Humans aren’t the only ones stressing out in a pandemic

As humans, we have lots of different ways to manage or escape stress. Some people meditate. Some go for long walks or exercise, while others self-medicate with drugs or alcohol.

Me? Food has always been my drug of choice. I eat when I’m sad. I eat when I’m happy. And when I’m stressed, it’s not a good idea to stand between me and a buffet table because I will cut you! Just saying.

I’ve always known this about myself. So over the years, I’ve managed to mitigate my stress eating by replacing comfort food with some other healthy activity, such as going to the gym. Before the stay-at-home order, I could de-stress by getting in a good workout or meeting friends for drinks, or going to a movie. Being active and social was my best defense against stress.

Because doing all of those things are either not a possibility or too logistically difficult right now, I’ve spent almost all of my downtime on the couch doing my very best Jabba the Hutt impersonation.

About a year ago, my bathroom weight scale finally kicked the bucket — and I never got around to replacing it until yesterday. When I stepped on it for the first time, I realized just how stressed I’ve been since all of this pandemic stuff began.

The number on the scale was a number I had not seen before. It was a big, scary number.

Clearly, things have gotten out of hand.

For the last few months, my weight has slowly crept up and up. Now, based on my body mass index, I’ve officially crossed over into the “obese” category. And it has me shook.

Obviously, I need to make some lifestyle changes — and quick. I haven’t totally nailed down a plan yet (because frankly, I’m still in shock from that first weigh-in yesterday), but the need to better manage my stress has never been more apparent than now because my health is at stake.

I needed a wake up call, and I got it in a big way.

One of the reasons things got so out of hand in the first place is because the stress and anxiety of all that is happening in the world right now has manifested in a lot of little subtle ways over time I didn’t necessarily notice, which all added up to a major problem with my weight.

Our furry friends can become stressed, too. The signs of canine anxiety are often just as subtle. In fact, some stress-related behaviors mimic normal canine antics, so here are a few clues that may indicate that your dog’s stress level is elevated.

Here are nine signs your dog may be under stress:

  1. Pacing or shaking: You’ve seen your dog shake after a bath or a roll in the grass. That whole body shake can be amusing and is quite normal…unless it’s a result of a stressful situation. For example, dogs are commonly stressed out when visiting the veterinarian, much like their owners are when going to a human medical doctor. Many dogs “shake it off” when they descend from the exam table and touch down on firm ground.
  2. Whining or barking: Vocalization is normal canine self-expression, but may be intensified under duress. Dogs that are afraid or tense may whine or bark to get your attention, or to self soothe.
  3. Yawning, drooling and licking: Dogs yawn when they are tired or bored, but did you know that they also yawn when stressed? A stressful yawn is more prolonged and intense than a sleepy yawn. Dogs may also drool and lick excessively when nervous.
  4. Changes in eyes and ears: Stressed dogs, like stressed people, may have dilated pupils and blink rapidly. They may open their eyes really wide and show more sclera (white) than usual, giving them a startled appearance. Ears that are usually relaxed or alert are pinned back against the head.
  5. Changes in body posture. Dogs normally bear even weight on all four legs. If a healthy dog with no orthopedic problems shifts his weight to his rear legs or cowers, he may be exhibiting stress. When scared, dogs may also tuck their tails or become quite rigid.
  6. Shedding: Show dogs that become nervous in the show ring often “blow their coat.”
  7. Panting: Dogs pant when hot, excited or stressed. So, if your dog is panting even though she hasn’t jogged 10 miles in the heat of summer, she may be frazzled.
  8. Avoidance or displacement behavior: When faced with an unwelcome situation, dogs may “escape” by focusing on something else. They may sniff the ground, lick their genitals, or simply turn away. Ignoring someone may not be polite, but it’s surely better than being aggressive. If your dog avoids interaction with other dogs or people, don’t force the issue. Respect his choice.
  9. Hiding or escape behavior: An extension of avoidance, some tense dogs literally move behind their owners to hide. They may even nudge their owners to prompt them to move along. As a means of escape, they may engage in diversion activities such as digging or circling, or may slink behind a tree or parked car.

If your dog is stressed, first remove him from the stressor. Find a quiet place for him to regroup. Resist the urge to overly comfort him. This will only confirm that his fears are justified and may make him less confident in the future.

If you want to pamper him with petting or treats, make him earn them first by performing a routing activity, i.e. sitting. Responding to routine commands distracts the dog and provides a sense of normalcy. It’s amazing how comforting “sit,” “down” and “stay” can be to a worried dog.

As with humans, exercise can be a great stress reducer (obviously, I’ve fallen short in this category myself). Physical activities like walking or playing fetch help both you and your dog release tension.

It’s also good to provide your dog with a safe place in the home where he can escape anxious situations. Everybody enjoys a calm place to retreat.

And, finally, remember that stress isn’t always bad. Fear is a stress-related emotion that prompts us to avoid potentially dangerous situations. So, stress may actually be a protector. Regardless, stress is part of everyday life for us and our dogs, so we should learn how best to deal with it.

That said, if you happen to see me walking down the street with a tub of ice cream in my hand, please — for goodness’ sake — knock it out of my hands!