CULTURE

Why caring for something is good for mental health

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Be they pets, plants, or cute video game animals, the act of caring or nurturing or watching something grow touches a part of us that is looking for fulfillment. Photo by JL JAVIER

Ever since the '90s, millennials have had an obsession with seeming “too cool to care.” Characters like J.D. from “Heathers” and the entire cast of “Freaks and Geeks” are caricatures of that idea. They showed us that being distant, aloof, and slightly irreverent made you the resident “cool uncool kid.” It seems, however, that the pandemic has uncovered some news that may shock a generation that is constantly reinventing indifference: caring is good for our health.

“This act of caring or nurturing or watching something grow touches a part of us that is looking for variety, meaning, fulfillment,” explained Raphael Inocencio, RPsy, a psychologist who works for Better Steps.

The current climate being detrimental to our mental health is nothing new. Toward the end of 2020, Inocencio said they had almost double the numbers of 2019. Now, in 2021, they continue to operate at full capacity remotely. There’s no specific age bracket when it comes to their patients either. “I think it’s more like a generalized trend because we’re all wired toward growth,” he said. Where our bodies and minds want to move forward, the pandemic has forced us all to pause. That’s where the importance of caring comes into play.

In a 2009 study, Haley, Grant, Clay, and Allen found that 90% of stroke caregivers had developed a new appreciation for life. While, pre-pandemic, this was largely observed in caregivers, a surge of people adopting pets and plants into their lives have made this phenomenon more widespread.

Tootsie, a handsome Belgian Malinois, was a former explosives detection K-9, and the star at the Army agility course during his heydays in service. He was adopted through Hound Haven in Bulacan. Photos courtesy of HOUND HAVEN

Kara*, a recent pet parent, discovered that caring for a puppy brought her a different type of joy especially after battling difficulties. “Brutus came at a time after I barely recovered from a really bad bout of chronic illness, and he showed me how to be excited about the little things again,” she shared. “He dances after waking up, when he smells food, when he meets any strangers. I used to think of fulfilment as an endless checklist of things to do, obsessing over a trajectory in my life — but Brutus taught me that even the things I took for granted were worth celebrating.”

While loneliness has become a companion to many of us, Kara found that Brutus has abated many of those negative feelings. “Having Brutus, my emotions still feel “heard” — he’s really empathetic to changes in my mood,” she said. “I notice if I lie down a lot more due to lethargy he tends to prop up beside me and bring me some of his toys. When I sit on the floor beside him he likes to put his head on my hand. It’s impossible to feel lonely now.”

Caring for a dog has also helped her connect with people. She’s bonded with friends that are also pet parents, as well as connected with new ones she’s met during Brutus’ afternoon walks. One such friend is Valerie, a mom to two Italian Greyhounds.

Valerie has described being a pet parent as wonderful and beneficial to her. “I suffer from depression and have been taking medications and therapy for over a year before I got Sasha. There was a huge difference,” she explained, contrasting her life before and after her dogs. A painter, she dispelled the myth of the “struggling artist,” stating that being in a healthier headspace has actually been better for her creative process. Her dogs are to thank for that.

“This act of caring or nurturing or watching something grow touches a part of us that is looking for variety, meaning, fulfillment.”

She added, “Since dogs respond more to praise and positive talk while training, saying the praises out loud like ‘good girl’ or ‘good job’ felt like I was also praising myself. You can't say ‘good job’ without having the body language to back it up. They won't believe you. I ended up mirroring my dog's enthusiasm.”

Similarly, Ara, who has had her dog Missy since 2012, found that their relationship had evolved in parallel two months into the pandemic. “I think the pandemic made her clingier because I’m always home. She’s so clingy to the point that she has to be next to me all the time. When I leave the room she cries, or whenever I walk out she has to follow me.”

Ara realized that she, too, had started to find Missy’s constant presence comforting and crave for it. “There were a lot of nights where I’d be so stressed or cry and, you know how dogs — they feel when you’re anxious, they feel when you’re sad, and when you cry they approach you? So it was really good to have that emotional support. Oftentimes, even when I’m so stressed already with work, when I see her, my mood instantly changes.”

“I think because people realize there’s no end in sight, I can take care of this [pet], it’s a good way to tide through with another living thing,” Inocencio chimed in. “Again, it touches upon our need to connect with another living thing to get feedback or interaction.”

In addition to the emotional, a pet satisfies the need for physical interaction. “It’s a more accessible thing to interact with an animal because they move and they respond to you rather quickly,” Inocencio stated.

“Physical contact with another living being is comforting,” Valerie confirmed. “It feels different whenever you see someone physically responding to your actions. You see the direct effects of positive talk coupled with body language. In turn, you learn to be more authentic and expressive. Dogs act like you're their entire world. It feels great to see another being value you so much, that there's no reason to value yourself any less.”

RELATED: In Bulacan, this dog sanctuary matches retired army dogs with new families

The benefits that we draw from caring for a living being are not exclusive to pets. Along with increased rates of adoptions, the world has seen the rise of people purchasing plants. Locally, they’ve self-identified as “plantitas” and “plantitos.” The benefits of having live plants within enclosed spaces has long been explored, but because the pandemic has herded us indoors, the relevance has seen a steady rise.

Anika, who first got into plants during quarantine after her psychiatrist encouraged her to keep her hands busy, said that her plants have given her room more color. “Aside from the fact that my snake plant emits oxygen at night, seeing bits of green just makes me feel like I’m not indoors? I don’t know if that makes any sense but it just makes me feel not alone,” she shared.

