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A healer in the house above the political stress

As a recent study has confirmed — as if we didn’t know — the current political environment has gone far beyond merely heated and toxic. The result of this turmoil is that we now live in a world that could be generating serious negative consequences for the mental health of millions of Americans.

For the study, Kevin Smith, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and his team conducted an online survey of 800 people from a nationally representative sample. Respondents were asked a range of questions about how engaged they are in politics and how it is affecting their lives, health and well-being.

What they discovered is that nearly 40 percent of respondents believe politics to be a cause of stress in their lives. About 20 percent reported losing sleep, feeling fatigued or being depressed due to politics.

About 20 percent reported that politics had damaged their friendships. The effects ran the gamut, including thoughts of moving elsewhere and even thoughts of suicide. The study also found that 10 to 25 percent reported “thinking, caring and focusing on politics more than they wanted, saying and writing things they later regretted, and making bad decisions related to politics.”

Smith described the sheer numbers of people saying that they experienced such intense stress as “eye-popping.” The public health community should have seen it coming.

In 2017, the annual survey by the American Psychological Association on stress levels of Americans found that 57 percent of respondents said they were stressed by the current political climate; this included respondents from both ends of the political spectrum.

Lynn Bufka, a psychologist and the associate executive director of practice, research and policy at the American Psychological Association, recommended people get plenty of sleep and eat well to help their bodies be more resilient to the effects of such stress.

Speaking to NPR, she recommended we make time for things that help us unwind. In the current political climate, this has become virtually impossible for some folks.

This is just one survey, and it is hardly conclusive. One thing upon which I think we could all agree is the need to find a way to decompress from this polarizing political environment before it makes us crazy.

Thinking of solutions made me realize that the ideal relaxing, transitional device may be at hand — or at our feet — and it would incur no additional medical expenses. It is our trusty companion animals, particularly dogs and cats. If you own one or the other, then you know the feelings that are engendered at the end of a stressful day when you are greeted by a purr or wagging tail. The calmness you feel is not just your imagination. Research suggests that your furry friends are truly good for your physical and mental health. Let me count just some of the ways.

According to a Time magazine report, petting your pooch or kitty brings down blood pressure while at the same time pleasing your pet. Researchers at the State University of New York at Buffalo discovered that blood pressure response to stress was cut in half in people taking medication for hypertension if they owned a cat or dog.

If you have a dog, those daily walks are helping to keep your cholesterol in check. A survey by the Australian National Heart Foundation revealed that people who own pets, especially men, tend to have lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

Rebecca A. Johnson, Ph.D., director of the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, tells Time magazine that simply being in the same room as your pet can have a calming effect. “A powerful neurochemical, oxytocin, is released when we look at our companion animal, which brings feelings of joy. It’s also accompanied by a decrease in cortisol, a stress hormone,” she says.

If I had to cast my vote for the best companion animal, it would be for a dog. I think the research is with me on this one. After all, does anyone really “own” a cat?

In a recent conversation with The New York Times, Carl Safina, an ecologist at Stony Brook University on Long Island and author of nine books about the human connection to the animal world, marvels at his three dogs. When asked what he has learned from them, he talks about their ability to anticipate.

“For instance, they show much excitement when I simply touch my car keys,” he tells the Times. “(This) might well signal that they are going to some place interesting, like the beach. That proves that they have imagination and even memory … I don’t need to scan their brain activity to know this. They show it in their actions and the choices they make.”

“During the day, they roam free in the house and the yard,” he adds. “If I’m writing or working outside, they’re never more than a hundred feet from me. That’s their choice. My point is that they seek us out just to be near us. And what is love’s fundamental emotion? It’s the desire to be near loved ones. So yes, dogs can love their humans.”

Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness.

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