Q&A on Anxiety and Confidence

Questions:

  • I’ve been told by instructors and at clinics that I don’t try hard enough. The reason I don’t try hard enough is fear.  I have a constant fear of “what if?”.  In every situation I see the danger; I look for danger and my mind plays out the worst case scenario.  How do I overcome thinking about what could go wrong and look at a situation in a more positive way?
  • I get nervous when I have to ride in a new arena or place for the first time – which I know in my heart is silly as I can ride – I feel like I have a “mental block”.  How do I stop the “what if this happens or that happens” thoughts? I feel that this is holding me back and that without these silly thoughts  I could be doing so much more.
  • I’m not the most confident rider when things get more technical and I just would like to know if you’d be able to help identify that issue and help solve the problem to gain some confidence within myself and within my riding?
  • Would this coaching be able to help me, as a rider, to overcome the hesitation toward jumping spreads after having a massive fall with my horse years ago?
  • How do I mentally prepare for the show ring again after injury?
  • I have lost my confidence – I always put myself down/talk myself down/ psych myself out of uncomfortable situations/ make excuses for not going to shows… how do I get over this?
  • My daughter is starting to complete in higher levels and she is almost psyching herself out of the competition. She sees the bigger competition ( the well-known guys ) and starts doubting herself.

Answer:

Each of the questions above may need a slightly different approach to overcome fear and gain confidence.  But its helpful to know what’s happening in your body and mind as a starting point:

First, let’s talk about what happens in our brain in the moment that we experience anxiety.  Very basically, our brains have evolved into two main areas:  the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.  The amygdala handles emotions:  happy, sad, mad, shame and fear.  The prefrontal cortex evolved much later, and is a large section that deals with all rational and logical thought.  There are other structures in the brain, but for this discussion, the amygdala or Lizard Brain and the prefrontal cortex or Rational Brain are the important ones.

We like to think of ourselves as highly rational creatures who make reasonable and logical decisions at all times.  The truth is that as soon as we are in a situation that triggers any sort of anxiety, our Lizard Brain takes over, slams the door on the Rational Brain, and proceeds to do whatever it deems necessary or possible, to protect our survival.  Think of the Lizard Brain as the body’s alarm system.

Performance anxiety is like a fire alarm.  The Lizard Brain dimly remembers something similar (but often not even vaguely close to) the current situation.  It then floods your system with projections of what could go wrong, based on scantily strung together memories.  Your Fight or Flight Response is engaged, and your system floods with adrenaline and cortisol, which you notice instantly in your body, as a faster heartrate, fast and shallow breathing, butterflies in your stomach, sweaty palms…

Here’s the thing, though.  Your Lizard Brain can’t tell the difference between something that you are imagining and something that’s actually happening.

Yes, that’s right:  the amygdala can’t distinguish between a psychological threat and a physical one.  It will use the same response for both an actual physical danger as well as a perceived one.

That’s why a dressage judge can make your heart pound and wipe your brain clean of every movement in the test you know off by heart.  Or, even facing a really small oxer, your amygdala is screaming at you to abandon, since it wants to protect you after a bad fall that happened years ago.

You can’t switch off your fight or flight response, but you can learn to control it better.

The first step is learning to recognize it.  This may sound obvious, but many people are in denial about their anxiety.  Also, everyone’s response is different.  For example, some talk a lot, some get absolutely deathly silent.  Some get irritable (fight), some pace up and down (flight).  Different situations may trigger different responses. 

Secondly, bringing your body back to a more relaxed and calm state is important, as it allows the more rational and logical pre-frontal cortex to re-engage, which is also why you often say afterwards, “I don’t know why I was so nervous in that moment”.

As obvious as it sounds, you may not be aware that your breathing has changed when you are in flight or fight mode.  You may be holding your breath, or breathing faster and shallower than normal.  You can slow your responses to fight or flight by concentrating on your breathing for a while.  Here is a breathing exercise to try:

Breathe in slowly, to a count or 4 or 5.  Breathe all the way into your lungs, so that your stomach expands like a balloon.  Now purse your lips and blow out slowly through your mouth, as if you’re trying to cool down a bowl of soup.  This will slow your breath and your heart rate, which will help you to slow your fight/flight response and give your rational brain time to re-engage. Then you’ll be able to think clearer and make better decisions.

Also read the section on Negative Self Talk below, because being able to shift from critical of your performance to affirming of the things you are doing well, is an important practice to grow your confidence.

More Q&A’s

Q&A on Negative Self Talk

Q&A on Negative Self Talk

Questions: How do I deal with over analysing myself and over criticizing myself? When I look at videos of myself...

Q&A on Motivation and Goals

Q&A on Motivation and Goals

Questions: Firstly, how can one stay motivated with riding/ life goals during this lock down in South Africa? I'm...

Q&A on Focus and Show Nerves

Q&A on Focus and Show Nerves

Questions: In a competition, if you’ve messed up in a dressage move in a test or had a knock or a refusal at a jump,...