Mind & Body

‘My anxious dog helped me to deal with my panic attacks’

Author Laura Greaves was plagued by anxiety and crippling panic attacks — until she decided to look to her dogs for lessons in managing her mental health.

It had started out like any ordinary Saturday morning. My six-year-old daughter was out of bed at the crack of dawn, excited for her weekly gymnastics class. I made her breakfast, then fed my three dogs — senior Duck Tolling Retrievers Tex and Delilah, and young kelpie cross Coco — and gave Tex his medication for his many ailments, which include epilepsy and leukaemia.

After that, I went out into the bright early morning sunshine to give my guinea pigs some fresh hay (it takes longer to prepare my animal menagerie for the day than it does to get the humans in my household ready!)

And that was when everything changed.

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I’d felt a little wobbly when I woke up, but that’s nothing new: I live with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and recurring depression, and I often feel jittery and ‘wound up’ first thing in the morning. All I could do was go about my day and hope that uncomfortable feeling would subside. My brain, unfortunately, had other ideas.

When I came back into the house, I noticed my vision was a little off. I could see odd bright spots and shadows, as though I had looked directly into a camera flash. I just figured it was my eyes readjusting to the comparatively dim indoor light after being outside in the sun, and that it would soon pass.

It didn’t pass

Instead, it got worse. Before long, I could hardly see anything at all. I was convinced I was going blind, and as soon as that thought entered my head the terror set in. Within moments, I was hyperventilating and sweating. My chest tightened painfully and I began to tremble uncontrollably. Somehow I managed to tell my husband in a choked whisper, ‘I’m having a panic attack.’

Having witnessed several of these frightening episodes, he knew exactly what to do. He sat me down on the couch, scooped up the closest dog — which happened to be Delilah — and plonked her down next to me.

I focused on the soothing weight of her warm little body on my lap and gently stroked her fur. Instinctively understanding my need for her presence, Delilah didn’t move for close to half an hour. Slowly, my panic subsided and my vision returned to normal.

When I felt better, Delilah climbed off the sofa and resumed her busy napping schedule, leaving me to marvel once again at dogs’ power to improve their humans’ health and wellbeing. Research has shown that having a dog boosts mental and physical health, reduces stress and even lowers blood pressure.

This wasn’t the first time dogs have been important teachers in my ongoing GAD journey. All three of my canine companions are experts in helping to calm and refocus me when my worrywart brain starts to spiral, but it’s my old boy, 13-year-old Tex, whose lessons have been the most enlightening.

You see, Tex also has GAD

He was diagnosed by a qualified veterinary behaviourist at the age of six and has been on Prozac — not some dog version of the drug, but actual human Prozac — ever since.

Tex’s anxiety presented mainly as hypervigilance and aggression: he nipped the lawnmower man, was hostile towards other dogs and would lose his mind any time a bicycle, skateboard or scooter rolled by. When his condition was finally diagnosed and properly treated, those antisocial behaviours vanished. As is often the case with mental illness, I didn’t realise how much Tex had been struggling until he started to get better.

Thanks to Tex, I’ve learned to not be ashamed of my GAD. He is who he is and he doesn’t care if you like it. I used to hide the fact that I take anti-anxiety medication and have a trusted team of mental health professionals, including a psychiatrist and a psychotherapist, in my corner. I was afraid of the stigma associated with those things. Now, like Tex, I couldn’t care less; I even write articles about it for national publications! My brain gets tied up in knots sometimes, but it’s beautiful just the same.

Tex has also taught me how to be more present, which is a very handy tool to be able to employ when I notice intrusive thoughts or start to get stuck in a cycle of fretting about past or future events. He has no interest in what happened yesterday or what might happen tomorrow. He does whatever he needs to do in that moment.

That might mean removing himself from a situation that’s making him uncomfortable — something I’m now much better at doing without apology or explanation — or curling up for a sleep when it all gets too much. Following his example, I have become the queen of naps!

These days, my panic attacks are much fewer and further between, and as ‘out there’ as it may sound, I give my dogs, especially Tex, a lot of credit for that. Watching the way they exist in the world, and leaning on them for support when I need it, has taught me more about managing my GAD than I ever thought possible.

Dogs have so much to teach us, if only we’re willing to learn.

Laura Greaves is the award-winning author of nine books. Her latest, Extraordinary Old Dogs: Uplifting True Tales of Remarkable Seniors, is published by Penguin on December 1. Follow Laura on Instagram at @lauragreavesauthor