Strategies Against Anxiety
Strategies Against Anxiety
of the horse and human variety
I have been sharing on this blog some of my experiences with my horses as I ponder human and equine behavior and relationships. One of the battles, in the horse and in the rider, is anxiety. Our horses are fine-tuned with survival instincts to react first and think second. We, as humans, can be prone to that as well. One of the gifts horses can teach us is how to stay in our bodies and present in times of stress.
I was thinking about how I have adopted a couple strategies for my horses and how they relate to what helps ME when I am anxious. It also helps remind me that if one coping skill doesn’t work, to keep trying others. Maybe you might find these helpful too.
My mare, Willow gets anxious when she is away from the barn and when she is asked to pick up a faster gait. When I got her, she rode like a horse that was ridden in a style that unfortunately, many gaited horses are with the horse bitted in a fairly severe, long-shanked bit and a good grip on their mouth. The horse travels with a high head and hollow back which is not very likely to bring about relaxation in the horse. Willow responds well to the release of the reins on her mouth… it allows her to lower her head and relax. That one thing has helped her anxiety tremendously. She lowers her head, her breathing steadies, her body relaxes because she no longer is bracing against the bit. I know it ‘feels’ better. No more tense muscles or cramped neck or tongue trying to push over the bit!
So to relate it to a human strategy is for us to find our ‘release’. Anxiety becomes like an endless loop in our heads of some thought, rumination or underlying dread. It loops over and over and over, sometimes on the surface and sometimes a bit more buried but ready to flare at the least provocation. It is exhausting and can even be debilitating! The first line of defense, if you are feeling overwhelmed with anxiety, is to seek out professional help. A blog post or article, and certainly not mine, are meant to replace professional help.
So back to my analogy. Willow (and quite frankly all horses) look for the release. We can seek out ways to release too. I mentioned earlier that anxiety can be like a never-ending loop of negative thoughts in our heads. I got a lot of relief, and still do, by keeping myself active with some repetitive activity. So instead of my mind being on the constant treadmill, I found release in the repetitive motions of drawing and shading with pencils. When I draw, I go back and ruminate on each part of the drawing and it is in that constant, redoing and rethinking, I get to relax from my anxiety. Some people find that knitting works the same way for them… or reading, doing crossword puzzles, assembling puzzles, scrapbooking or woodworking. I do believe that keeping busy with an activity you enjoy is a great release for many people! Baking, cooking, sewing, jewelry making, hiking, or coloring pages are some more.
Now for my other mare, Porsche. I have found she likes a task to do. I am sure it feels better to work with a purpose, for horse AND human! When I feel her getting bored (and therefore her mind drifts away from me and looks for something to be afraid of) I get her focus back on me by asking for something that SHE can see the purpose in doing. When we had a small herd of cattle, directing the cows around was a great way to do that! If you don’t have cows 🙂 look for other ways to ask your horse to do things that aren’t just rote exercises. I have used a line of shrubs by my barn to weave Porsche in and out of to give our activity more purpose. And I use the inclines and declines for that reason too. She needs to think about where her feet go and how to keep her balance while riding when I mix things up with different terrain.
To apply this strategy to a human brain some activities that come to mind is to do a shared activity with a young child (bake cookies) or make cards to send to people in nursing homes or serviceman away from home. Knot fleece blankets for babies or the homeless. Your kindness will be appreciated and you will feel better for focusing for a time on what someone else might need and in the process hopefully get some relief from your anxiety.
There are many people who have suffered a loss or tragedy, and in their grief, become an advocate for others who are going thru the same thing. Years ago I made goat’s milk soap and gave some to a friend who was in cancer treatment. She told me one of the side effects of her treatment was terribly dry skin and the goat’s milk soap was very helpful so I made up a big basket and she set it out at her doctor’s office for other patients. How you advocate or what you do doesn’t need to be on a super-sized scale…it could be as simple as taking a plate of food over to a neighbor who lives alone. Doing these kinds of things can help get someone out of isolation- I myself am prone to isolate, but when I do something along these lines I feel better because it feels GOOD to help others. 🙂 Obviously, if you are worn thin and stretched to the limits, taking care of yourself and getting rest may be what is most helpful at the moment so please remember to do that is NOT selfish but necessary.
Working and caring for my horses, and seeing their reactions and herd interaction is endlessly fascinating to me and often I see parallels in my own life. I think because they are so social and so expressive and just SO everything…. it is easier to see some things when I look thru their eyes. Being able to see when your horse (or yourself) is holding tension and accurately read body language is a huge benefit of spending time with horses when it is translated into human relationships too. We can get so busy and so removed from nature that our bodies and then our minds, can be wound so tight. Being with the horses always helps me with that. And for that, I am very thankful! :3