What Your Dog Knows About Stress

How many times have you had a stressful experience, and the first thing you do is go down the hall to a co-worker or get on the phone to your spouse, and tell them all about it. You describe it in minute “he-said-then-I-said” detail. You think by venting in this way, you get it out of your system.

Unfortunately, what you are doing is re-experiencing it. And because your body reacts to imagined or visualized threats in exactly the same way as it does to real ones, you’ve just given yourself twice the dose of spiking blood pressure, increased heart rate, and cascading stress hormones. Oops.

But it gets worse. Mirror neurons firing in your listener’s body make it seem like your anxiety, anger and angst are their own. So you’ve just infected them with your stress virus, effectively transferring your spiking blood pressure, increased heart rate, and cascading stress hormones to them. Ugh.

What’s a stressed out person to do? Learn from your dog.

The first thing your dog does after being in a state of upset is to literally “shake it off.” This discharges the stress response state and resets his nervous system. You can do the same. Starting with your head, and moving thru your shoulders, torso, hips, and down your arms and legs to your hands and feet—rapidly shake through your body. Kind of like when you get a cold chill, only more sustained and intentional.

Your dog is also likely to stretch and yawn. Give it a try. Add a big inhale with an audible sigh on a long exhale. Then end with a minute of belly breathing. By the end of all that, your fight/flight/freeze reaction should have switched to the parasympathetic nervous system tend/befriend state.

And who doesn’t like an ear rub? Called “auriculotherapy” for humans, massaging the outer ear releases endorphins, enhances relaxation, and improves attention and focus. Easy to do at your desk!

Lastly, your dog will go empty his water dish. Making sure you are hydrated will help to reduce the long-term effects of stress. And when you get home, take your dog for a brisk walk. You’ll both feel better!

And if you need help addressing a chronically stressful relationship at the root of the problem, let’s talk.