What Your Pets Can Teach You About Stress

Ever worry that your dog Max might suffer a massive heart attack? Or get an ulcer? Or perhaps be diagnosed with hypertension?

Probably not. Chances are, though, you’ve worried about these for your own health. And for good reason. One hundred years ago, most deaths were caused by infectious diseases. Now, however, most deaths are life-style related, with heart disease being the number 1 killer in this country for both men and women. Stress plays a big role in that.

Our pets have the same physiological response to stress that we do: increases in heart rate, blood pressure, and blood flow to muscles and brain along with decreases in digestion. This wonderfully designed system helps ensure survival in life-threatening situations – increasing blood flow and cutting back on digestion helps our bodies run away from danger.

There are two problems, however, with this setup in our modern world. First, our stress response is designed for physical danger, not psychological danger. Blood flow to the legs is great for outrunning a bear but does little for us when we’re sitting at a computer. It, in fact, works against us. Second, this stress response is designed for short term stress like running away, not long term stress like saving for our children’s college education. In the past, once we outran the bear we were in the clear for a while, whereas today the stress never ends.

This is where we can start learning from our pets. Our biggest problem isn’t the stress of what’s going on right now, but the anticipation of what’s to come. Yes, Max becomes stressed if threatened by a bigger dog or wild animal, but he doesn’t lie around the house all day worrying about it. His stress response will work just fine . . . when he needs it.

The trick is to get out of this perpetual state of fight or flight. Of course this doesn’t mean you should just throw caution to the wind and ignore deadlines. Definitely plan for the future, but do it in a way that relieves stress, rather than creates it. Some things to help:

  1. Map out a schedule ahead of time that will allow you enough time to finish. If you are feeling overwhelmed, write out a plan of everything you need to do.
  2. Sometimes doing a worst case scenario and working backwards will help.
  3. Actively work on the project, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Writing out a to-do list or making a short phone call about it can help reduce anxiety over it.

Most of all, though, take a lesson from Max. Be mindful of what you are doing in the present. When working under a deadline, concentrate on the work itself and not on the deadline, or on the meeting you have to go to tomorrow, or on the meeting you missed yesterday. Take a deep breath and focus on what you’re doing in the present. You will be more productive, and your heart will thank you as well.