Adopting an emotional support animal has been shown to facilitate greater mental health in regard to a number of conditions. Among them is obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, with emotional support animals shown to ease symptom severity and bring about some much-needed relief from this disorder. Read on to find out how emotional support animals are able to assuage OCD symptomatology, and how you or a loved one may benefit from their assistance.
Emotional support animals, or ESAs, are an animal adopted with the intention of taking part in their owner’s mental health treatment. ESAs are prescribed by a medical physician, after evaluating the patient’s mental state and concluding they would benefit from having an ESA with them. ESAs are usually dogs, though cats, horses, and any other type of animal could also take on this role.
Emotional support animals provide their owners with comfort through their own presence, reducing loneliness, acting as a welcome distraction to mental health disorder symptoms, and helping improve overall, daily functioning. ESAs can be incorporated into one’s home, offer support at an individual’s place of work, or help within a school setting.
Emotional support animals are different from service animals, whose main role is to perform tasks relating to an owner’s physical disability. Service animals are trained to attend to their owner’s concrete needs, for example, by helping someone who has difficulty seeing make their way around an unfamiliar store. Emotional support animals, on the other hand, are not trained to carry out tasks; it is their very presence that has been shown to benefit their owner’s well-being and alleviate mental health symptoms.
Originally grouped together with anxiety-based disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder typically involves both obsessive thought content concerning a specific theme, and a repeated behavior ritual intended to stave off the unpleasantness associated with this theme. Over time, this behavior is no longer able to distract the individual from their distressing, OCD-related thoughts, and it is then incorporated into their overall OCD symptomatology.
According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), 2.3% of adults in the U.S., as well as 1%-2.3% of children and adolescents, contend with OCD. Only 40%-60% of patients with OCD show improvement from first-line OCD medication, necessitating the use of less traditional treatment options, such as emotional support animals.
OCD cases can greatly vary from one another. The common thread between OCD cases, however, is that such obsessions lead to true anguish, and often cause forced rituals to arise in an effort to quiet their own thinking.
When left untreated, OCD can balloon into a distracting, frustrating, and exhausting disorder that causes the individual experiencing it to long for a moment’s peace from their thoughts and behavior.
Emotional support animals can help such patients better manage their OCD in a number of different ways:
Having an animal around can help generally improve one’s quality of life, and this is just as true for emotional support animals. ESAs provide an added advantage in that they can be especially sensitive to their human’s moods and offer them comfort through physical proximity, companionship, and a gradually developed sense of security through their reliable presence.
ESAs can also be trained to recognize beneficial behavior from detrimental behavior. If, for example, an individual finds themselves endlessly repeating an OCD-related behavior, such as turning the lights on and off, an ESA can be taught to identify this as a sign of OCD, approach their human, and nudge them with their nose until their human stops their cyclical pattern of behavior. This form of ESA-based symptom distraction has been shown to help ease mental health symptoms.
ESAs are generally well-trained, and do not require an exorbitant amount of care. That said, as a living, individual creature, they do introduce a certain level of disorder into their human’s life. For those battling orderliness-type OCD, this can be beneficial, as it helps them face their tendency to constantly straighten up and encourages them to let go of their need for control over the everyday minutia of their life.
OCD symptoms, particularly OCD-related behavior, can cause those facing this condition to feel embarrassed whenever they feel forced to carry them out in a public setting. As a result, individuals with OCD may become isolated, choosing to stay away from social interactions for fear of being “found out” and ridiculed for their condition.
Emotional support animals can help with this issue, as well, by bridging the gap between their human and those around them. Though ESAs (and service dogs) can draw attention to someone’s disability, they can also highlight the need for sensitivity toward others, and act as conversation starters with other pet owners, or simply those who enjoy interacting with friendly animals.
Relying on an emotional support animal is, at its core, the recognition that life’s challenges can be easier to overcome with a friend. ESAs can help those contending with OCD by reminding them they are more than merely their disorder, while encouraging them to return their attention back to the life that awaits them beyond the symptoms they are looking to manage.