Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, can come from any event that causes trauma. It is common to experience some degree of PTSD after experiencing a natural disaster, active combat duty, childhood or domestic abuse, sexual assault, or a serious accident. For most people, the symptoms of trauma are strongest for the first few weeks and resolve over time. For others, these symptoms remain and get worse over time.
It can be uncomfortable to ask for help when experiencing a PTSD episode, but this is where a service animal can offer significant relief. The animals in our lives often offer us emotional comfort, companionship, and friendship. Many of us think we are responsible for caring for our animals. While that is true, no matter what your dynamic is with your animals, we tend to underestimate just how far the care we give them can be reciprocated.
What Defines a Service Animal?
According to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals are “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” It is worth noting that while dogs are the most commonly used, other definitions include broader limits when it comes to what type of animal is considered a service animal. According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA), a service dog is trained to do the following:
- Things that are different from normal dog behavior
- Learn how to work with an owner to help manage a disability
- Things an owner cannot do because of a disability
PTSD and other mental health disorders can have a taxing effect on daily functioning. Living with this disorder can be debilitating. Most people living with this condition experience difficulty with their day-to-day functioning. Flashbacks, nightmares, and panic attacks are the more common symptoms of PTSD, and experiencing these frequently can make a person feel as though they will be unable to regain a sense of normalcy in their lives. For many people, a service animal is a beneficial aid for coping.
A psychiatric service dog carries out important tasks to support a person living with a mental health disorder. They are trained to ease symptoms and provide comfort in stressful times. Psychiatric service animals are used to treat a variety of mental health disorders, such as:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
An Important Distinction
Psychiatric service animals and emotional support animals (ESAs) may perform similar tasks for their owners. However, it is important to note that psychiatric service animals differ from emotional support or therapy animals. Psychiatric service animals, like all other service animals, go through extensive training to understand and pick up signs of when their owner may slip into an episode. They are not considered pets under the legal definition.
On the other hand, an ESA is considered a pet. ESAs are used to help cope with mental illness; however, they are not trained to perform any specific tasks. Their mere presence offers comfort to their owner. Despite this, some of the actions an ESA takes can be similar to a service or therapy animal.
Additionally, a therapy animal is trained to provide comfort and affection to people in stressful environments. For example, therapy dogs may visit nursing homes or terminally ill individuals to provide calm and comforting companionship. These animals are typically seen during psychotherapeutic animal-assisted therapy. These animals work closely with a therapist or other licensed professionals to provide comfort.
Impact of Service Animals on PTSD
PTSD symptoms can vary from person to person. However, the most common are panic attacks, nightmares, and anxiety. The psychiatric service dogs working with people experiencing PTSD are trained to perform actions that emotionally ground their owner.
A psychiatric service dog may perform several tasks for their owner during the onset of PTSD symptoms. For example, a trained service animal may wake their owner from a night terror or lead their owner to a quieter or less crowded area of a room. Service animals may be trained to call or signal for help, bring their owner medication, or provide emotional support by leaning or pawing their owner. There are many different roles a service animal can take on. This continued support from a service animal can enhance the quality of life for an individual and improve daily functioning.
When symptoms of PTSD arise, they can leave you with a plethora of negative feelings. You may feel helplessness, confusion, and despair. It can be an overwhelming and isolating experience, but having a companion dedicated to you can make it easier to cope with adversity. A trained service animal equipped with the tools necessary to combat the difficult emotions felt when recovering from PTSD can make a world of difference.
If you believe you or a loved one is experiencing the symptoms of PTSD, do not hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional. The first and most important step toward recovery is asking for help.
PTSD takes time to overcome. However, with the right care, you can regain that sense of normalcy again. You do not have to feel alone in your experience, whether you are overcoming childhood trauma or an active combat veteran. Destiny Recovery Center is here to support you each step of the way. At Destiny Recovery Center, we are dedicated to giving you all the tools necessary for your recovery journey. With Destiny, you are given access to some of the best mental health care options available. In combination with our highly individualized programs, our team of mental health professionals is committed to providing the highest quality care. Call us today at (909) 413-4304 to learn more about our treatment programs.