Professor of the Practice of Law University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Anxiety & Social Support

Feb 6, 2020

Four of the six primary human emotions initiate the fight-or-flight stress response: fear, anger, sadness, and disgust. Anxiety involves fear of anticipated negative circumstances. Many current treatments for anxiety are ineffective or result in negative side effects. Anxiety triggers the stress response, which impairs our brain, as well as our cardiovascular and immune systems.

Animal studies have revealed that the presence of an animal of the same species will reduce the behavioral and physiological responses to negative events. Most studies show that people dealing with undesirable life events who have social support from a friend or loved one have reduced stress, anxiety, and pain.

A recent study demonstrated that anxiety can be reduced in humans when in the presence of other people, even when they are not providing direct support. The study subjected human participants to unpleasant sounds, while alone or in the presence of a stranger who did not provide any support other than being in the room. The researchers also tested the difference between when the person was a member of the participant’s ethic group or not. The mere presence of another person reduced the stress responses to the negative sounds, particularly in participants with high situational anxiety. The anxiety reduction was even stronger if the participant perceived the person in the room to be of a dissimilar ethic group. “There is evidence that perceived dissimilarity can buffer anxiety, because anxious individuals perceive dissimilar others as confident, while similar others are perceived as anxious.” The participants and additional individuals in this study all identified as women, so there is no information about whether the results would differ if the participants identified as men.

Pets and therapy dogs can also reduce the fight-or-flight stress response. Interacting with therapy dogs reduces stress hormones and improves heart rate and blood pressure. A large study of the most common type of campus therapy dog program, where dogs interacted with 246 students during exam time, demonstrated that 20-30 minutes of contact resulted in immediate stress reduction, as well as improvement in student happiness and energy levels. And these impacts lasted for 10 hours after contact with the therapy dogs. The company of a pet reduced the stress response during mental math testing more effectively than the presence of a spouse or friend.

Takeaway: When you are experiencing stress or anxiety, seeking support from a pet, friend, or loved one can help reduce your stress response and anxiety levels.

Sources

  1. Debra S Austin, Windmills of Your Mind: Understanding the Neurobiology of Emotion, 54 Wake Forest L. Rev. 931, 945 (2019), https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3374006.
  2. Yanyan Qu, Martin J. Herrmann, Luisa Bell, Anna Fackler, Shihui Han, Jurgen Deckert, and Grit Hein, The Mere Physical Presence of Another Person Reduces Human Autonomic Responses to Aversive Sounds, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Biological Sciences, Jan. 22, 2020, https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.2241.
  3. Stanley Corin, Petting Away Pre-Exam Stress: Therapy Dogs on Campus, Psychology Today, Mar. 20, 2018, online at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/canine-corner/201803/petting-away-pre-exam-stress-therapy-dogs-campus.
  4. Nancy R. Gee, Aubrey H. Fine, and Peggy McCardle, How Animals Help Students Learn: Research and Practice for Educators and Mental-Health Professionals 102 (2017).
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