Horses are a lot like 1200-pound toddlers. They are curious, get into everything, and can quickly get scared. Friday night, Seek was in his stall, the door was open, and he was playing with the broom outside his stall door. He started to nibble on the straw part, and the handle fell over. He spooked and smacked his head on the stall door. I was in the next stall and didn't see this happen. I heard it, and when I looked in the stall, Seek looked a little dazed but quickly shook it off and was fine.
The next day when I got him for his lesson, I noticed he had a bloody nose. When I took his fly mask off, I saw his eye was swollen, and there were cloudy streaks in his eye. I freaked out! As I looked at these issues, I remembered what he had done the day before and kicked myself for not being more thorough in checking him out.
As a million thoughts raced through my head, I realized I was starting to get seriously freaked out. I know how sensitive horses are, and they can feel our emotions; Seek and I have a strong bond, so we keenly feel each other's feelings. I began to do some thought-switching exercises to keep myself from going down the path of gloom and doom, as well as doing some deep breathing exercises to keep me in the present moment. Gloom and doom used to be a neural pathway super highway for me. I would head down that road at the first sign of adversity. However, years ago, I set the intention to engage in thought switching (I'll tell you more about that later). With time, that neural pathway got smaller and smaller, and now it's pretty easy for me to stop myself from going there.
Seek and I were at the big barn, and I decided to keep him up there while we waited for the vet. I noticed Seek starting to get anxious. He wouldn't eat his hay, was pacing in his stall, and when Seek was standing still, he was pawing the ground. As his anxiety grew, so did mine. Seek does not like being locked in a stall, so I took him out to graze in the side yard. It didn't help; he was still getting worked up.
I decided to bring him back down to his paddock. I thought that he would be calmer and happier with his little herd. I was right. Seek calmed right down. He checked on all of his herd mates, one of whom gets quite anxious when he leaves, and once Seek saw all was fine, he went into his stall and hung out in front of the fan.
While this was going on, I was working hard not to get caught up in the negative thoughts fear was pushing into my brain. Is Seek going to lose his eye? Is he going to die? What am I going to do without him? I know this is fear talking, and I couldn't follow those thoughts because they wouldn't take me any place helpful.
As I mentioned earlier, I engaged in thought switching. Thought switching is a technique that comes out of Cognitive Behavioral Psychology. It's a simple yet effective strategy that can help you get out of a negative spiral.
When working with a client, we come up with a handful of positive thoughts and memories that always make my client feel good whenever they think about them. I tell them to keep these thoughts in their back pocket, so they can pull them out whenever they need them. When you are in a negative space, it's tough to come up with a positive memory; that's why you want to come up with them ahead of time. If you have already thought of them, you can whip them out and put them to use immediately.
I'll give you an example of one of my clients. She would frequently find herself getting upset and angry while driving. Someone would do something that would set her off, and she would find herself swearing, getting tense, and taking the other driver's action as a personal affront. When we were brainstorming positive thoughts, she came up with various positive memories about her dog. She decided that the next time she found herself swearing at another driver, she would think about her dog. This technique worked for her. She found she was able to calm herself down using thought switching. She soon started to use the method whenever she began to get upset.
When you are starting, the hard part can be catching yourself going into a negative spiral. In the beginning, you may find yourself well on your way to being really pissed off before you remember to use this strategy. That is normal. Your mind is so used to speeding off down that neural pathway that it can be hard to catch yourself. The key here is to set the intention to change your thought patterns and to practice thought switching. The more you do it, the better you get, and the sooner you catch yourself.
In a nutshell:
Think of positive thoughts you can use to change a negative thought spiral.
Set the intention to use thought switching to change negative thinking.
Catch yourself thinking negatively and start thinking about your positive thoughts.
Remember, in the beginning, you may not catch yourself right away, so you might be quite worked up before you start with your positive thought. Be kind to yourself, acknowledge you are learning a new skill, and recognize that it may take a little longer to calm yourself since you are already a bit worked up.
Being in The Moment
The mindfulness traditions talk about suffering stemming from worrying about the past or fretting about the future. Peace comes when you are in the present moment. This technique for managing negative thinking is simplistic but can take a lifetime to master.
When you are in a difficult situation and find yourself worrying about what will happen, breathe deeply and bring your awareness to your body. Your body can only be in the present moment; it can't be in the past, or the future like your mind can be. When you are aware of your body, really in your body, you are in the present moment.
It may seem counterintuitive to be completely present; one would think that it would become overwhelming. However, the opposite happens: pain and worry all meltaway. When we leave the present moment and time travel into the past or the future, this is how we cause ourselves anguish.
To give this technique a try, if you find yourself having a physical ache or pain, bring your attention to it. Focus on your breathing; imagine your breath going into and through your discomfort. As you hold space for the pain and acknowledge it, you will find that it dissipates. As a chronic pain sufferer, it has always amazed me how I could hurt so badly, but the pain wasn't there when I brought my attention to my body.
Using these two simple strategies, I was able to keep myself calm as I waited for three hours for the vet to arrive. It all turned out ok. Seek hadn't broken any bones in his head, and the cloudiness was inflammation in the front chamber of his eye. He is on a steroid ointment, and the swelling has gone down. He has a follow-up appointment on Monday, but everything is going in the right direction.
Start practicing thought switching and being in the moment with your breath, and you will develop the ability to keep yourself calm when the shit is hitting the fan.