Chronic Stress and Its Effects on the Bond


Media such as podcasts, blogs, and even commentaries all suffer from the same limitation: All force the presenter to condense a subject into a small portion. Think snacks instead of a balanced meal. At the same time, though, those presenting in their area of expertise (hopefully) know there’s always more to the story. We’re always looking for ways to connect dots, see patterns, or the bigger picture as we learn more.

The past few years I’ve written or talked a lot about the effects of stress. Part of this is because being stressed increasingly seems to be the normal mental state of many people. And this does affect their animals’ behavior and the quality of their bonds with each other. Recently I’ve explored various facets of the concept of emotional contagion in 3 podcasts–Emotional Contagion and the Human-Animal Bond , Pathways of Human-Animal Communication  and Emotional Contagion and the Mirror Test –and one commentary, The Most Highly Contagious Disease.

Fearful or anxious people who don’t want their animals to experience fear- and anxiety-related problem behaviors face two options.

  • They can select animals whose breeding, temperament, and training enable the animals to ignore or handle those stressful situations their owners can’t.
  • They can conquer their own fears and anxieties to help their dogs. But this is easier said than done, particularly when being stressed carries the connotation that these folks are more sensitive and caring than their more relaxed associates. (Keep this thought in mind. We’ll come back to it shortly.)

But during these many stress-related discussions, I never considered the effects of chronic stress. How does chronic stress effect behavior and the quality of the human-companion animal bond?

To answer that question, we first must ask, “How does chronic stress affect the brain?” The short answer is that it really gums up the works. And especially the frontal cortex which plays a key role in multiple functions involved in maintaining a quality bond with an animal. These include functions necessary to resolve fearful and anxious problem animal behaviors. Functions like problem-solving, memory, impulse control, judgement, and initiation go down the drain when we’re chronically stressed. Can you imagine helping your stressed pet in a meaningful way when you lack these abilities yourself?

Worse, it’s not a case of stress just messing with these functions at times of stress and then bouncing back to normal. Would that this were true!  If our brains think we’re facing a persistent potential for danger, such as taking to heart whatever horrors wait to assault us in the daily news or on social media, it’s going to make sure it remembers all these changes. Not only that, it will summon them in response to other situations too.

So in some ways, fear responses work like any other facilitated response. Once we activate and reinforce those stress-related changes in the brain, it becomes easier for the brain to respond fearfully when another stressor arises.

How might this play out when fearful dog and owner find each other? Given the effect of chronic stress, logic says neither one possesses the skills necessary to objectively evaluate a situation for potential threats, determine the best solution, and initiate any changes in a thoughtful manner. Experience tells me that sometimes the dog will assume the role of protector and sometimes the person will, even though neither really wants it.

But the stressed brain story doesn’t end there.

Even though it’s a sound survival strategy for one of them to assume this responsibility if the threat is real, the probability of the stressed individual making this call is much lower than if it’s made by someone more relaxed. This occurs because stressed brains are into survival mode. That’s the first problem.

The second problem takes us back to the belief that there’s a direct relationship between stress levels, compassion, and empathy. Stressed people may perceive themselves as more sensitive and, by extension, more compassionate and empathic relative to the needs of others. But this isn’t true. Human and animal studies indicate that chronic stress actually decreases compassion and empathy for others.

This explains why chronically stressed animals, e.g. dogs and cats who assume protective roles in households that exceed the animals’ abilities, often do a lot more damage to others, their environments, and themselves than more relaxed animals in those same environments. It also explains those situations in which chronically stressed owners loose it when their stressed animals do this.

However, what these people do may vary. Some may attack the aggressive or destructive animal verbally or physically like raving maniacs, with some even causing fatal injuries. Other owners will physically or verbally attack the perceived threat instead, blaming the attacked person or animal for causing their stressed animal to aggress. This is totally irrational, but it makes sense to the chronically stressed brain thanks to its lack of compassion and empathy. Simultaneously, chronically stressed animals may lose it too, and for the same reasons. This includes what some people consider the ultimate sin: the animal biting the owner who interferes with the frightened animal’s attempts to protect them both.

But in all cases and regardless how negative the behavior and costly the outcome, at the time it occurs stressed human and animal will perceive theirs as the only possible response under the circumstances. While others might consider their reactions excessive or even downright crazy, in their stress-primed minds their behavior is logical.

What we have here is a major breakdown in human-animal communication and the bond because the chronically stressed person and dog live in a chronic state of survival mode. They can’t process a situation, let alone head off problems, because they lack the self-control and problem-solving abilities to consider other options. Nor can they recognize any interpretation of the situation except their own because they lack the empathy that would enable them to do this. Although these folks may feel sorry that their own animals are suffering, their own suffering consumes all their energy. Meanwhile their animals are so consumed by their own problems, they have little energy to worry about what suffering their stress-related behavioral problems are causing their people.

Are stressed human and animal pairs incapable of handling the stress in their lives doomed? Not necessarily.  Regardless how impossible self-change may seem, life goes on. While some people and animals will maintain their stressed orientations their entire lives, stress will diminish in others as they gain more experience or move past their primes. Events that used to upset them no longer do. Sometimes perception declines with age, and sights, sounds and other stimuli that used to trigger a stress response no longer do. Other times they may find ways to distance themselves from the stress.  Yet other times, environmental changes relieve the stress.

But without a doubt though, those chronically stressed companion animals at greatest risk for behavior and health problems are those functioning as real or de facto emotional support or service animals for people suffering from chronic stress themselves.  Because of the many effects of chronic stress on the brain, any illusions that the people these animals live with harbor that the animal reliably will protect them are unjustified.

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