Invest in your pet. The more energy you put into your pet the more it will be returned. Take classes on animal obedience, do research on different breeds. Do research on animal psychology. All of this will make your pet happy and that happiness will be given back to you.
Pets have always been more than just companions; they play a pivotal role in enhancing our mental well-being. From the unconditional love of a dog to the calming presence of a cat, pets have a unique way of alleviating stress, anxiety, and loneliness. But how do we truly harness the therapeutic potential of our furry, feathered, or scaled friends? How can they aid in promoting mindfulness, reducing depression, or even enhancing social interactions? In this interview series, we are talking to veterinarians, psychologists, therapists, pet trainers, and other experts who can shed light on how to maximize the mental health benefits of having a pet. As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing James Marrugo.
James Marrugo is a Psychotherapist practicinng out of Greenwood Village Colorado. James has spent much of his clinical focus on helping people get rid of unwanted thought and feelings. He also has a soft spot for our four legged friends and has his own Emotional Support Animal to help him stay balanced on his most challenging days as a mental health professional.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your childhood backstory?
My parents are immigrants so I’m a first generation American. Growing up my childhood was pretty normal. Argruments with my older sister. Basketball and video games with my older brother. Watching my mom cook in the kitchen and waiting for my dad to get home from work so I could share my day-to-day with him. My parents instilled me in a motivation and drive to work hard. To show up with everything that I have and to not make excuses for my mistakes.Childhood to me in hindset was normal. A decent house, a nice yard, neighborhood kids, and even a family dog. My family has always owned dogs since before I was born. The family dog I grew up with was always protective of me. I sort of thought of him as a second big brother. In my room when I was sad or resting his head on my legs when I was sick with a cold. Still to this day I miss and appreciate the first pet I ever took care of.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I find the majority of my career to be highly interesting so it is difficult for me to pick one particular event. The moments that stand out the most are the ones where a client will find freedom from their unwanted emotions and thoughts. In these moments, despite being emotionally charged, people find a sense of unbridled relief. Years of pain or suffering finally comes to a close and they experience having a new lease on life. Emotional freedom. Their whole demanor changes. They have genuine smiles, confidence in themselves, relaxed shoulders, and a determination to stay happy and not fall backwards. These are the moments that drive me as a Psychotherapist.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman was profound for me because it helped me understand my own emotions and the emotions of others. This lead me to get a degree in Psychology which turned into a graduate program into Clincal Mental Health Counseling. I can easily say this was the catalyst for my career in mental health.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Can you share a personal story about how a pet has helped you or someone you know to improve mental wellness?
During the pandemic I was an intern at an addiction recovery clinic. The work was really hard and I had to switch my entire life into one big Zoom meeting. I was not able to see my friends or family on a regular basis and each one of my clients was a mirror into my own human suffering. I felt as though I could not escape my own pain. My wife had started to spend more time with our dogs and I decided to adopt the same habit. I soon realized that I was starting to feel better by being focused on my four legged family members. I spoke to another mental health professional and learned more about ESA’s. From there I applied to have one of our pets become my ESA and started to acknowledge I felt better. If it wasn’t for my dogs, I don’t think I would have kept my career as a psychotherapist.
While human interaction is essential for emotional well-being, in what ways do interactions with pets offer unique benefits that human relationships might not provide?
Pets regularly and easily give unconditional love. It is the same type of love most children receive from their parents. Once we reach adulthood it is difficult to find this again, this type of affection that comes with little work. A type of acceptance that is unfettered by human judgement. Our pets do not judge us for how we look out in public or how nice house we have or anything of the sort. Best of all, when we talk they will often sit and listen intently.
Can you explain how this works? How do pets, particularly common ones like dogs and cats, biologically and psychologically help to alleviate human stress levels and anxieties?
Pets give us focus. When we sit by ourselves our brain will continue to try and solve problems or we begin to judge ourselves for the problems we currently face. Pets give us purpose bigger than ourselves. It can be a very spiritual experience to take care of a pet. A sense of a higher calling. This gives us meaning, value, and a focus on doing good for our pets. This focus give our brain a break from the daily grind of human existence. Thus, stress levels go down improving our mental health.
