Overwhelm – Why Does it Happen?

OVERWHELM – to be flooded by intense emotion which is too challenging to manage or overcome.

In this post we are looking at why you can handle a certain amount of stress/stressful events and then, if just one more thing happens, you spill over into feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope.

These ideas are applicable to all areas of your life but let’s start with a couple of horse riding examples.

Scenario One

You’re heading out for a hack and feeling OK about it though perhaps a little bit anxious and thinking about all of the things that could go wrong. You start along your route and notice that your horse is “on his toes” and, even though he’s listening to you and doing what you ask of him, this adds to your stress level. You carry on……

Next a car overtakes you a little bit closer than you would like and a little bit faster than you would like. Again, nothing happens, but you’re aware of your stress levels rising. You carry on……

You pass a field with a herd of young cattle close to the fence line. You’re aware of becoming more tense and anxious and feel your horse tensing up too but nothing happens other than that. You carry on……

Then a pheasant flies out of the hedgerow and your horse spooks sideways. Nothing else happens, you stay on and your horse is still listening and responding to your aids BUT you feel close to tears, tell yourself that it’s all too much and you can’t handle it.

Then you either turn for home or even get off and lead your horse home feeling ashamed and embarrassed.

Scenario Two

You ride a horse that you find challenging for your level of experience but have goals that you’re working towards which involve competition.

You like a challenge though and most of the time, with some coaching, you feel as though you’re “getting there” with your horse.

You also have a job with a lot of responsibility and a young family which demands a lot of time and attention. Your days are very full and sometimes you find that you lie awake at night worrying about how you’ll fit everything in AND there’s a dressage competition coming up at the weekend.

But you tell yourself that you love the busy lifestyle and carry on…..

The night before the show you rush round getting everything organised but don’t have time to learn your test as well as you would like. You’re thinking about a work deadline and one of the kids needs help with their homework. You try to ignore the rising stress levels and carry on…..

The morning of the show, after a poor night’s sleep, you arrive a bit late and realise that you forgot to polish your boots and tell yourself that this is a “disaster”. Nevertheless you’re determined and carry on…..

Your stress levels are sky high and, in the warm up, your horse is tense and not listening to you. You’re still trying to learn your test!

Entering down the centre line, your legs feel like jelly. You can just about remember the first part of your test but then your mind turns to mush and everything falls apart.

You forget what you’re supposed to be doing, your horse is so tense that he feels really uncomfortable to ride and you leave the arena in tears!

So why do these things happen? What’s going on here?

What is happening is that you are becoming overwhelmed by stress. Normal, so called EUSTRESS, is spilling over into DISTRESS.

As human beings, we are designed to be able to handle stress. In fact we need a certain level of stress to motivate us into taking action. Eustress feels challenging but manageable and can lead to growth and learning in a positive way. Whereas distress feels a lot more uncomfortable. We can handle a certain amount of distress and, depending on our personalities and what’s going on in our lives, distress can also be motivating in that we recognise that something needs to change and then act on that.  

High stress levels can be hugely challenging but ultimately rewarding as long as we have ways to release that stress. Remaining at that heightened stress is accompanied by all sorts of negative effects on both mental and physical health.

Looking at the graphic above you can see how important it is to keep the “Stress release tap” maintained so that you stress container doesn’t overflow.

There are many ways to release stress and these will be different for everyone depending on personal circumstances, level of resilience and life choices.

Five Top Tips to Relieve Stress for Riders

1. Your physical and emotional energy is precious so make sure that you are focussing on positive outcomes rather than on trying to prevent negative ones. This comes down to working on all of the things that are within your control rather than wasting energy on worrying about things over which you have little or no control.

2. Plan some active rest and relaxation into your daily and weekly routine. Have a healthy sleep and bedtime routine and learn, and practice, active ways to relax physical tension before riding and also during your ride.

3. Learn, and practice, a relaxing breathing technique during which you are breathing in comfort and breathing out tension. This helps your stress hormone levels to remain in a comfortable range and therefore leads to greater physical and mental calmness.

4. Set achievable goals which make sense given your level of skill and experience as a rider and everything that is going on in your life. Achievable goals will come with a level of motivational EUSTRESS whereas unachievable goals are likely to cause DISTRESS.

5. Be aware of the limits of your comfort zone. Stretching to the level of motivational stress is good whereas heading too far out of your comfort zone is likely to cause distress and ultimately overwhelm where you are no longer able to communicate effectively with your horse.
There may be times when you need to retreat into your comfort zone for a short while and that’s OK but be aware of the risk of getting stuck there. Perhaps thinking of setting a time limit on this for example after a stressful hack make your next one less challenging such as going with a friend on a familiar route but then looking forward to testing yourself a bit more the next time.

Make lists, plan well and have routines before you head anywhere with your horse – especially if you’re going to a competition. This way you know that you won’t forget anything important and you will relieve yourself of that last minute panic where you’re running round trying to get organised and generally feeling out of control!

Check out this amazing Show Planner from Emily Cole Illustrations which comes with a link to a Rider Mindset video from Horse Riding with Confidence Scotland.

What are YOU doing to keep your stress release tap maintained and free from blockages?

If you find that your levels of stress are overwhelming then please do reach out for help.