by Andrea Monsarrat Waldo, psychotherapist and award-winning rider
We All Possess A “Lizard Brain” and a “Rational Brain.” We Need to Tame our “Lizard Brain” to Unlock Our Riding Potential. Here Are StressLess Techniques for Conquering Fear, Improving Performance and Finding Focused Calm
Recovering from the Big One
This chapter covers what to do when you’ve had The Big One—a major fall, a serious injury (or injuries), or any experience that has scared you to the point that you can’t just get back on and go back to where you left off. I’ll talk about why some accidents are different from others, help you understand the nature of psychological injury, and show you some tools to help you stage your comeback.
THE BIG ONE
You’ve experienced a bad fall with your horse. Perhaps you were seriously injured, or came very close. The experience itself may have been terrifying, even if you didn’t get hurt. In any case, this one is different—it’s Big, and it’s not going away. Your Lizard Brain refuses to back down; if anything, it’s on overdrive, reacting to every little thing. All the reassurance and planning in the world aren’t cutting it.
Your Lizard Brain is right: some falls are different from all the others. And if a Big One happens, the Lizard is going to do everything in its power to prevent it from ever happening again.
Let’s start with the most obvious Big One: you were seriously injured. Broken bones, severe pain, and especially head trauma are no joke to your Lizard Brain. The loss of control in such an accident sends the Lizard into a protective frenzy. It knows that death was a real possibility this time, not just an abstract fear, and it will go to any lengths necessary to prevent it from happening again.
Even if you weren’t seriously hurt, the Lizard Brain sometimes kicks into overdrive anyway. Sometimes “what could have happened” is enough to do the trick. If you have had a major injury in the past, a scary near-miss can trigger the memory of previous pain strongly enough that the Lizard says, “Enough. We’re done. I’ve had it with the whole horse thing.”
SHARON’S STORY: WHEN THE WORLD SHOUTS AT YOU
Sharon came to me because she was having severe anxiety while riding her new horse. He had bolted recently. and she fell off when he swerved to avoid a barrel in the arena. While she was just a little sore the next day, she was extremely shaken by the fall, and she found herself unbearably anxious whenever she headed to the barn to ride.
“I don’t understand it,” she told me. “I’ve had falls that were much, much worse than that and I always got back on again with no trouble. What’s wrong with me?”
It turned out that what was “wrong” with Sharon was a pair of devastating losses in her life. She had purchased the new horse because her beloved old gelding had died the year before. He was Sharon’s trusted companion for nearly 20 years before she had to put him down due to his advanced age.
In addition to the loss of her horse, Sharon’s best friend had died recently after a long battle with cancer. The two of them had always ridden together every week; now Sharon felt a huge hole in her life where her friend had been.
By itself. Sharon’s fall might have shaken her trust in her new horse a little bit. But in combination with the losses of two of her closest. most trusted friends. it became overwhelming. She felt as if the world was shouting at her. “You can’t rely on anything anymore!” Once she could see how those losses affected her experience of her fall, she was able to come gradually to terms with it. and start to rebuild trust with her new horse.
Parenthood also makes the Lizard more sensitive. A fall that might have been no big deal in your child-free past can be much more traumatic once you have little ones relying on you (or nearly grown ones with big tuition payments).
Outside circumstances often play a part in your reaction to an accident. If you are already stressed at work, or you are having trouble with your significant other, you may react more strongly to a scary event than you normally would. Stress has a cumulative effect, so if your Rational Brain is already putting out other fires, your Lizard Brain may take over and try to shut down any other sources of stress. “No may are you getting back on that horse. We don’t have any reserves to spare if he tries to buck you off again.”
Psychological Injury Is a Real Injury
It is absolutely essential to recognize that when you experience some-thing that threatens your well-being, you suffer psychological injury, just as much as physical injury. You can’t see the wounds (though neuroscience is learning to detect them), but they are there, and they are just as real. If your horse came in from the pasture with a bowed tendon, you wouldn’t throw a saddle on him the next day and tell him to toughen up! You would put him on stall rest, medicate him, and cold hose and wrap the leg every day until it healed completely. You might even seek out specialized treatment such as shock-wave or stem-cell therapy to help him get better. You’d bring him back into work slowly, and it he hit a setback, you’d take a step back in the recovery process and wait until he was ready to move forward again.
