Every morning I have a routine. I wake up at around 8, fix some coffee, and plop down on the couch. There I think about the day, maybe what to blog, or even my research (though it's usually too early for that). I often watch a little tv to wake up to, for now it's Star Trek. But I also have a cat, who is an aggressively cuddly cat. My cat, Lucie (nicknamed lucifer for her evil catness) usually cuddles me, demands attention, and then food. And, she also helps keep me stable.
I've been thinking about this for some time, why is it that she helps me so much? There is research supporting pets helping with depression, usually along the lines of them cuddling, requiring attention, and subduing lonliness. I can definitely speak to this, she's very helpful at keeping me sane when it comes to feeling lonely. But she also does a lot more from me, she demands care.
It sounds like it might be odd to think that demanding care is helpful when depressed or manic, but it does. The reason that I find is that she requires a rhythm. She needs to be fed, pet, brushed, cared for, etc... All of these require certain times, with some latitude. In short, she demands (she does demand them...) and requires certain behaviors regardless of the mood that I'm in. Thinking along the lines of behavioral activation, she provides a reinforcement for all of my behaviors. When I feed her, it's an easy task, but she rewards me by cuddling and cozying up to me later. Brushing her, she meows and loves the attention. In fact, all of the behaviors directed at maintaining her health are rewarded very quickly. In terms of behavioral activation, she asserts her list of requirements and provides small rewards for completion.
And these little tasks add up, they take only a few minutes every day, but accomplishing small tasks has an enormous benefit to my psychological wellbeing. They give some degree of satisfaction, and in doing so, energy. And this small boost of energy is like getting a small shot of coffee into my system. I feel like I can do things, even when I'm depressed. And when I'm manic, it gives me something to focus on. I can't ignore it either. I'm pestered constantly by my cat to do these things. So there's no way that my memory has time to fail. In keeping me focused on a regular task, I've found greatly increased stability. Little patterns of behavior keep me focused, which helps with activating me while depressed, and calmer when manic.
Small regular behaviors also provide some early warning signs. Not accomplishing them shows that I'm drifting in my moods. Behaviors, for me at least, almost always manifest before a change in internal mood. So having external cues is very important.
Strangely, having a cup of coffee in the morning and a cat are two of the things that I not only look forward to, but also keep me in check in ways that I have not found in the literature surrounding pets.