“We humans like to view ourselves as rational creatures who make reasoned, logical decisions and choices,” says Andrea Waldo in her bestselling book BRAIN TRAINING FOR RIDERS. A former psychotherapist who now focuses on her training business and riding students, Waldo tells it how it is when it comes to managing our brain and stress.
“Ideally, we want our choices to support our long-term goals,” she explains. “But as much as we know that an apple is better than a cookie and that paying the electric bill is more important than the tack shop’s clearance sale, our Lizard Brain couldn’t care less about ‘long-term health’ or ‘financial stability.’ It thinks only about the immediate moment, and it cares about only one thing in this moment: survival.
“Winning the evolution game is about surviving long enough to reproduce and pass on your DNA to the next generation. Up until very recently, humans lived in an environment with lethal threats all around: saber-toothed tigers, poisonous snakes, enemy tribes. Our ancestors that survived long enough to reproduce didn’t survive because they avoided fast food and gluten and balanced their checkbooks every week; they survived because their brains developed a mechanism to get them out of danger as fast as possible. This mechanism is known as the Fight-or-Flight Response (FOFR). Here’s how it works: Imagine you’re grooming your horse and you’re leaning over to brush mud off his belly. Suddenly he kicks up at a fly and you jump out of the way just in time to avoid being kicked yourself. You realize he came dangerously close to nailing you right in the head! Now imagine how you feel: your stomach is quivering, your heart is pounding, your hands are shaking a little, and every muscle is tense. You’ve just been protected by your FOFR.
“When your brain perceives a threat in the environment, the amygdala signals the brain to engage the FOFR. A surge of stress hormones, primarily adrenaline and cortisol, are released into your bloodstream and trigger a rapid series of physiological changes. Your heart beats faster to get more blood to the major muscle groups in your arms and legs, which tense up to prepare to fight or run. You breathe faster to get more oxygen into your bloodstream. You start to perspire. Blood is channeled away from your extremities and momentarily unnecessary organs such as your stomach. This is why you may get cold hands and butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous, and why you have such a hard time relaxing your muscles enough to deepen your seat and stay tall in the saddle. An important point to note here is that the FOFR can activate when it perceives any threat. It responds whether that threat is physical, such as a kick from a horse, or psychological, such as the worry that you’ll forget your reining pattern. It also gets activated whether the perceived threat is real or imagined. This is why you can feel jittery just picturing your horse bucking you off.
“The Lizard Brain can’t tell the difference between something you imagine vividly and something that’s actually happening. On the positive side, you can feel great when you imagine something wonderful; on the down side, you can panic your Lizard Brain by picturing something terrible happening. You can also make your Lizard Brain angry (the fight in Fight or Flight) by imagining a conflict. (Ever re-live an argument with your significant other in your mind and find yourself angry all over again? Hello, Lizard Brain!) One more interesting thing happens during the FOFR. The prefrontal cortex— the Rational Brain that thinks things through logically—shuts down. It’s never even consulted in the Fight-or-Flight process. It’s as if you were flying over southern California at night, and all of a sudden, Los Angeles went totally dark. The FOFR flips a switch, and off goes your Rational Brain. At first glance, this may seem like an evolutionary design flaw. Why on earth would you want your logical thinking capacity disconnected? However, it makes sense when you look at it from a survival perspective: Imagine you’re a caveman a hundred thousand years ago. One morning, you stroll out of your cave and spy a saber-toothed tiger stalking in the bushes. Your Rational prefrontal cortex might say something like this: ‘Oh, hey, a tiger. Or is it a lion? Nope, it has saber teeth, definitely a tiger. What should I do? I could hit it with my club—no, that’s in the cave. I could climb that tree or hide behind that rock, but it might find me. I guess I’d better run—’ CHOMP! By now, the tiger has finished his delightful lunch of cave-human. In life-or-death situations, reasoning and logic simply take too much time. Instead, the amygdala hollers, ‘TIGER! RUN!’ and you live to see another day.
“This, dear rider, is why you can’t think straight when you’re extremely nervous: your amygdala has hijacked your Rational Brain. You’re not stupid or inept; you’ve just allowed your Lizard Brain to run the show. It thinks you’re being attacked by a tiger, so it tries to get you to safety.”
You can find out how to tame your Lizard Brain in Waldo’s BRAIN TRAINING FOR RIDERS, available from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.
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Trafalgar Square Books, the leading publisher of equestrian books and DVDs, is a small business based on a farm in rural Vermont.