Trying to “tough” your may through traumatic psychological injury is like forcing your horse to run on a bowed tendon. You have an injury, and you need to treat it gently and correctly so that you can recover.
Crash Comparison: Don’t Do It
“But I’ve had much worse happen in the past, and it never bothered me like this.”
“So-and-so rode through the rest of the show after he broke three. ribs. I’m just a wuss.”
“Why can’t I just be like her? Nothing ever scares her.”
We hear a lot about other people’s accidents in our little equestrian world, even more so since the advent of social media. It’s easy to see someone else’s apparently spectacular comeback and feel like you should be able to do the same. But comparing crashes is pointless at best, and detrimental to your recovery at worst. No two bowed tendons are alike, and no two falls are the same either.
Remember don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides The same idea applies here. Spectacular comebacks make great magazine articles, but they don’t tell the whole story; there are always deep low points of physical and mental struggle, even if you don’t hear about them. You never know someone else’s whole story, and your journey is your own. Let go of the weight of comparing yourself to others—it takes time and energy away from the effort of your own recovery.
It also doesn’t help to compare this accident to ones that you’ve had in the past. As I mentioned earlier, your current life circumstances have a strong influence on your reaction to stressful situations. While you may have been unfazed by breaking some ribs in the past, this has no bearing on how you will react when you break some bones now. Each situation is unique, and your response is unique as well. Your response to a frightening event says absolutely nothing about your courage, your strength, or your skill as a rider. Your feelings are what they are, and they make sense in the context of your experience. Let go of expecting yourself to be 100 percent tough 100 percent of the time.
STAGING A COMEBACK
“How long does this take?”
This is the most common question I hear from clients who are sidelined by anxiety. The frustrating, obnoxious truth is that it will take as long as it takes. There am too many variables to pin down a number of days or weeks. There is good news, though: you can recover. What may surprise you is that the quickest way to do it is by taking the smallest, easiest steps you possibly can.
Back to my bowed-tendon analogy. Once a tendon heals and the horse is cleared to return to work, you don’t throw the saddle on instead, you do five minutes of hand-walking. After you do that, you bump it up to 10 minutes for a week or so, then to 15, and so on. Only after several weeks of hand-walking do you start work under saddle. Rush the process, and you risk re-injury, possibly worse than the first time.
Serious injuries to your psyche need the same careful treatment as that recovering tendon. Move too quickly, by to do too much too soon, and you risk re-traumatizing yourself, possibly worse than the first time around. You need small, gentle, doable tasks every day to help you feel safe, yet challenged, so that you grow stronger without scaring yourself into a major setback.
Before your brain explodes from the sheer tedium that this process implies, let me point out that the bowed tendon analogy has its limits. You should give yourself the same care, patience, and compassion that you would give your horse if he were seriously injured. However, you’re a human, not a horse, and your bigger Prefrontal Cortex and Rational Brain give you a major advantage here. The time frame and the level of challenge depend completely upon you and how you feel. There may be times when you feel you’re progressing at a snail’s pace, but there will be other times when you experience major breakthroughs that lead to surges in your confidence. Success breeds more success, and you may and that once you get a toehold into the recovery process, you’ll move along quickly and your confidence will return.
In Chapter 1, I pointed out that fear is your body’s alarm system warning that there is danger afoot, and if you don’t acknowledge warning, the alarm will get louder until you do. This is especially true when an experience was truly dangerous or fife-threatening. Bottle up your emotions about a traumatic experience, and they are guaranteed to leak out or finally explode all over you. In order to heal, you need to acknowledge your feelings about what happened.
This process won’t be fun; it will probably hurt, and it often hurts a lot. You may find several layers of emotion once you scratch the surface. There’s the fear about the memory and the possibility of it happening again, fear of the physical pain, fear of what others may think. You may feel guilty or responsible for what happened. You may also feel grief for the loss of trust you had in your horse, or even anger at his failure to take care of you. You may grieve for the person you once were, for the carefree attitude you had before your accident. After a fall, I had to grieve the loss of my fearlessness; that loss made me both sad and angry.