In the backdrop of global events like pandemics or natural disasters, how have you seen pets playing a role in alleviating anxiety and providing comfort? Can you share some instances where pets have been integrated into therapeutic practices? How do they complement traditional therapeutic techniques?
Pets continue to have a big role in pandemics and natural disasters when it comes to alleviating mental health concerns. Therapy animals are wonderful as they often reflect the emotions of the humans around them or can provide comfort for unwanted thoughts and feelings. When it comes to reflecting emotions, horses do this very well. If the human rider is nervous, the horse will respond with equal nervousness. This gives the person an opportunity to challenge themselves to practice anxiety management so as to learn how to control the anxiety instead of beign controlled by anxiety. Dogs will show affection and can even be trained to engage in specific behaviors such as a nose boop. When people become upset during a difficult memory in a therapy session, dogs and offer physical comfort through licks, cuddling and resting their head on a persons lamp to remind them they are not alone in their pain.
Not all pets are dogs or cats. From birds to fish to reptiles, how can individuals choose the right pet that aligns with their mental health needs?
The first decision to make is talking to a mental health professional and collaborting on what you need. Explore questios like when do you most need interaction with your chosen pet. Taking a fish to work probably isn’t going to happen by getting a service dog will allow for flexibility. What level of care can you provide? Perhaps a pet like a fish is the best choice if there needs to be a simple option.
How does the act of taking care of a pet — feeding, grooming, exercising — contribute to an individual’s sense of purpose and mental well-being?
As I mentioned before, taking care of a pet is the act of engaging is something bigger than yourself. When people engage in something bigger than their own individuality, they begin to find purpose in life. An easy example of this is volunteering. Many people I know volunteer at animal shelters to do simple things like take the dogs on walks or give the cats play time, even comfort the dogs during storms.
The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. From your experience or research, what are your “Five Ways To Maximize the Mental Health Benefits of Having a Pet?”
1 . Find a pet that fits your lifestyle. Are you a homebody or a modern day adventurer? Find the pet that will be happy in your daily routine.
2 . Invest in your pet. The more energy you put into your pet the more it will be returned. Take classes on animal obedience, do research on different breeds. Do research on animal psychology. All of this will make your pet happy and that happiness will be given back to you.
3 . Notice how your pet makes you feel. It is easy to get caught up in the hamster wheel. Give yourself a chance to pay attention to how engaging with your pet impacts your emotions.
4 . Pets are not perfect. Jus like humans pets have good days and bad days. It is a good reminder to be accepting of yourself just as you will be accepting of your pet.
5 . Trust your pet. They rely on you and you rely on them. They want what's best for you just as you for them Trust yourself like you trust your pet.
The loss of a pet can be deeply traumatic. How can individuals navigate this grief, and how does it compare to other forms of loss in terms of mental health impact?
Loss is loss regardless of the type. The human brain does not differeiate between different types of loss but instead categorizes the importance of each loss. Speak to a professional and allow yourself to experience grief. Try not to isolate and push others away. Have a funeral service or even a symbolic one. No type of loss needs to be minimized.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of peace to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?
I would inpsire more mental health talks in the workplace. Coporoate America is not as mentally sound as it could be. We spend most of our time at work and since work is tied to so many things ike friends, financial security, purpose, and health insurance to name a few, it is important that C level exutives take mental health more seriously.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. :-)
Honestly, anyone who wants to talk to me about mental health is welcome to reach out. I love what I do and find an extreme amount of value in my work. I love spreading the word about mental health in all areas of life. I’d be honored to have anyone reach out to take time out of thier day to ask me questions.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I have my own website and a podcast which can both be found in this link https://morningcoffeecounseling.com/
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
About the Interviewer: Wanda Malhotra is a wellness entrepreneur, lifestyle journalist, and the CEO of Crunchy Mama Box, a mission-driven platform promoting conscious living. CMB empowers individuals with educational resources and vetted products to help them make informed choices. Passionate about social causes like environmental preservation and animal welfare, Wanda writes about clean beauty, wellness, nutrition, social impact and sustainability, simplifying wellness with curated resources. Join Wanda and the Crunchy Mama Box community in embracing a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle at CrunchyMamaBox.com .