Overcoming Anxiety: The Power of Relationships

Revel and SweetieIt has been over 12 weeks now since my accident on my young horse Revel.  While I am certain that we will face future challenges together, my hope is that this might be my last post about my physical and emotional recovery from that event.  Since I last wrote about my recovery, I would like to say that I have been diligent about my recovery plan, riding and spending time with him.  But, as is so often the case, life seems to have intervened and much of September was “lost” to other obligations.  I continued riding other horses, fox hunting with my sons.  And, when I could steal some time, I continued to play with Revel on the ground.  As a result, I recovered both my general ease in the saddle and my joy in being with Revel.  The dark cloud of the “event” largely faded to the background in my mind.

In October I recommitted to a plan and focused on riding Revel more consistently.  Many things seemed to move forward quickly and positively.  In a short period of time, we had regained any lost ground in our flat work.  We started working on filling holes in his training and mine.  Despite all of these positive gains and developments, I continued to experience a nagging low-level anxiety while riding him that ate away at my joy and sucked up a lot of my energy.  I frequently felt really tired after a ride and, while I hate to admit it, I often felt relieved to dismount.  I have written numerous times about the need for consistent exposure or engagement in an activity in order to overcome anxiety.  I figured that it was just a matter time and things would get better.  What I didn’t realize was that I was missing a key ingredient to my recovery.

Last weekend a good friend and talented horse trainer Michael Sparling was at my farm working with a delightfully challenging mustang mare to which he has committed himself to start under saddle. I saddled up Revel and kept him company while he worked with the mare.  There was time for coaching, refinement, philosophizing and quiet conversation about life, horses and relationships.  Over the course of three days I must have spent over twelve hours with or on Revel.  Some of it standing and watching. Some of it working.  Some of it playing.  Some of it grooming.  At some point in time during the second day, I had the awesome realization that my anxiety was gone.  That I was feeling energized and refreshed by my time on Revel and the vague and draining feelings of dread had been banished to the farthest recesses of my mind.

The easiest way to explain how and why this change happened is to focus on the sheer amount of time I spent with my horse.  It would certainly fit with most treatment models for anxiety where there is an appropriate level of exposure to the anxiety provoking stimulus that lasts long enough so that the initial surge of adrenaline with the accompanying angst has time to subside.  I think that this is an important part of my experience last weekend but I feel certain it was not the whole picture.

If you have ever spent any time with young children, you will likely have had the experience of watching a toddler explore his or her universe.  First comes the tentative steps away from mom, then they stop, turn and look back just to make sure someone is paying attention.  Reassured that mom has “got their back” they turn away again to take more steps into the unknown.  This process is a clear demonstration of the role that relationships play in our ability to take risks and confidently explore our world.  The more consistent and trustworthy a caregiver is, the more comfortable and confident the child is likely to be in exploring their world.  You might be asking what does this have to do with a middle-aged man recovering from a riding accident.   The answer is everything.

It is an essential part of human nature to rely on relationships to provide a sense of safety and security.  It is also an essential part of human nature to need to feel a basic sense of safety and security in order to challenge ourselves to step outside our comfort zone.  If we are overly anxious, we tend to restrict our behavior to that which is comfortable and safe.  We don’t need to feel completely safe to step out and explore, just safe enough.  And, just as it was when we were children, relationships are the core source of this safety and comfort.  I am convinced that it was the presence of a competent and trusted colleague and friend that provided the “safe enough” context for me to take the risk to step across those boundaries I had set for myself and recover my ease and confidence on Revel.  Sure, the time and activity was essential, but none of it may have ever happened without the added support of a competent and trusted friend.

So, if you find yourself challenged with lingering worry or anxiety.  Or, you feel stuck, unwilling or unable to take the next obvious steps forward.  Rather than beating yourself up one more time for not being brave enough, ask yourself if you have the people who you need around you that will help you feel supported and safe enough to take the next step.  Maybe this is a trusted friend that helps you to feel more emotionally safe, or a trusted trainer that you believe will help you to feel physically safe.  Either way, take the responsibility to surround yourself with supportive relationships and you will more easily find the courage and motivation to challenge yourself and move forward.



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