One of my key points when helping riders work through their fears and/or confidence difficulties, is that the job of the brain is to preserve the life of its host.
It is important to point out that ‘trauma’-as we understand it-means different things to different people. For some riders, a lively spook or stumble by the horse can cause a reaction within the rider that may not externally seem appropriate or rational. However, the perceived degree of rationality by others doesn’t mean much to the mammalian brain.
Our primitive brain-or amygdala-is the part of the brain that has survived seven million years of evolution. This part of the brain is responsible for flight, fight or freeze.
Our Neocortex is a more recent development, evolutionarily speaking-and it is what separates us from our nearest mammalian relatives. The Neocortex is responsible for attention, thought, perception and episodic memory.
In a perceived to be frightening or traumatic situation, the brain releases cortisol and adrenaline to activate and enable flight, fight or freeze-our primal survival mechanism.
Adrenaline stimulates an immediate response from the Amygdala. At the same time, cortisol floods the neocortex and works to alter, reduce or shut down critical thinking, perception, and episodic memory.
Something happens to you that your brain perceives as a threat to life. Your body prepares to avoid or confront that threat with a raised heart rate, an increase in blood flow to the muscles, increased blood flow to the brain, and a spike in cortisol to create sugar as a fuel source. The cortisol spike removes your full ability to think, understand and accurately recall a situation.
The brain logs the event in its primal region as ‘avoid at all costs in the future’, and whenever you attempt to ignore this sensation, it can trigger a greater, lesser or similar response to the initial experience.
Also known as, feeling nervous or afraid.
Because your episodic memory can be impaired during a traumatic event-and because the traumatic event may have really only been a small or relatively inconsequential incident-you may not actually even be able to pinpoint the original event, cause or episode.
That’s how hard our brains work on a primal level. Respond now, think later-but only if you want to. Safer to just follow the feelings and stay alive-you don’t really need the ‘why’.
So when you are struggling with feeling nervous or afraid, try to take heart in the fact that your brain is just doing its job. Remember that past trauma may not have been logged accurately, and as such, our perception of the reality around the past trauma may not be accurate, or useful. The good part about all of this is that there are a fairly infinite number of options available to us, to help us to strategise, understand, redirect and make lasting, positive progress in our journeys-both with horses, and in life.