Sometimes the emotions will seem nonsensical—”Why would I expect my horse to take care of me when we were being chased by a huge dog?”—but it doesn’t matter if they make logical sense. Allow yourself to feel them anyway. Emotions don’t exist on the same plane as logic, but they are just as real and just as important. Once you let them happen, they can run their course and move on. Some emotions will come up many times, but each time you acknowledge them and allow yourself to feel them, you will have worked through another layer and taken another step toward recovery.
Exercise: Give the Lizard Some Air Time
[Note: Do this exercise when you have at least 30 minutes to yourself to allow any strong feelings to run their course before you have to go do other adult-ish things, like make dinner or drive somewhere.]
On a piece of paper [or six), write down every thought and feeling you have about what happened to you. Don’t censor or worry whether it makes sense—just write, and let the Lizard have its say It may be painful at first, but it can’t actually hurt you, and it will feel better as you move forward.
When you finish, thank your Lizard for working so hard to protect you from further danger. Let it know that you’re going to take your recovery one step at a time, and you won’t let it get overwhelmed. Remind it that you survived even this scary experience, and reassure it that you are going to do everything you can to be safe while moving forward.
Exercise: The Comeback Plan
It’s time to write out a comeback plan. Put your goal at the top, and then write down every step you can think of between where you are now and where you want to go. See Sarah’s Story below as an example.
Everyone’s plan will look different, but every plan should have tiny steps—when it doesn’t, you’re trying to bite off too much of the pliant at once. You can always take another small bite if the first one down easily. Some days you may be able to check several steps off Iist; other days, especially if you’re stressed in other parts of your one step may be all you can handle. You may even find that you to repeat a step several times, and that’s just fine.
Often, people base their steps on what they could do before the accident happened. This usually backfires, because they haven’t healed Ugh yet to move that quickly. It’s essential to plan steps that feel let you now, not ones that you think you should be able to handle easily. This will be frustrating a lot of the time. That’s okay; be frustrated, get pissed off, cry, curse, whatever you need to do—then break the steps down into smaller ones.
When Sarah (see her story below) started to execute her plan, she got overwhelmed when it was time for a “pony ride” on her horse. Her Lizard Brain was just too keyed up and couldn’t bust that she would be safe, so it gave her a full-blown panic attack to keep her from getting or She was frustrated, to put it mildly (there was a lot of language not fit to print here), but she scaled back and decided to do a pony ride on one of the barn’s confirmed old schoolmasters first.
After this experience, when it came time for her to walk through the field where her accident had happened, she decided to add an extra step and go out to that field on foot first. This turned out to be an excellent idea, because when she got there for her walk, she became extremely emotional and was flooded with memories of the accident, which took her by surprise. The smaller step gave her time to cope with her feelings, and when it came time to ride through the field, things went relatively smoothly.
SARAH’S STORY: SMALL BITES
Sarah took a nasty fall while cantering through a field with some friends. She broke two vertebrae in her neck along with several r ribs, and suffered a concussion. She has been medically cleared to ride, and she wants to get back to trail riding, but even the thought of getting on her horse makes her heart race and twists her stomach into knots. It’s all she can do to get herself to the barn to groom her horse. Here is her recovery plan.
Sarah’s goal: To go back to trail riding in a group and be able to canter confidently across that field again.
Steps to get there:
- Go to the barn every day and spend time brushing her horse and hanging out with her horse friends.
- Hand-walk her horse, both in the ring and outside.
- Sit on her horse in the ring with someone holding her.
- Have a “pony ride” in the arena with someone leading her.
- Get comfortable walking, trotting, and cantering in the arena (may actually be several separate steps).
- Ride her horse down the driveway at a walk.
- Go for a very short trail ride at the walk with someone she trusts.
- Trot outside the ring.
- Canter outside the ring.
- Walk through the field where she fell.
- Trot, then canter through the field where she fell.
Excerpt from "Brain Training for Riders by Andrea Monsarrat Waldo" Reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books Copyright © 2016 Andrea Monsarrat Waldo