managing fear

FearYou are walking down a dark alley late at night when you hear footsteps behind you. You take a quick look around and see a powerfully built stranger swathed in a large black coat gaining on you with long strides. His face is partially hidden in the shadows.

You quicken your pace. But so, it seems, does he.

Now you start to feel very apprehensive, you wonder why you are walking down a dark, deserted alley late at night. The alternative route is better lit and more frequently used.

Thoughts run swiftly through your mind as you briefly debate the possible scenarios. "I was stupid. How far is the other end of the alley? ... If I started running now would I make it? ... Suppose I started yelling? That's stupid ... He's just someone walking down the alley going home like me ... Then why is he speeding up when I do?

You cross the road

So does he.

Then you run.[1]


This story is an example of a real fear and most people can associate pretty quickly with what something like this feels like. But for a lot of people this type of dialogue, and the fear response that goes with it, is not just restricted to a fear of powerfully build strangers on a dark night. There are so many people that suffer some anxiety, apprehension or outright terror when they are riding their horses. If one of those people is you, don't despair, there are practical things you can do to help yourself control fear and ensure that you are on control of it rather than the other way around.

The purpose of this blog is to jot down some notes about how fear works, the physiological responses that it triggers in the body and, most importantly, what you can do about it so that you can start to feel better when you are with your horse.

At the outset its important to distinguish between real and unreal fears. Real fear comes from an immediate danger in the present, we have a rapid response system designed to keep us safe by responding immediately to what's happening and learning from the situation. For example, imagine that you are walking along in the country, thinking about nothing in particular. Dusk is falling and you almost stumble into a deep pit. You pull back just in time, jolted back to the present moment, your heart thumping. It all happens in half a second. This is an example of real fear and the rapid response that you body automatically makes (pulling back just in time). There is nothing at all wrong with our response to real fears, we need it and it keeps us safe.

The problem for riders is all about unreal fears. An unreal fear is where we create the fearful situation in our imagination, its not something that is actually happening in real time. What you are imagining might be something that did actually happen once in the past or it may never have taken place outside of your own mind. You might think that you are keeping yourself safe by anticipating problems that might arise when you are riding. While safely is paramount when we are around horses, anticipating potential problems is not the best way to avoid them. Often by thinking hard about something and 'putting energy' into that thought it is more likely that the feared thing will actually happen for real. Horses also pick up on our mental state because of the impact it has on our breathing and heart rate (as well as other changes) and are more likely to take over and respond unpredictably if we have disappeared into an unreal fear inside our mind.

Unreal fears paralyze us because as far as our mind and body are concerned we don't know the difference between a vividly imagined internal image and reality. As far as your brain is concerned the very thing you are fearing is actually happening already. Your physiological response to unreal fear is exactly the same as to real fear. The problem is that unreal fear goes on for longer as nothing ever actually happens for the body to respond to because there isn't a real problem (until your horse picks up on the way you are feeling!).

But don't despair, if you understand how unreal fear works it is relatively simple to make some changes to the pattern. Unreal fear is based on a learned reaction to certain triggers, if you can take responsibility to changing those responses then you are going to feel much better pretty quickly.

Its worth having a basic understanding of the physiology of fear. When we suddenly stop ourselves falling into the deep pit in the example above the fear response is activated. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is in charge of this and the sympathetic branch of the ANS triggers our flight or fight response. The body is prepared for immediate action by releasing noradrenalin to activate our body organs. Heart rate, blood pressure and respiration rate are all increased. Adrenaline is released which has a widespread effect on the body such as boosting the supply of oxygen and glucose to the brain and muscles and stopping non-essential processes such as digestion. Adrenaline is released from the adrenal gland, located just above the kidneys, which is why you get sensations in that area when you are frightened. This system triggers quickly but is designed to go back to normal quickly as well once the dangerous situation has passed.

As well as the ANS we have a second system designed to cope with long-term stresses and fears. The hypothalamus in the brain is activated which triggers a chain of responses that leads to the production of cortisol. The crux of the problem with unreal fears is that they are, well, unreal and imagined. So, as far as our body is concerned, they don't go away until we stop imagining them, its not like the pit in our example where we either fall in or we don't in a split second. So if we start imagining the worst case scenario when we arrive at the yard and continue with this all the way through our chores and then our preparations for riding and then all the way through our ride, this is a long enough period of time over which the body will release a cocktail of hormones into the bloodstream, including cortisol.

Cortisol is responsible for giving the body a quick burst of energy by increasing blood sugar and lowering sensitivity to pain, the significant downside of cortisol is that is lowers the body's level of immunity, raises blood pressure and impairs cognitive performance. The other problem is that cortisol takes a long time to leave the system once it has been produced.

So enough anatomy, what simple and practical steps can we take to help ourselves to control an overactive imagination that's busy thinking up disaster scenarios?

What are your the triggers?

