It’s not all fight or flight for riders! Drop the stress response!

Posted on June 9, 2021 by Categories: News

It’s not all fight or flight…..


Stress sharpens our instinctual response to danger. Whilst our stress response is geared to saving our lives, it isn’t meant to be switched on for a prolonged time.


Anxiety, like so many negative emotions, is actually a communication from your subconscious. Your mind is telling you that you’re focussing on what you don’t want to have happen. It’s a clumsy and uncomfortable message from your mind to STOP! And think of what you do want to unfold.


The major theme is, however, a huge expenditure of effort to keep you safe.


If you ride when nervous, you’ve already sent thousands of pictures, voice messages and emotions to your subconscious, saying loud and clear, “This is scary!” Now your mind goes into protection overdrive when you ride, this protection measure is simply to keep you safe. The end result the mind is looking for is to get you off the horse! It will make you feel worse and worse until it achieves this aim!


Breaking this vicious circle is what’s important. Over time, it can easily become an entrenched habit.

To bring calm, you need to ensure that the mind knows that riding has inherent risk, but that you’re entirely comfortable to take measures to lower the risk and that you want to ride.


Let’s look then at the ways in which humans react to circumstances that they perceive as stressful – it’s not all fight or flight, but now the 4Fs – Flight, fight, freeze and fawn. A fifth F, fatigue, is also recognised, although this is akin to the burnout situation, when the body has totally exhausted itself, mentally, physically, emotionally and socially.


Fight or flight is mediated via quick-firing neurones in the brain that cause an outpouring of hormones from the adrenal glands (these are small glands located above your kidneys). The effects are visceral, you will feel it physically as your body swings into ultimate protection mode. The logical conscious mind, including the pre-frontal cortex, is switched off; rational thoughts and reasoning go out of the window!


The 4Fs can be recognised as:


  • Fight = Let’s attack the situation!
  • Flight = Let’s get out of this situation!
  • Freeze = Let’s hide!
  • Fawn = Let me convince you I’m a good person!


You are likely to respond differently in different areas of life, for example, you may fight with your horse, yet fawn at work! Or vice versa! (As an aside, the fawn strategy is thought to originate from childhood.)


Knowing how you react can be key to dampening down the unwanted and unhelpful thoughts and actions (or inactions).


Of the 4Fs, we may gravitate towards one, however, it’s also likely that we have ‘hybrid’ reactions too. Take a look at the infographic and self-assess your dominant and/or hybrid type.


Fight, flight, freeze or fawn

How to stop the patterning


  1. Self-assess your own dominant/hybrid F – are you really fight or flight or more?
  2. Have sensory acuity – this means know the instant you are triggered and realise that your mind is functioning to hyper-protect. Know the images, inner voices, feelings that spark the anxieties. Recognise that this is hyperbole!
  3. Engender a growth mindset to overcome this – take a course, have a mindset coaching session, research more about methods that work (NLP, hypnotherapy, breathing, meditation etc.).
  4. Take action. Whilst the initial ways to overcome the anxiety and stress will be new thoughts and ideas, bring them into the physical world too. Use what you learn in (3) to action your learning! Some people have found that telling someone that your nervous system has a dysregulation at times, has helped them and their friend will breathe with them to slow down hyperventilation or holding of the breath.
  5. Have a flexibility mindset. Have several tools in your kit – breath work, visualisation, NLP methods, self-hypnosis. When the time comes to use them, you’ll have a choice and the subconscious loves options!

The high anxiety ‘action’ responses are from the sympathetic nervous system, it’s all about high arousal and high alert. The immobilised ‘inaction’ responses are due to stimulation of a nerve called the dorsal ventral nerve in the parasympathetic nervous system. (There’s a wealth of information about this nerve!) By switching to the more restful and calming parasympathetic nervous system (the ventral vagal nerve), we regain calmness and perspective. Find a set of calming techniques that work for you away from riding. Avoid switching on the sympathetic system or dorsal vagal nerve by taking small, bitesize steps (not for ever, just for now):


  • A 5 minute hack (2.5 minutes from he yard and 2.5 minutes back). Build up in 30 second slots
  • Ask to hire the menage that is used as the collecting ring and have a lesson there
  • Go down a level or two when competing
  • Drop fence heights and work on rhythm more than height
  • Acknowledge that 2 steps forwards and 1 step back is still progress!

If you’d like to more about mindset coaching sessions or training as a coach yourself, why not send me an email and we can chat informally about how it works?