New research published in behavioral sciences investigates the role that emotion regulation strategies may play in preventing post-traumatic stress disorder after pet loss. Results indicate that those who engage in adaptive strategies tend to have greater attachment to their pet and decreased grief after death.
Pets have been a component of the human experience for thousands of years. However, we have only recently begun to study the physiological and psychological consequences of these unique relationships. According to the research team, 67% of Americans own pets, while the pet industry in China has increased by 2,000% over the last ten years.
The global pandemic, combined with higher rates of single and childless individuals, has once again put a spotlight on the human-pet relationship. Human beings are becoming more and more attached to their pets, as if they were a human member of the family. Unfortunately, most pets have relatively short lives compared to their human companions, so most pet owners will also suffer a pet loss.
Grief over the death of a pet can be profound and have mental health consequences. Hyo Jin Park and Goo-Churl Jeong sought to study how individuals might better navigate the pet loss experience.
The 303 participants lived in South Korea and had lost pets. Participants were aged 19-69; two-thirds identified as non-religious and 70% lost a dog, 12% a cat and 16% another animal. After the loss of a pet, 29% no longer had a pet, but the remaining subjects got a new pet of the same type. Participants completed assessments of pet attachment, separation pain, cognitive emotion regulation strategy, and post-traumatic growth.
Participants also completed the Cognitive Emotion Regulation Questionnaire, a self-report measure designed to assess an individual’s use of different cognitive strategies to regulate their emotions after a negative event. The CERQ includes nine distinct scales that assess the following adaptive and maladaptive strategies:
- Revaluation: the tendency to reframe a situation in a more positive light.
- positive reorientation: the tendency to focus on the positive aspects of a situation.
- Expansion perspective: the tendency to see things in a more balanced or objective light.
- Acceptance: the tendency to recognize and accept difficult emotions and experiences.
- mental disengagement: the tendency to be distracted from emotions.
- behavioral disengagement: the tendency to avoid activities or situations that trigger negative emotions.
- Suppression: the tendency to inhibit the expression of emotions.
- Rumination: the tendency to focus on negative thoughts and emotions.
- Catastrophizing: the tendency to exaggerate the negative outcomes of a situation.
The researchers found that using these strategies explained the connection between pet attachment and post-traumatic growth. In other words, when subjects used adaptive cognitive emotion regulation strategies, the level of attachment to their pet would indicate the potential for post-traumatic growth. For example, if someone accepts that their pet will eventually die and is able to develop a sense of perspective, the stronger the bond with the pet and the better the opportunity for growth after its death.
When individuals used maladaptive cognitive emotion regulation strategies, bond strength did not affect posttraumatic growth potential. In this case, when individuals use maladaptive strategies, the strength of the bond with their pet does not protect them from a post-traumatic stress response.
The research team identified some limitations to the study. First, their sample was quite young; the results obtained with the elderly, who are often isolated regardless of the pandemic, may have given different results. Second, the study was conducted via online assessments, and the questions about pet loss may have been painful; in the future, it is recommended that subjects have the opportunity to follow up after participating in this type of research.
When considering the loss of our pets, Park and Jeong recommend, “The act of intentionally expanding one’s perspective on the pet loss experience, shifting to a more positive focus, and accepting reality will reduce the pain of your companions and will become an opportunity for growth. .”
The study, “Relationship between pet attachment and post-traumatic growth after pet loss: mediated moderating effect of cognitive emotion regulation strategy through separation pain,” was written by Hyo Jin Park and Goo -Churl Jeong.