The first step to controlling your unreal fear, rather than letting it control you, is to start to observe what initially triggers your fear response. Unreal fear is generally a learnt behaviour and all learnt behaviours have a stimulus, or trigger, which tells us to start doing that behaviour. That applies even though the fear response comes from an imagined image or scenario playing inside our head. What starts that dread and foreboding and imagination running away with you? Lets take an example. Now, I really don't like flying very much and that's been a great test bed for me to understand more about my own fears and to help other people work with theirs. What is the trigger for me to start my fear response? It could be any number of things, packing my bag, arriving at the airport, getting on the plane, taking off or turbulence while flying. But none of those things are triggers for me. The thing that really gets me is a change in engine pitch, that's my trigger. As soon as there is an unexpected change in engine pitch my heart is racing in a millisecond and my breathing changes, and, now I am looking for it, I am aware of the vivid, moving, colour picture inside my head of a specific disaster situation. Note that this is the trigger for me, if I spoke to another person who has a fear of flying we would almost certainly have different triggers for the fear response. There may also be more than one trigger.

Now I know what the trigger is I can be ready to consciously keep breathing deeply and to change the image inside my head so that I can reduce or stop completely the fear response to an unreal fear.

As a first step its really worth taking a good hard look at the precise triggers that start your fear response.

Be in control of your imagination, not the other way around!

Whether you are aware of it or not, once the trigger has been activated you create an image or images inside your head that make your mind and body think that the fear is real and present right now. Your physiology does not know the difference between a real problem in the outside world and one vividly imagined inside your own head.

If you can start to control the images inside your head you really can make a huge difference to your fears. Psychologists have discovered that our internal images give instructions to the brain as part of our cognitive processes. For most people this is going on without any conscious awareness but once you get wise to what's happening you can learn to have full control over the images.

As a rule of thumb, most people are very motivated to act on internal images that are big, bright, colour, moving (like a movie) and seem as if they are located in front of our eyes and quite close to us (its hard to describe that as the image is inside our head but if you imagine a beautiful scene of a situation you really enjoy you will get a sense of where that image is in relation to you). These are generalizations and not true for everyone but they are a good starting point. Be aware that there are quite a few people that can't see their internal images or they can only see them very briefly. If you are one of those people, don't worry. Leave this section and move on, there are ways to change the way you are imagining your fears but that is beyond the scope of this blog.

In contrast, the brain is not going to pay too much attention to an image that is small, unfocused, black and white, still and low down in relation to us.

So, guess what the attributes are of an internal image that is creating an unreal fear? Yes, big, bright, colour, moving and usually very close to us. Those need to change!

You can play around with these images by choosing a food that you really like but perhaps it would be healthy to eat a little less, be careful what you choose as just this simple exercise might change the way you feel about the food. Imagine the food in your mind's eye and observe where it is, what is the image like? Most likely, its colour and big and bright. Where is that picture located?

Have some fun with changing the attributes of the picture. Can you move it so that it is close to the ground and maybe to one side of you if it was previously in front of you. Can you reduce the size, how small can you make it, can you push it further away from you? Can you change it to black and white? If it was a moving image can you turn it into a photo? Have a play with these ideas and see if you feel any differently about the image as you change its attributes.

It takes some practice to get good at this but once you have the hang of it you have all the tools you need to start to take the power out of the image that is creating your fear. A small, black and white, still image, close to the ground and the size of a tiny dot does not have the power to create a huge, great big fear response.

Learn to disassociate to reduce the emotion

When we create a picture in our mind's eye we can do that in one of two ways, either we are viewing the picture as if it was through our own eyes or we see ourselves in the picture as if it was another person looking on. When we see things as if we are looking through our own eyes, that is called associated and if we can see ourselves, as if through another's eyes, that is called disassociated.

Another useful exercise is to learn to manipulate an image inside our head so that we can either see it as associated or disassociated. It is most common for people to create powerful, fear creating images that are associated. This is usually more frightening as it is clear to the mind that its 'me' that is in this bad situation. The emotion connected to a disassociated image is just not as powerful. If you can learn to disassociate this is a great tool to reduce the emotion connected to a particular image and to put you back in control. You are learning to view things as if you are an onlooker to the situation.

State management

State management is NLP/coaching talk to describe our ability to influence our mood and state of mind. You may have noticed that some days, when everything is going well and you are having a really good day, you are not troubled by fear when you are riding, while other days are awful and you feel anxious about everything. On the good days, when you are in a really good "state" you are almost certainly more positive and there is little space for your imagination to get to work planning negative outcomes. On the bad days the opposite is true. Learning to manage our state is a very important skill so that we know how to navigate from a negative frame of mind to a good state where we function at our best. A huge part of this involves us taking responsibility for the way that we feel, if we are a victim at the mercy of what life throws at us then we are not in good shape to get ourselves to a positive frame of mind. Even if we are not in control of everything that goes on around us we can be in control of the way we feel about it.

Practice your breathing

The physiological response to fear is an automatic, innate response but we do have some power to override it and return the body back to normal as fast as possible. The most powerful tool that you have is conscious control of your breathing. If you practice some of the breathing exercises in my previous blog called "A survival breath or a thriving breath" this will be a very big help in a fearful situation, unreal or real.

Learn to be in the present

One of the most powerful ways to control problems with fear and anxiety in riding is to live more in the present moment. I have got to be honest, this will fundamentally change the response to fear and anxiety but takes a lot of commitment, work and awareness.

Its probably clear by now that an unreal fear comes from our imagination. The imagination is not based in the present moment because it is not a real situation but anxiety about something that might happen in the future, it has not happened and is not happening NOW.

It you want to learn more about living in the present get one of Eckhart Tolle's books, I would highly recommend the Power of Now.

[1] Story adapted from Free Yourself from Fears by Joseph O’Connor