Like many of us, she works from home, mostly inside her room. She described her space as small but full of life. “I talk to [my plants] when I water them too so in a sense I really feel like I am surrounded by living things and that has not only helped me with the pandemic but also with my depression.”

“Since dogs respond more to praise and positive talk while training, saying the praises out loud like ‘good girl’ or ‘good job’ felt like I was also praising myself. You can't say ‘good job’ without having the body language to back it up. They won't believe you. I ended up mirroring my dog's enthusiasm.”

Anika has taken to “dressing up” her plants by painting their pots, candidly declaring that caring for them has given her a schedule, a purpose, and a reason to stay alive. “They’re living without actually showing you they’re living. Unlike my dog it won’t cry if I forget to feed it or smell if it needs a bath, I really had to remind myself of the watering schedules or opening my curtains to make sure they get light. They require a different kind of care — less effort but more attention, attention to detail.”

“A lot of plant people will personify their experiences with plants,” Inocencio remarked.

A testament to that, Anika joked that her plants could be dramatic, which they expressed through their leaves. “If they don’t get enough sun or water, their leaves will show it by being droopy and once you notice it you’re like, ‘What, I am so sorry, please forgive me. Here’s water and sun. Please be beautiful again!’” She now owns 10 different plants.

The act of caring for plants can extend past watering and growing a live one. Froilan Aloro, founder of TerraPlantae, created a community centered around the art of making terrariums after it had given him joy during the pandemic. “Making a terrarium brings about excitement when you make one,” he gushed.

Terrariums, which are like mini greenhouses, are typically glass containers that house small plants. The designs for these terrariums can range from simple to elaborate, and the freedom of creation is where many terrarium artists derive their joy. “I always follow a freestyle design. I don’t draw it ahead of time because, for me, it kills the excitement and the surprise later on,” Aloro explained.

“I talk to [my plants] when I water them too so in a sense I really feel like I am surrounded by living things and that has not only helped me with the pandemic but also with my depression,” says plant parent Anika. Photo by JL JAVIER

Creating a terrarium requires a lot of focus and tactile interaction with the plants. In a way, you’re connecting with a life form for hours at a time. “When you hold a piece of nature or when you are in touch with nature, it brings back childhood memories,” Aloro said. “Nature is always associated with peace and calmness. It sends a signal to the brain that you are not in immediate danger or threat.”

The idea that we can care for something other than ourselves even crosses over to the digital realm. People who may not have the access to plants or pets, especially now that we’ve retreated indoors, are channeling their energy into caring for something within their video games.

“Touching on 'Animal Crossing,' which is a virtual world that you shape, I think it represents our want for something different,” Inocencio said. It’s an escape from what has become our new day-to-day — sitting in front of the computer for hours on end without any real human interaction.

“Normally, if you think about your life before this, you go out. Yes, you go out to the same job, but there’s so many things that could happen throughout the day.” While we may have had our routines before the pandemic, they were somewhat loose, allowing for new things to seep into the regular. We had the avenue to discover a freshly opened coffee shop or pass a different street on the way to work. “Now there’s no variety and now going out might be scary or dreadful for some people,” he said.

The phenomenon that is “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” is evidence. Operating similarly to “Sims,” “Animal Crossing” is a video game without a story or a final boss to defeat. Instead, it takes you on an island getaway where a customizable avatar of yourself can build terrains and furniture from scratch, catch fishes and bugs, and befriend anthropomorphic animal villagers. When it comes to creating within the game, the only limit is your imagination.

“It’s such a collaborative experience — being able to move island to island,” Innocencio said. “It not only touches on the creative aspect we want but it allows us to have human interaction also.”

The idea that we can care for something other than ourselves even crosses over to the digital realm, such as in the video game "Animal Crossing."

Kara, who also runs the Instagram account @ANIMALCROSSINGFASHIONARCHIVE, said that playing the game and running the profile helped her reconnect with people. “In a way it was a game built for the terrible collective experience we have all been going through, a morsel of lightness despite the times,” she said.

I myself have clocked in 1000 hours of playtime across two islands where I recreated the two places I missed and wanted to visit the most: Boracay and Japan.

“The mere fact you’re able to walk around, go somewhere else, and create, it touches on all of those needs that weren’t being addressed on the onset,” Inocencio said. “It’s a second life away from your house where you’ve been stuck.”

Part of the social interaction that is built into “Animal Crossing” also involves its “villagers,” who you can invite to live on your island in the game. There are 397 villagers, each slotted into one of seven personality types: Jocks, Uchi (Big Sister), Normal, Peppy, Lazy, Snooty, Cranky, and Smug. “It’s funny how people hate this one but they love this one, but if you look at what they’re saying, it’s similar,” Inocencio discussed. “Everyone has their own take on it. I guess, if you think about your own friend group, you’ll have a friend who’s really like that and might say this thing, and it touched upon that part of that.”

It’s important to note that, despite all the benefits that caring for something else may present, you need to be responsible. Not everyone will benefit from having a pet or a plant, especially if they’re not naturally fond of animals or getting their hands dirty. Even caregivers have been negatively impacted by providing care. They’ve demonstrated increased levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. At the end of the day, pets, plants, or cute digital animals won’t replace the true feeling we’re longing for — the desire to be social with other human beings.

“It doesn’t fill up the gap because you still long for other personal interactions,” Ara said. “Although you can express all your feelings to your dogs, they don’t answer back.”

“It’s the need of belongingness that it addresses,” said Inocencio. “Because we’re all so disconnected from each other — just that feeling that you’re part of something or you could be part of something, it helps.”


*Surnames have been withheld to protect the subject's privacy.