We all blame “habits” for our behavior, both good and bad. And most of us understand that the more we do a certain behavior or think a particular thought, the more we “groove” that thought or behavior into our brains—to the point that we slide into it quite automatically.
“This is great when you’ve practiced following with your seat at the canter for hours on end,” says psychotherapist, equestrian competitor, and riding instructor Andrea Waldo in her new book Brain Training for Riders. “However, when you repeat the wrong thing for hours on end, you get really good at doing the wrong thing, such as leaning up the neck over a jump. This is true for our mental habits as well: we get very good at whatever thoughts we practice the most.”
Waldo says there are several thought patterns that cause major damage to a rider’s confidence, which she calls “Brain Traps” in her book. There are a wide variety of them, but there’s one in particular that likely sounds familiar to many of us.
When you “catastrophize,” you tell yourself worst-case scenario stories. “My horse will spook and bolt, and I’ll fall off, break my neck and die.” “He’ll refuse the jump, I’ll get eliminated and I’ll die of embarrassment.”
If you’re caught in the Catastrophe Trap, you can imagine a horrible death in exquisite detail, either by physical or emotional cause. You are sure you will never get over this particular riding problem and you will always feel as horrible about it as you do now. You may also tell yourself stories about being paralyzed or disabled for the rest of your life. People in the Catastrophe Trap often justify it with stories of friends/relatives/acquaintances who have been harmed in such scenarios, or they remind everyone of how actor Christopher Reeve got paralyzed in a riding accident. They see their fear as legitimate because they have proof that IT COULD HAPPEN!
There are a couple of major flaws in this logic. The first is that while people do get seriously hurt or even die riding, it’s actually quite a rare occurrence. We just hear about it a lot more often now because we can watch the accident on YouTube even when it took place halfway around the world only five minutes ago. (Although why anyone would do that to themselves, I still don’t understand.)
The second mistake that “catastrophizers” make is to believe that risk is an all-or-nothing proposition: either you’re perfectly safe or you’re dead. The reality, though, is that you’re taking a calculated risk when you ride: it can be dangerous (as many things in life can be), but you’ve taken appropriate steps to minimize the risk by developing your riding skills.
The biggest problem with “catastrophizing” goes back to the Fight or Flight Response (FOFR). The brain can’t tell the difference between a real threat and an imagined one. This is where that fact plays out. When you imagine the worst-case scenario—especially one that ends in the brain’s primary fear, death—the brain believes it’s true and kicks into full Fight or Flight mode. You’ve just triggered a tremendous attack of anxiety about something that has not happened. Now you have a huge surge of adrenaline kicking around in your bloodstream with no saber-toothed tiger around to fight so you can burn it off. This feels awful, and it also makes you less effective in a stressful situation—your body tenses up and your logical thinking shuts off when the FOFR is activated, remember?
Some people claim that “catastrophizing” helps prepare them in case something terrible happens, but it actually just makes them even more tense in the moment and saps them of their problem-solving abilities.
The Way Out: Tell Better Stories
How do you extract yourself from the Catastrophe Trap? It’s a three-step process.
1. First, accept that there are things in the world that are beyond your control, and make a decision to give up worrying about them (repeat as often as necessary; you may have to do it hundreds of times at the beginning).
2. Second, tell yourself different stories. Instead of telling yourself the worst-case scenario, tell yourself what a likely scenario would be. Take the spook/bolt/break neck/die scenario and ask yourself, “What is most likely to happen?” The answer might be something like “My horse might spook and spin, but he’s done that before and I’ve learned to recognize that it’s coming so I can stay on.” Or you can use reassurance: “I will probably get over the jump on the second try even if he stops the first time. And even if I get eliminated, I would hate it but I could live with it.” Notice that again, we’re not trying to make things all sunshiny and perfect, just realistic.
3. The third step is to notice when you’re wrong and appreciate it. “Hey, he didn’t spook at all and we had a great ride!” You can pry yourself right out of the Catastrophe Trap when you pay attention to all of the times that things go just fine. Make a habit out of noticing when things go well.
This excerpt from Brain Training for Riders by Andrea Monsarrat Waldo was reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books.