The COVID-19 epidemic has hit the equestrian world with a unique set of challenges, adding to a growing sense of overwhelm. The world is facing fluctuating degrees of panic, uncertainty, and death. Horse owners are struggling to cope with stable closures, concerns about their horses’ well-being and loss of their most cherished psychological release ‒ riding.
One thing we all need to understand and keep in mind: the current conditions have naturally triggered automatic, primitive brain reactions to danger. When this part of your brain (it is often referred to as the “lizard brain”) perceives a threat, it very quickly hijacks your system into emergency mode. It works faster than our newer “thinking brain”, which is a good thing; we need to react quickly to survive, not ponder endless options. Your “fight, flight or freeze” response is activated by the lizard brain.
These physiological responses will serve you well if you are trying run away from an angry bear, but they can get in your way when you are faced with a prolonged, invisible stressor like COVID-19. Because the thinking brain goes all or partially offline, you may find yourself making poor decisions (blasting someone on social media, for example) or no decisions at all (I’m sure someone will take care of my horse).
Instead of panicking and letting your lower brain take the lead, consider coping strategies to help that thinking brain of yours get back online. What you want to do is avoid impulsive emotional decisions or succumbing to helplessness and despair. Let’s look at some ways to cope that involve engaging our higher brain processes to make well-thought-out, mindful decisions.
Practice daily releasing
Since your fight-or-flight is activated to some degree, it is important you give that energy a place to go so that it does not create additional health problems. Your body is telling you to mobilize and move, so you need to help it respond that imaginary bear (threat).
One way to discharge this energy is to do some moderate- to high-intensity cardio. YouTube has a vast variety of programs to choose from and you may consider sharing the experience over video chat with a few friends.
Another way to take charge of your physiological state is to practice mindfulness. Ground yourself in the here-and-now by “taking a trip through your senses.” Name something you can currently hear, see, feel, smell and taste. Do this while taking a walk or just eating your dinner. This activity and deep belly breathing can accomplish the same thing: send a message to your brain that “all is okay right now.” Your parasympathetic nervous system engages, putting the brakes on your fight-or-flight alarm, and your system starts to calm down.
You may be physically distanced, but fortunately this does not prevent you from connecting in a meaningful way. Be grateful for this: we live in a world with extraordinary technology. Create a group chat or regular Skype get-together with your barn-mates/coach. Connecting activates the brain’s social engagement system and calms down the fight-or-flight response. We are hardwired to connect.
If you can’t be with your horse, try cuddling other four-legged family members, or borrow someone else’s, or adopt! Research has shown that when we are with those we love, human or animal, it promotes the secretion of a hormone called oxytocin (nicknamed the ‘cuddle’ or ‘love’ hormone). As a group, brainstorm together ‒ maybe those in charge of equine care can take video or pictures of your horses and provide regular updates. Be open to thinking outside the box, and remember that you are not alone.
Identify now-stressors vs. anxious worry
We are all currently under threat, so we are stressed. Believe it or not, that is a good thing. Stress is an adaptive response meant to mobilize us toward action that will restore us. Your stress will ensure that you are more mindful of washing your hands and maintaining physical distance from others. It can propel you to figure out how to deal with financial constraints and manage horse care. These are examples of “now stressors” or immediate threats. They are also items you are likely to have more control over, as they are occurring in the present.
By contrast, anxious worry is characterized by “what ifs” or worst-case scenarios that may or may not happen in the future (“what if I get sick, what if something happens to my horse?”). Strive to identify your controllable/now occurring challenges and put your focus on taking the best action you can. Do this consistently and you will lower your stress. Try not to engage and feed anxious, future-oriented thinking.
Make best (not perfect) choices
When you work toward regulating your nervous system and returning yourself to your thinking brain, you can more readily consider your options and make wise(r) choices. Part of making a good choice is understanding that it doesn’t have to be a perfect choice, just what is best given the information you have at the time. Your current situation will change and evolve, requiring adjustments in behaviour and direction. Think “accept and adapt.” Sometimes we have no choice but to accept things the way they are, right now.
Don’t abandon your goals ‒ redefine them
Even if you are grounded from riding right now, don’t just give up. Do give yourself some room and compassion to grieve and be angry at your losses. But don’t stay there indefinitely. Try giving yourself a “worry/grief time” daily if needed. Then redirect yourself to re-scripting your goals. Use visualization to continue training. Take online courses. Identify and follow your mentors in the sport. Training does not need to stop ‒ just change.
Riders, like other athletes, have a tough but not insurmountable challenge during these times. You’ve got this.