs can provide a key piece of the puzzle.
Drug Addiction Recovery With Service Animals
In the 1860s, Florence Nightingale found animal companionship beneficial to her patients. Since then, dogs have been used in many capacities to help people recover from and manage illness, disability, and other conditions. Canine therapy is widely accepted as a valuable element of holistic addiction treatment: “In addition to the added comfort, dogs play a role in the healing process,” according to Addiction.com. “Clients may experience lower levels of anxiety and depression, begin to experience empathy, and build a positive sense of self-worth through caring for another being. After treatment, dogs can help recovering addicts stay active, reduce stress and loneliness, and provide a sense of purpose — all of which are instrumental in preventing relapse.”
Dogs help restore the brain’s neurochemical pathways to their original modes of functioning. Their powerful effects on the brain raise levels of dopamine, the same neurotransmitter that drugs like amphetamines and cocaine boost. Interacting with dogs, then, can help an addict find a healthy, sustainable way to reach a positive emotional state. Over time, these kinds of positive substitutes can assist with drug addiction recovery. Dogs also increase oxytocin, endorphins, and serotonin, all of which are “essential to our sense of well-being.” People often turn to drugs because they feel that something is missing from their lives; an emotional support animal can provide that missing link during the recovery process.
One study found that bringing therapy dogs into a drug addiction recovery program offered the additional benefit of helping clinicians gain more insight into their patients, and helping them to overcome potential obstacles. For instance, they might withdraw if the therapy animal did not immediately seem friendly enough, reflecting the same behavior that patient might have in an interpersonal relationship. Clients were encouraged to open themselves up to the possibility of rejection by remaining present and waiting for the pet to come to them. This challenging act of vulnerability can have enormous benefits. Substance abuse thrives when people allow fear to let them miss out on pleasurable experiences–and instead turn to the one coping mechanism they know they can depend on, no matter how deleterious its effects. Counseling that takes advantage of therapy dogs can help a patient change patterns of thought and behavior with immediate, real-world applications.
The Ranch, a mental health center with locations in three states, advocates for a unique treatment approach they call “animal-assisting therapy.” Patients are encouraged to volunteer at animal rescue shelters. In the process of extending aid and empathy to pets in need, addicts can undergo profound internal shifts: “Before those with a history of substance abuse can hope to find lasting sobriety, they must first rebuild their self-esteem to the point where they actually feel strong enough to accomplish difficult things and worthy enough to deserve the happiness and peace that was denied them during their years of battling against alcoholism or drug addiction.” Performing selfless acts of care can give a recovering addict a greater sense of strength and purpose. In fact, when they are further along on their journeys, they may even find a new career path in dog-sitting.
Addicts who turned to substance abuse because of chronic pain will also benefit substantially from working emotional support animals. In as little as twelve minutes, researchers found that visits with therapy dogs significantly reduced self-reported pain, fatigue, and emotional distress. Therapy dogs can decrease the heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate; reduce the stress hormone cortisol; boost endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers; and benefit the immune system. Studies indicate emotional and psychosocial benefits of emotional support animals, in addition to the task assistance that service dogs can provide.
It is difficult for researchers to quantify the unique benefits that an emotional support animal’s love has on a patient who is in drug addiction recovery. Many have painful, traumatic histories, often accompanied by a deeply-held belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with who they are. This is one of the reasons that an animal who can offer unconditional, all-consuming love and emotional support can make such a pivotal impact on the recovery process.
Depending on the patient’s capacity for caring for a pet and the type of support they need, their preference for an assistance animal may vary.
It’s worth looking at, as the goal is to try every method possible to break the cycle of addiction.
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