Anatomy Of Anxiety

Anatomy Of Anxiety

So turns out I have not come through the Amber-Chucking-Off experience unaffected. I thought I had because when I rode Amber again I felt relaxed. But it turns out that my brain is not logical! So rather than being afraid on my crazy orange beastie who actually did throw me off, I find I am afraid on all other horses instead. Including my rather lovely new one – Toby. A sale project and stop gap while Amber is out of action.

I am a Clinical Psychologist and I offer Rider Confidence Coaching to other people. So I really ought to be able to sort this out. So I have decided this blog is my homework….. To remind myself that I understand what is happening and I have the skills and the tools to deal with it.

So what is anxiety?

Well anxiety is the biological response to a perceived threat. Our clever neo-cortex  is the newest part of our brains and we like to think this logical, thinking brain is in charge. But it is overlaid on top of a much older emotional brain which includes the amygdala. The amygdala acts as a threat alert system. When it perceives threat it fires off warning signals all around the body: blood is diverted from the brain and gut to the major muscles so you can’t think straight and feel sick. Heart rate goes up to supply more oxygen to those muscles and hormones pour out to prepare you for fight or flight.

The problem with this emotional brain is that it has a mind of its own. You can’t tell it what is and is not a threat. And for whatever reason my amygdala is seeing threat EVERYWHERE. There is a bird in that tree – THREAT. There is a horse about to pass us – THREAT. There is a puddle across the path -THREAT. Toby looks at something -THREAT. Toby loses balance for a moment – THREAT. Toby jogs -THREAT. Etc etc.

You can’t change the fact that threat alerts will be triggered. But you CAN control how you respond to them. We are programmed to respond by fight or flight and my default is always Flight, AKA avoidance. So the process goes:

ME: I think maybe I will canter.

AMYGDALA:  Sees canter as a threat. Releases the THREAT alert.

ME: Just the thought of canter is making me feel sick and scared so I won’t canter after all

AMYGDALA- Good decision. Threat alert switched off.

ME: I feel much better and decide I am ‘not ready’ for canter yet.

In this scenario – which is repeated with lots of other horsey related activities, the amygdala fails to learn that canter is within my abilities, that nothing bad is going to happen, that Toby is a safe and willing horse. So next time I think of canter (or anything else that scares me) the same thing happens again.

So what can I do? Well that is simple enough. JUST DO IT! If you know that the problem is a faulty alert system and not that you are overfacing yourself or your horse, JUST DO IT. Take a deep breath, find some mantra that makes sense to you and bloody get on with it. Key bit though – you have to stay with it long enough for the anxiety to drop before you stop. Basically the process of your anxiety dropping WHILE you are doing something you find frightening rewires the amygdala. So next time you come to do that activity the intensity of the fear is much lower and drops much more quickly. Till eventually you no longer see the activity and threatening at all.

So today my lovely friend gave me a kick up the arse and I went to Somerford on Toby to do the farm ride. And spent a good  couple of hours rewiring my brain. Started the ride feeling sick with fear. Mid way through felt mildly tense. Then started feeling relaxed. And finished up feeling elated. Hurrah – Step 1 on the road back to confidence ticked off. Thanks Toby. You aren’t Amber but you are pretty cool too!

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