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When I first started doing my job, in my naivety, I felt that it was my role to help clients to never be anxious and I certainly had a few clients who asked me to help them to achieve that aim. However, I very quickly learned that this simply isn’t possible, or even desirable for a human being, and developed my role by helping clients to tolerate all of their emotions. I believe that part of a healthy mindset is being able to tolerate what are frequently seen as negative emotions, they are part of us and are there to protect us and to help us to develop and grow.
The big four emotions which we experience are Anger, Joy, Fear and Sadness and each of these has a family of emotions attached to them e.g. anger includes irritation and annoyance, fear includes anxiety and worry.
We also have a set of social emotions such as Guilt, Shame, Jealousy and Envy and I’m sure all of us have experienced these at one time or another.
The majority of my clients seek help with the fear set of emotions and a significant minority with the social emotions as well.
Typically, and understandably, clients don’t like feeling anxious and then take steps to avoid exposing themselves to situations in which they experience anxiety. The ‘negative’ emotions can be very painful to experience and the client may have paired this emotion with unpleasant consequences. This leads riders towards a situation where they limit themselves to riding within their comfort zone or perhaps not even riding at all. An anxious person may unconsciously deflect their anxiety and experience anger and frustration instead and this can lead to confusion and self doubt. If the client was able to tolerate the initial anxiety, the primary emotion, then the way forward would become clearer.
As a therapist part of my job is to help my clients to develop the skills needed to deal with the emotion they’re trying to avoid and this may include helping them to expose themselves to that primary emotion and learning that they can deal with it after all. Clients learn that when they do feel anxious that they can let it go and not allow it to escalate. Developing the belief that you can do this is liberating as you realise that you really aren’t at the mercy of anxiety.
Understanding emotions helps the client to stand back from them and it can reduce activity in the limbic system of the brain and subsequently lessen the unpleasant physical symptoms which are so often experienced.
In learning to understand an emotion it’s important to validate the client’s experience and this can be the difference in a professional and a relationship with a friend. A friend might say things along the lines of “You’ll be fine” and “don’t worry’, they are being well-meaning but a professional therapist will validate the feelings and help the client to work through them, gain understanding and an ability to have more control.
The aim of learning to tolerate anxiety is that the client recognises what is happening quickly. As soon as they are aware of the physical symptoms they experience such as physical tension, butterflies, shallow breathing they are able to use their thinking brain to tell themselves that it’s OK it’s only a feeling and not a predictor of disaster. This allows the rush of stress hormones to return to normal levels, the physical sensations to lessen and the rider to gain confidence that they have control over their negative emotions and not be nearly so affected by them. It isn’t always easy but growing in confidence the rider then develops an understanding that the anxiety isn’t needed in most everyday riding situations and their enjoyment grows and their ability to stretch out of their comfort zone soars.