Horse show nerves. We all get them, but what do we do about them?
Anxiety is the result of the mind-body connection. It usually begins with a thought, which creates a response in your body. You might think about being an hour away from competing in a big finals class, and suddenly your mouth is dry and your heart is racing.
Your mind had a thought it found stressful, and your body responded in kind.
Now, your body is sending stress signals (racing heart, dry mouth) to your mind, which creates more anxious thoughts. The body and mind feed off one another. The cycle is begun almost instantly.
Often we don’t know which came first, the thoughts or the feelings.
Physically, you might experience sensations such as dry mouth, sweaty palms, the need to urinate, rapid heart rate, butterflies in the stomach, or yawning.
Mentally, you might feel confused, tend to forget details, or be irritable.
An interesting point is that elite athletes tend to experience physical signs of anxiety, but not mental ones. They sometimes report extreme physical signs of anxiety, yet still perform exceptionally well.
Because they are able to maintain their mental focus, they tell themselves that the physical feelings are just part of being “psyched up” to perform their best.
They are able to step out of the mind/body anxiety spiral, and re-channel the anxiety in a positive way. They are actually able to anchor positive thoughts to the physical sensations. They take them as a sign that they are excited and ready to perform their best.
The best starting place to address performance anxiety is by journaling the frequency and intensity of your anxious reactions. Keep track of what happens, how strongly you feel it, and when it happens (practice, warm-up, or show ring).
Once you know what your particular signs of stress are, you can begin to address the issue. Here are three ways you can minimize performance anxiety:
- Practice visualization. Beginning about three weeks before your next competition, spend a few minutes each day practicing a detailed visualization of your performance. Bring all five senses into the experience, adding as many details as possible. Mentally rehearse every step of your ride, without rushing through any parts. This mental rehearsal will increase your confidence when show time comes.
- Practice deep abdominal breathing. A couple of minutes before you enter the ring, take ten deep breaths. Deep breathing sends signals of relaxation to your body, and floods you brain and muscles with oxygen. This oxygen boost will help you think more clearly, and avoid some of the mental errors that can occur with anxiety, such as forgetting details or being confused.
- Make friends with your nerves. You must accept the fact that nervousness will always be there. Tell yourself, “This is how I feel when I am getting ready to do my best.” Once you step into the arena and begin to perform, the nerves will subside. You will be able to relax and enjoy the ride.