By Chris Blazina PhD
I leave my home in the mountains outside of ABQ, NM. In the twenty-minute drive to my office I am inundated with flashing signs along the highway warning me I should stay at home; socially isolate, and above else wash my hands. But I am one of the many healthcare workers still going to work. As a psychologist I see a wide swath of people from different backgrounds- doctors, lawyers, teachers, and those that make a living using their hands. In the past few months, most begins their session with updates, worries, and perspectives about the current Covid 19 crisis.
Those working in scientific or medical fields share with me their views of what they believe will happen in the near future or how the long view of normalcy has been forever altered. Others, offer perspectives of denial or refusing to admit susceptibility. This confidence is a thin veneer covering real anxiety. Amid the quickly changing landscape of new social norms for the sake of safety, most are ultimately preoccupied with ways to stay emotionally grounded. People do this in different ways. It seems understandable that certain perishables and commodities have taken on a type of gold standard of value. We like to maintain a sense of predictability and consistency especially when in crisis. Having those items in hand lends itself to a sense of control. Other clients having stated their fears about getting sick or the world to come, move on to the reasons they sought psychotherapy in the first place. These are the other areas of crisis. They discuss relationship status or frustrations. Relationships at the beginning, middle and coming to an end.
One of the things that understandably occurs amid a crisis is outer uncertainty fuels inner anxiety. Some of those worries where already there; in some cases, lying in various states of dormancy for years or decades, get reawaken. The normal response is to look for a source of security. There are various theories in psychoanalysis that point toward our innate need for someone we perceive as the purveyor of strength, wisdom, and protection to step forward when we are rattled. While most can understand how this occurs for children, a similar theme emerges for adults in distress. Some clients in my office wax philosophical without necessarily intending to discussing that one person from long ago who knew how to handle a crisis. From their memories they draw comfort from that anchoring presence.
More difficult circumstances occur when clients do not have a history of a safe other that makes things seem alright. The lifelong quest for someone that is an emotional constant takes on a new meaning when the world seems turned upside down. In this case not just a personal world view but reacting to all those other worried people encountered in the grocery store about one step away from panic because someone just took the last roll of toilet paper. To all these clients I feel a pull to say everything will be all right. But I hesitate. In my heart I realize that is not the entirety of what they need.
For some, amid all the uncertainty a different emotional constant is present—an animal companion. Research reflects this deeply held belief. One study by the American Animal Hospital Association, found that 40% of married women were more likely to discuss emotional issues with their dog than their husband. Likewise, in another published study, 42% middle aged men have been found to prioritize the emotional support from their dogs over friends, siblings, and parents. The only rival for the most supportive ally role is their romantic partner. While these two studies are more recent, the notion that dogs and other animal companions are a steady support amid troubling times can be seen in the writing of Sigmund Freud. He talked about how constant and reliable dogs are—“They love their friends and bite their enemies.” Freud’s own life was not short on crisis and transition.
The deaths of his closest daughter and grandson, the beginnings of World War II where he had to flee his home in Vienna, and the near constant source of strain over decades where the more than thirty cancer operations on his jaw. Freud confided in a letter to a friend after all this he did not think he was capable of ever loving again. But fortunate for him, he had a long-established connection with anima companions. His Chows where nearly omnipresent in the latter part of his life, even having a couch of their own in his consultation room where he saw patients. Some may have thought that the dogs where there to sooth nervous patients revealing their inner most conflicts but they were actually present to emotionally ground Freud who now wore a prosthetic jaw and relied on his dogs to masticate his food so he could swallow his meals. His Chows brought comfort to Freud in a similar way that animal companions do currently in this age of pandemic.
We all need an emotional anchor and that need is amplified when life feels unsure. Perhaps part of the takeaway from this article is animal companions are there for us but what also follows is that within any loving connection there ought to be some level of reciprocity. That is, animal companions give and we should consider their needs and give back. Recent reports within New Mexico among animal shelters is that there has been a surge in animal surrenders. Some cite fears that dogs or cats will spread the virus to human family members. The ungrounded fear is mixed into all the other current worries impacting families. Likewise, with people being stuck at home for extended periods with pent up worries there is the possibility that our anxiety impacts our animal companions.
Some dogs begin to display an uptick in unusual behaviors--barking, chewing, digging, and fighting. To this end, it is important to remember that our bond with animal companions really is mutual —they give to us and we give to them. The position of giving to our pets when things are difficult may come from an ethical perspective, like that is the right thing to do. Even if approached in a purely pragmatic and self-interested one, helping others sometimes helps ourselves.
We feel rewarded not only with another’s gratitude but it is rewarding to feel like you have something of value to offer. There is something beneficial about giving to others in a time of crisis whether that be with fellow humans or our animal companions. The experience can be grounding. It allows us to think beyond ourselves as well as realize we are more resilient even under stress than we thought. There are many gifts in our bond with animal companions. They encompass a give and take that helps us weather the storm.