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Food and Pets as Stress Relief Tools

Harry Mills, Ph.D., Natalie Reiss, Ph.D. and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.


woman saying yes to healthy foodOur senses have evolved in such a way that we find great pleasure in consuming foods that are fatty and sweet. For our ancestors, these taste sensations were hard to come by and signaled a high quality food source, but today, these same cravings have become problematic. Now, we have pizza parlors, hamburger joints and ice cream shops on every corner, and it has become all too easy to overeat foods we crave, leading to health problems. Typical modern responses to this bounty are to diet and restrict our access to such desirable foods, or to overdose on them and become obese. Neither of these outcomes is particularly healthy. In a time and place of relative abundance, the modern dilemma involves the difficult task of learning how to eat wisely.

Wise eating today means to consciously choose to consume higher quality foods in smaller portions. While there are a vast amount of foods available, much of them are highly processed, refined, calculated to last a long time on supermarket shelves, and designed to capitalize on our inborn desire for highly sweet and fatty taste sensations. While readily available, highly convenient and temporarily satisfying, such food does not offer high quality nutrition or flavor.

Flavorful, nutritious foods are also available in supermarkets and in specialty and health food markets in the fresh foods sections (rather than in the prepared and snack foods sections). Fresh foods are not as convenient to serve as already prepared and snack foods, but they are far more nutritious and can be much more delicious when cooked properly.

Wise eaters also discover that food preparation has its own sensual, absorbing rhythms. The act of preparing food to share with one's family can be a method of conveying love. The secret to extracting maximum joy from food is to care about it and take your time with it, as much as possible. As the "slow food" and seasonal food movements teach us, we maximize our enjoyment of food by learning how to distinguish high quality foods from bad foods, by selecting and purchasing high quality foods, by preparing them with care, by sharing them with people we love, and by taking the time to consciously savor their flavors rather than wolfing them down.

Beyond learning to think of food as a means of experiencing pleasure rather than as a simple source of fuel or comfort, it is also helpful to become more aware of how different foods affect the body's stress levels. Foods containing caffeine and foods with a high protein content can heighten alertness, increase arousal, and consequently, ramp up stress levels. Foods high in carbohydrates, on the other hand, are natural stress reducers. They raise brain levels of tryptophan, one of the building blocks of the calming neurotransmitter Serotonin. A small carbohydrate snack can help you feel calmer and more relaxed in the midst of a trying afternoon, and a glass of milk at bedtime really can help you fall asleep.

For more information on making healthy food choices, please consult our Nutrition topic center.


The therapeutic use of pets to enhance the mental and physical health of a wide variety of individuals, including people with AIDS or cancer, older adults living in institutions, and individuals with mental illness, has received increasing amounts of attention. You do not have to be a member of any of these groups to benefit from owning and caring for a pet, however. For many people, pets are also a wonderful way to reduce stress.

Pets provide stress reducing effects for a number of reasons. First, pets (unlike "more complicated" humans) are usually relatively consistent with regard to their behavior (they wag their tails, sit on our laps, swim around their tanks, eat, and sleep in certain patterns, at certain times, etc.). Compared to humans, our relationships with our pets are predictable. If we feed and properly pay attention to our pets, they in turn will show us unconditional affection (this reciprocity only applies to certain pets, like dogs, cats, etc., but you get the idea). Animals will not argue, "stab us in the back," or engage in indirect, confusing or contradictory behavior that can cause us to feel stressed. In addition, this consistency, predictability, and unconditional love can be quite comforting (and stress reducing) when people feel as if everything is out of control or continuously changing.

Most people receive a sense of satisfaction, fulfillment and competence from taking care of a pet. Feeding, grooming, and otherwise caring for a pet is a form of nurturing. This nurturing behavior allows us to focus on someone (or something) other than ourselves, and feel a sense of pride in having a healthy and happy companion. A sense of competence can decrease feelings of stress, enhance our feelings of self-worth, and in turn increase our sense of being able to positively impact our environment.

Pets can also directly improve our moods. Individuals who have pets tend to feel less lonely, less isolated, and less depressed, and therefore less stressed. In addition, owning certain types of pets (e.g., dogs) also increases the likelihood that we will go outside and interact with other people (particularly individuals who share a similar pet, or at least an affinity for that type of companion). As we have said before, socialization increases positive mood, as well as enhances the likelihood that we will build a strong social support network (another buffer against the negative impacts of stress).

Research also suggests that owning pets has direct physiological (body) effects. Pets seem to decrease blood pressure, lower heart rate, and decrease muscular tension, both in reaction to specific stressful events as well as across time (in general). In addition, if you have a pet that requires exercise; you are more likely to exercise (and gain all of the positive health and stress reducing benefits described previously) yourself.

Finally, many people gain a sense of safety and security from their pets. In particular, individuals who worry about (and feel negatively stressed by) the safety of their neighborhood, or being alone when a spouse or relationship partner travels can take comfort in the sense of being protected.

Just like many of the other stress reducing techniques we recommend in this article, it is important to realize that owning a pet isn't for everyone. Pets come with additional work and responsibility, which can bring about its own stress. It also important to remember to weigh the pros and cons of different types of pets (and different breeds within different species) in light of particular personalities (the amount of time you are willing and able to devote to a pet), living situations (the size of your home, whether the animal needs to and can go outside independently), family structure (the presence of young children, other pets, etc. in your home), lifestyles (the amount of time that the pet will be alone and/or boarded in a strange place due to traveling, working, etc.), and so on. However, for many people, the stress reducing benefits of having a pet outweigh the potential drawbacks.