BY JESS CLAWSON
Many of us see the barn as our happy, safe, away-from-real-life-problems place. But what happens if you don’t experience relief or euphoria when you go to the barn? What if, instead, your anxiety follows you there?
These days, anxiety disorders have become diagnosed more routinely as more and more physicians recognize the symptoms and take anxiety more seriously. Anxiety is different than worrying or being nervous. If your worries are uncontrollable, excessive, prolonged (for months), or irrational, you might have an anxiety disorder.
We’re not physicians or psychologists here at The Plaid Horse, so you’ll need to talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing symptoms like this. The good news is, there’s help, and you’re not alone.
I’ve been struggling with anxiety and depression (the Abbott and Costello of mental illness, it seems) for as long as I can remember. There have even been times when these twin conditions have reached dangerous points for me, and I was scared. But there’s never been a time when a velvety horse nose hasn’t done me at least some good in addition to therapy and medication, both of which are integral to my health.
If you’re like me, anxiety isn’t just situational. It can make even the barn a scary place to be sometimes. It can be embarrassing to have anxiety attacks in front of barn friends, and it can be really scary when, say, we’re in a jumping lesson and our adrenaline is already up. So what can you do?
Notice What You’re Feeling
It doesn’t do us much good to stuff our feelings down or lie to ourselves or others about it. If you feel your anxiety symptoms amping up, acknowledge without judging yourself that you’re feeling that way.
Engage Your Senses
Often, anxiety means that we spin up stories in our heads about things that are going to happen, but they aren’t actively happening. A couple summers ago when I was alone having a full-on anxiety attack in the barn, I went into my horse’s stall and started running my fingers down the dock of his tail, looking for ticks. This gave my mind a small goal, but also deliberately engaged myself in an experience: feeling the hair of his tail, the smell of a clean barn with deep straw bedding, the shiny rump of my well-cared-for horse. Mo leaned into the scratching of his itchy spots and I immediately felt relief. If you can, let yourself engage in the sensory experience of being around horses and gauge their reaction to you. You might find it calming.
Along these lines, I have talked many a person down from an anxiety attack with this trick: name five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. That exercise has a way of flipping the mind’s focus away from the anxiety attack (which is about something that isn’t happening) to what’s around you (something that is happening, and is safe).
Oxygen is good. We like it. To get the rights amounts of it, there are apps that help you regulate your breathing. You can also try what my therapist calls square breathing: in for four, hold for four, out for four, hold for four. You know what else works? Watching a relaxed horse breathe. I like to stand by a horse’s shoulder and look at their flank and just try to breathe with the horse until I feel better. Bonus: petting the horse’s soft hair, hearing them blow dust out of their nose, watching the gentle tail swish, smelling the fly spray.
If you can, get your body moving gently. Can you hand-graze a horse? Go for a trail ride on a well-schooled quiet horse? Clean a bridle? Those things make me feel better. When I was in the worst of my anxiety, I couldn’t ride Mo. He’s too sensitive. But I could ride Red, my old semi-retired show jumper. I’d just put my helmet on and ride him around the fields bareback in a halter and leadrope if I couldn’t bring myself to tack up.
Talk About It
Having an anxiety disorder might seem embarrassing, but it isn’t your fault. You didn’t cause it, and it’s not something you can just “snap out of.” There’s no Live Laugh Love sign that’s going to make you feel better. Going to a doctor and a talk therapist are two important steps to feeling better. Cognitive behavioral therapy is key to managing anxiety. But in the meantime, it’s perfectly okay to tell other people that you’re struggling and might need help.
You shouldn’t have to feel anxious all the time. Medical science and therapeutic measures exist for the specific purpose of helping you feel better. Take it from me: my life is much better since I seeked professional help. Without it, I could still be suffering, underperforming, and suicidal. If I hadn’t decided to get help, I would not be able to write this for you or swing a leg over my horse.
You can do this. Your anxiety doesn’t own you. And if you don’t know how to get help, email me: [email protected]. I know about a bunch of resources and can help you get started. You’re not alone.
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About the Author: Jess is a professional historian and educator who lives in northwestern Virginia. They completed their undergraduate degree in English at William & Mary, and did their masters and doctoral work at the University of Florida. Jess is an event rider with a passion for thoroughbreds, and has extensive experience in community organizing around queer identities, racial marginalization, and labor.
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