Pets and Your Health

42089792 - woman with her dog tender scene

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I don’t know how I would get through difficult days without my three wonderful cats. Tenshi, Shima, and Kazu are so special to me that I always look forward to coming home and seeing their sweet faces. Those of you who have pets to whom you are closely bonded know how comforting it is to come home to them. Animals are capable of deep, unconditional love which is unparalleled. A pet won’t care that you look all disheveled from battling a grueling day. If you are distraught, a pet will make you smile and perhaps even laugh with cute and silly antics. Pets are natural antidepressants, and create the perfect distraction when you are tempted to feel sorry for yourself or ruminate over something which is only causing you anguish.

Pets are wonderful for our well-being and spiritual health.

It turns out that owning a pet also confers physical health benefits as well. Pet owners enjoy a reduction in stress and anxiety, which has a positive impact on blood pressure. Another very striking and unexpected benefit to having pets is a decrease in a child’s chances of developing allergies to animals. The decreased chance of developing allergies to animals in small children who live with animals is as high as 30 percent, according to research conducted by pediatrician James E. Gern which was published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Dr. Gern conducted a number of studies on children exposed to pets, all of which concluded that children who were exposed at an early age to animals tended to develop stronger immune systems overall, and were far less likely to develop pet-related allergies.

When I think of friends who have allergies to cats or dogs, most of them did not grow up with a pet in the house. I also did not grow up with a family pet per se, unless you count the two rabbits I had in fourth grade for about six months. My mother was so fed up with them that she sold them to a pet store, and that was that. But I spent extended periods of time petting and hanging out with numerous outdoor cats in the neighborhood, enough so that I had a regular exposure to them. I also spent weekends with my dad’s dog, or with his friends’ dogs, so the exposure was steady.

I honestly believe that early and regular exposure to pets is a boon to immune health in young children. And since there is a large body of scientific evidence to back that up, why not get a family pet for your children to love?

Two Breaths

Regular meditation practice has shaped my life for the past eleven years, and I honor and value all it has bestowed upon me in terms of balance, harmony, calmness and peace. When I began practicing meditation on a consistent basis, I was at a low point in my life as a result of a long-term relationship which had suddenly terminated. As fate would have it, I met a wonderful person who became my meditation teacher, my spiritual guide, and my dear friend. He invited me to become part of a local meditation group which met one to two times per week, and I gladly accepted. Within a couple of months, I began to learn how to sit in silence, let thoughts and feelings go, and focus on being completely in the moment. I quickly realized what a gift it was to fall into awareness during these sessions.

After my meditation teacher passed away in April of 2014, I went through a rough period in which I was so grief-stricken by his death that I was paralyzed, unable to meditate for several months. When I returned to meditation practice, it was alone, without the comfort of a group, but I was able to quickly fall into awareness during my sessions.

At the beginning of this year, I encountered another difficult life challenge, and instead of shying away from my meditation practice, I decided to sit daily. One tool which kept me accountable with daily meditation practice was a phone app called Insight Timer, which I still use. It is no longer a struggle for me to sit daily in meditation, and I have noticed profound changes in my demeanor and my general outlook on life.

In an effort to fortify my spiritual practice, I added kundalini yoga, and have noticed even more profound changes in my energy and my physiology, especially in my breathing. A few days ago, I had noticed that my respiratory rate had become much slower, so I decided to assess it while I practiced relaxation breathing. I was astonished when I discovered that I am now able to slow down my breathing to two respirations per minute. The breaths which I take during meditative and relaxation sessions are very slow, with a pause at the end of both the inhalation and exhalation phases.

Most people are so accustomed to shallow respirations in their daily lives that they assume that 12 to 14 respirations per minute is considered acceptable. As a physician, I regularly encounter a respiratory rate in that range, and am trained to consider that normal. However, in my spiritual practice, I know that in order to take 12 to 14 breaths per minute, the breaths tend to be quite shallow.

Modern society keeps us on the hamster wheel and fosters anxiety, but it is vital to step off the wheel, slow down, and allow the trappings of daily life to fall away so that we can truly let go. If you find yourself constantly wound up, try slowing down your breathing on a consistent basis. It has beneficial effects on your mood and blood pressure, and decreases muscle tension.

“But I Just CAN’T Meditate…”

The concept of sitting with oneself in a meditative pose seems to frighten many non-meditators. People will make all sorts of excuses why they “can’t” meditate, from stating that their thoughts will distract them too much, their home environments aren’t conducive to sitting quietly, or that they have back or hip problems and can’t sit still long enough to meditate. They will also state that they simply don’t have the time to meditate, an excuse which I find to be the weakest one out of the bunch.

For people who complain of physical restrictions which prevent them from sitting in easy pose (lotus position), there are meditations in which one can lie down, stand, or even move around to explore how the body is feeling at that moment. If thoughts keep flying around, that’s all right. Regular meditators know that the thoughts can come and go like clouds, and that allowing them to move in and out without having the mind engage those thoughts becomes easier with practice. And as for having no time to meditate, one can always find time to meditate. Even setting aside two minutes to pause, breathe, and let go of the myriad of thoughts and activities which keep us occupied is enough to reset the spirit.

When I counsel patients to meditate, I often discover that letting go is something they just don’t want to do. After all, aren’t we defined by our jobs, our family roles, our relationship roles, the cars we drive, how much money we make, and where we live? In the whole grand scheme of things, the elements which define us in the outside world simply distract us from the life force which we carry within us. One of the main reasons why anxiety and depression are so prevalent in the modern world is because people are too afraid to walk away from the craziness for a moment or two.

When you meditate regularly, you may get to a point in which you understand that the important moments are the spaces between thoughts, and the spaces between words. It is incredibly liberating to be able to let go of all the concerns and feelings which may be floating around in your head and just focus on your breath. Inhale, exhale. Just that and nothing more.

Lastly, you shouldn’t feel intimidated by the practice of meditation. If you regard it as a very welcome morsel of time for yourself, you will learn to look forward to your sessions.

If you need help getting started, check out yoga centers for guided meditation classes, or download a phone app such as Insight Timer to guide you through thousands of different meditations. I highly recommend Insight Timer for everyone, from those new to meditation, to individuals who have been meditating for years.