Take Care of YOU When You Can’t Visit Your Horse: Tips for Managing Your Mental Health

Photo © Janice Byer


You’ve heard it all, over and over… the steps to stay physically healthy during this pandemic… stay home, wash your hands, and social distancing (among other steps). But what about your mental health? 

So many of us are scared right now. Whether it is worrying about getting the virus and/or our financial situation, there is a lot to think about. However, if you are someone with a mental health issue, these fears can be magnified. 

For over 30 years, I have lived with Panic Disorder. You know those butterflies you get when you are nervous about something? Well, with panic/anxiety, depression and other mental health issues, those butterflies feel more like horses running through your brain, heart & stomach and your mind is telling your body that the end is imminent but you know in your heart it really isn’t. 

In the last several years, I have been lucky to be overcoming those debilitating attacks with medication and by gradually stepping out of my comfort zone with the help of my family and my equestrian community. Their support and understanding has allowed me to have a more normal life with friends, and fellow horse lovers, to talk and share with. 

Then wham! Covid-19 rears its ugly head. The world is changing, and now I have those butterflies again. They aren’t as bad as 10 years ago, but they are enough to make me feel anxious and worried more than I would like to be. And I know I’m not the only one. 

There are many people in our equine community who suffer with a mental health issue, and they may be feeling the distance more than others. Many of us can’t see our friends at the barn and, more importantly, we can’t see our beloved equine partners.  Horses aren’t just our riding partners, they are what keeps many of us sane. Barn families and show season are a huge part of many of our daily lives,  and we’re missing them terribly right now. Our regular routine  has been interrupted by this nasty virus. For most of us, we know it is a necessity to stay home and we’re doing the right thing by cancelling shows, but that doesn’t make the feeling of something missing from going away.   

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

The following are some of the coping mechanisms that I use to help ease the fear that my brain keeps telling my body I am experiencing. These tips are especially helpful for those who are fighting with their mental health along with everything else right now but most would be great for anyone looking to calm the nerves. 

  1. Take some ‘me’ time. Give yourself some time everyday just for you—away from the rest of the family. You will find that surviving in a house all together for weeks and weeks will be much easier if you aren’t in the same room every hour of every day. Even if it is just sitting on the porch and listening to the silence. That can be very calming. 
  2. Dance and sing like nobody’s watching. ☺ Get the others in the house to get up and boogie too. Laugh at each other and just have fun. For adults, a good glass of wine (or whatever else you use to feel a little giddy) can probably make this singing party either much more entertaining or it may take a bad turn so… get happier responsibly!
  3. Be present by taking a moment to take a deep breath. Sit up straight in a chair or on the couch. Take a deep breath in your nose from your diaphragm, not your chest. Hold it for 3 seconds and then slowly release through your mouth. Try to release tension in your body as you exhale. Lower your shoulders and try to let your body become relaxed. Each time you feel anxious, stop and take a few deep breaths. 
  4. For another deep breathing/calming technique can be done from the comfort of your own bed, lie flat on your back with your hands to your sides. For me, I generally have to move a dog out of the way first! Take a deep breath from your diaphragm, hold for 2-3 seconds then as you exhale, try to imagine all the emotional weight being lifted from your body and try to release tension. Do this several times, and you won’t even remember when you fell asleep. 
  5. Take breaks from the COVID-19 news. We all want to know what’s going on, but the news can actually make you feel worse and more anxious. Once we start to hear good news then you can watch and feel hopeful but for now, limit your intake on all things Covid-19. If you must watch or read, remember to get your information from credible sources and not believe everything you read online. I recommend your governments’ websites (municipal, provincial and federal) and industry specific sites that you can trust, such as Equestrian Canada. Seeing all the bad news on social media can really affect your mental health so try to limit what you read and watch. 
  6. Do your best to drink lots of water, and get a good night’s sleep.  
  7. Play with your pets or  ask your friends to show you videos of their pets. Animals are essential for our souls to try to stay calm and keep going. Not to mention that they usually provide you with a good laugh and lots of slobbery kisses and we all need that these days. If you can, contact your local shelter or rescue and see if they need any pets fostered. 
  8. Keep yourself busy. Distraction can help silence your “inner” thoughts and calm your body and brain. However, if you find that nothing seems to be helping, be sure to contact your doctor or mental health professional and let them know you could use a little help. 
  9. Try to make light of things. Laugh when you can. Look at the positive in all the news you may be seeing.  Read inspirational and happy posts and articles online only, skip the negative stuff. Share the fun ones with your friends and followers.
  10. Release some of your stress by colouring. No matter what age, colouring can help keep your mind busy and relax your body. You can print off colouring pages from online sources and there are also plenty of colouring apps you can download to your phone or tablet. You can also get jigsaw puzzles for your device. I do at least one puzzle a day ☺
  11. Do some gardening or plant new seeds indoors. Gardening is very therapeutic to some people and with the weather getting better and better, getting outside to work on your own gardens can help you keep busy and active. Stay right near your home and keep social distancing in mind if you see your neighbours. You can say hi and chat but keep 6 ft between you. You can also plant seeds indoors and then transplant them outside when the weather allows.  
  12. Write down your thoughts. That’s how this article started. I am feeling the stress more than normal these days and writing is one of my favourite ways to de-stress. Take a little time every day to put your feelings on paper. It can help you make sense of what you are feeling and provide you with some emotional release. 
  13. Use a stress relief app to help calm yourself. I currently use Headspace which offers meditation and other calming tips and techniques. However, if you do a search in the App store for ‘relaxing’ or ‘stress’, you will get a number of apps and you can choose the one that helps you.
  14. I also recommend the resources on the Bell Let’s Talk website. They have a dedicated page of tips and articles to help you manage your stress and anxiety during this pandemic.
  15. If possible, bring smiles to others in your neighbourhood (practice social distancing). For instance, if the neighbor down the road is stuck at home and you know it’s her birthday, walk or drive by her house and wish her a happy birthday. Maybe make a cute sign. Making others feel better has a euphoric feeling itself and that can help ease anxiety. 
  16. Talk to someone outside of your home. Use a video conferencing app (Zoom, HouseParty, Whats App, Facetime, etc.). If you have a therapist that you can’t get out to see right now, check with their office as they may be doing video sessions. Otherwise, your best friends can help uplift you or talk to someone else who is also feeling a little more anxious than normal. You can share your feelings and each of your coping mechanisms to know that you aren’t alone.

For those who don’t have a mental health issue, you probably know someone who does and they could probably use someone to talk to right now. Keep the conversation positive and light and you will do a world of good to someone who needs an ear to bend. If you are finding that these coping mechanisms aren’t helping, don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor for additional help like therapy or possible medication.

I hope my experiences and suggestions above help in some way. #staysafe #stayhealthy #stayhome #mentalhealthmatters 

Janice Byer is a professional equestrian photographer; an equine web designer; and horse owner who has lived with Panic Disorder for over 30 years. As she is not an essential service and with all the social distancing protocols, she is basically unemployed for the first time since she was a teenager. She, like you, is feeling apprehensive and scared for the future of her business and her mental health so decided to write down and share some of her coping mechanism during this trying time. She hopes it helps you cope with your thoughts and fears. Visit her websites to learn more about her and her work. www.lifewithhorses.ca & www.equinewebdesign.ca