The Natural Healer in Your Bedroom: A Four-Legged's Guide to Reducing Human Stress

When I was very young, my first best friend was Mittens, a cocker spaniel who lived next door. For the first two years of my life, Mittens and I were inseparable. Mittens was my "rock of Gibraltar," providing constancy, love, companionship, play and friendship. In the company of Mittens, I was safe, relaxed and at peace. If my home life was stressful, I could count on Mittens to help me find safe harbor. I grieved deeply when Mittens passed on when I was just 2 1/2 years old. He was an irreplaceable source of comfort and stability for me.

Over the course of my lifetime, I have always chosen to share my home with four-leggeds, who I have come to call my "angels." I have found them to be little Buddhas, mirrors of wisdom and contentment. A sleeping dog or a purring cat at the foot of the bed, on one's lap, or in a nearby chair quietly emanates peace and tranquility. Cats and dogs offer some important messages for their human companions about reducing stress and finding peace as we face the daily challenges of our human world.

To prepare for this article, I consulted the 6 four-legged wise ones who live with my fourteen-year-old son and I: Golden, a 7 ½-year-old English lab, Scarlett, a 4-year-old Maine Coon Cat, Prayer, a 4-year-old chocolate point Siamese, Flora, a 3-year-old Birman, Toss, a 9 ½-year-old former feral cat, and Querido, a 2-year-old seal point Siamese. From their individual and collective experience, comes a guide to help reduce human stress.

Find Havens of Safety In An Often Unsafe World

While one's environment can contribute to a sense of peace and relaxation, my four-legged companions remind me we don't need to have everything "perfect" and "in order" to find havens of safety and comfort.  Rather than feeling pressure to have every piece of laundry perfectly folded and put away, my four-leggeds remind me that clothes and blankets have textures and may feel really comfortable to lie upon or snuggle up to.

A really soft pillow feels really good to lie on. A warm blanket is soothing to the touch and holds in body heat. A few rays of sunlight feel really nice and look beautiful. Four-legged animals are able to find havens of safety and comfort in very simple ways. Curling up with one of my kitties provides a wonderful feeling of love and connection — a real harbor from the sometimes cold and cruel human world.

the-natural-healer-in-bed-smallCreating and Sustaining Regular Rhythms

When it is time to get up in the morning, our dog, Golden is more reliable than an alarm clock. He sleeps in my son Alex's room and lets us know when it is time to have breakfast and get on with the morning's agenda. Golden is very tuned to the rhythms of our household. If my son sleeps in on a Saturday, Golden is patient and elects not to sound the 7 am wake up call. He somehow knows the rhythms of the weekday and the weekends, and helps everyone stay on track.

Our five cats have a similar innate sense of timing. They know when breakfast time is, and line up in the kitchen to remind me, just in case I might have become distracted by other morning chores. They remind me to change the litter box when it needs attention. They know about the balance of sleeping, playing, eating and snuggling, all in regular rhythms.

They try to tell the humans in this household to set and maintain regular rhythms so that everyone has what they need when they need it.  We humans, too often, ignore our internal rhythms, and succumb to external pressures or demands that throw us off balance. Creating and sustaining regular rhythms is a way of life for our dog and cats.

A Long-Term Relationship Till Death Do Us Part

I have read many articles extolling the life-extending properties of four-legged companionship. Although we have learned to go it alone when required in our human world. Our four-leggeds remind us of the importance of emotional attachment and sustained intimacy. One's dog or cat may be one's longest-standing, intimate daily companion. Marriages and other love relationships end. Children grow up and leave home. A cat or dog will truly stand by you "till death do you part," as long as you embrace and engage in the connection your four-legged offers. The love and attachment a four-legged has to offer is pure, unconditional love. This provides a steady haven in lonely times, sad times, scary times and just plain hard times.

Nurturing Touch

Touch is a basic human need, and a source of comfort, connection and relaxation. I often refer to nurturing touch as "vitamin T." Too many human beings are touch-isolated and touch-deprived in our daily lives. Our four-legged companions remind us that the stress-relieving experience of nurturing touch is just a paw's length away. My cats and dog all love to be petted, and rejoice in the mutuality of touching and being touched. I had one black and white cat, Buddha, who became the "bathroom goddess," because she realized if she hung out in the bathroom, specifically on the sink, being petted and touched was a virtual guarantee!

My cats like to lie on my body (my heart, my stomach, my feet, and even my head), and given a choice, they would sleep with me or beside me rather than anywhere else. Golden, our dog, leaps onto the bed when given a chance, and cries if he is not in a room with a human being at night. Four-legged companions offer an abundant reservoir of nurturing touch.

Expressing and Receiving Affection

Human beings aren't always the most forthcoming with affection, be it in words or physical gestures. My cats and dogs have always been very authentic and transparent with their affection — lying on the newspaper I am reading and starting to purr, sitting beside me and wagging a tail, or nuzzling a face into my hand with a "please pet me" innuendo. When I respond, it is always clear that my attention and affection make them very happy.

I have met many a human, whose heart has been broken by human relationships and so, does not feel safe risking the hurt of getting too close to another human being. The purity and constancy of a four-legged's love may be a healing potion for an otherwise affection-fearing human. Many years ago, I knew a man who had a hard time hugging his wife, but who felt safety and comfort petting his dog. The connection this man had with his dog offered hope that he could heal his heart and give and receive affection with his wife.

Finding Joy in the Simplest of Things

To a four-legged, the world is a toy and an amusement park. My two Siamese cats love playing with elastic bands and old Q-tips, pawing them joyfully. Paper grocery bags just back from the supermarket, boxes waiting to go out to the recycling and any packing materials lying around become instant entertainment for my cats. One human's "trash" becomes one feline's playground. Old tennis balls are source of fun for Golden, where he basks in the sun in our side yard, "his" yard. He holds court there and delights all the neighborhood kids, the postman, the UPS delivery staff, and many adults who pass by. I smile as I watch my four-leggeds demonstrate again and again that the world is a toy.

Discerning Danger While Welcoming the World

Four-leggeds have an innate sense of who is friendly and who is dangerous, yet fundamentally bring a spirit of engagement and hospitality to all who cross their paths. Humans can get stressed out worrying about whether any stranger is a potential intruder, and often shy away from welcoming those they do not know.

Many people feel safer when their dog is there to protect them. Yet dog owners often have a unique window into meeting new people, because the dog makes the connection first. I have had conversations with people in my neighborhood because they have already met Golden. Flora will welcome most any newcomer with a "come pet me" gesture, followed by an enthusiastic purr. Life feels lighter, with greater possibilities for connection in the company of a four-legged ambassador.

Reminding Us To Come Back To Our Centers

While a dog or cat might have a momentary spat, hiss or swat, the majority of the time, s/he is most likely calm, relaxed and happy. Four-leggeds know how to remain centered, emotionally, physically and spiritually. While we humans run around, lose touch with our natural rhythms in the face of work pressures and deadlines, and forget to take time out to breathe, four-leggeds live life at a much slower and more integrated pace.

Curled up sleeping on my printer, Flora reminds me to slow down, breathe deeply, and enjoy the moment. I find writing a lot more fun from a centered place. My four-leggeds let me know that not only are there things I can do to reduce my stress, but also there are ways of living and being that don't create stress in the first place. I appreciate that message most of all.

Linda Marks, MSM, has practiced EKP, a heart-centered approach to body psychotherapy, with individuals, couples and groups for twenty-five years. She is on the faculty of the College for Public and Community Service at UMass Boston. You can reach Linda at, or (617) 965-7846.