Ask Us: 'My Anxiety Won't Let Me Sleep', and 'I Feel Like My Riding Progress Will Be Gone After Quarantine'

Ask Us: 'My Anxiety Won't Let Me Sleep', and 'I Feel Like My Riding Progress Will Be Gone After Quarantine'

We're having lots of conversations in the Masterclass Facebook group about the realities of life during the time of COVID-19, what to do while being separated from our horses, and how to get through the day with less anxiety.  

Recently, our members had the chance to pose their questions to Dr. Jenny Susser, Ph.D. Here, she speaks on how to mentally cope with the effects that COVID-19 is having on their lives.

Dr. Susser's latest Masterclass is all about becoming more powerful than your anxiety and fear. This isn't just a skillset for riding, but for life! She teaches the same science-backed techniques that she has used with the U.S. Olympic Dressage team and top CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Go here to learn more

Q: I am a physician and am working every day seeing sick patients. I have been exposed to COVID but am fine physically. I am also fine mentally during the day when I am working, but when I sit down at night to rest or try to sleep, my mind churns. Any suggestions on winding down? - Cindy

A: Thank you for this question, Cindy, and thank you for being on the front line of this battle, we all deeply appreciate your gifts and your sacrifices. I am guessing there are many people out there who are having a hard time winding down, even without the kind of first-hand exposure to taking care of patients Cindy has. Winding down is an important part of all sleep hygiene routines however, under the extraordinary circumstances, we all need a little more help. For those of you who don’t think this applies to you, think again, because we are all under circumstances that are not normal. Many of us are having a harder time sleeping right now, yours truly included, and now is when we really need it!

One of the elements of a strong sleep routine is having a clear boundary between day and night. Many of us tend to just mush into bed mindlessly without declaring an end to the day and a beginning to the night, taking all of the stress and worry from the day with us. I know that sounds ridiculous but once you try it, you will see how powerful it is. For someone under the kind of stress Cindy is under, create a ritual for when you actually leave work (hospital, office, or now home office). Say it out loud that you are leaving work and leaving work behind. You know intellectually there is nothing you can do for your patients (or job) from home but allowing yourself to leave it behind is an important step. If you are really feeling “full” from the day, write down everything that is bothering you and allow the paper to keep it for you. Either throw it away if you don’t need it, or put it somewhere outside of your bedroom, knowing that it will be there for you in the morning to take care of. When you notice your mind going back to work, give it a good half-halt and move your thoughts elsewhere.

"For those of you who don’t think this applies to you, think again, because we are all under circumstances that are not normal." 

Now, this brings up the elsewhere part. Since the brain is always thinking, you need something else to think. It doesn’t have to be profound, just something you like to think about. It can be your horse or family or even a memory, it just needs to be a nice place for your mind to go. Come up with a few good thoughts to choose from because one won’t work all of the time. As for thought hacks, my favorite is to listen to comedy. It might sound funny (pun intended), but it is pleasantly distracting. I have a streaming service and can create stations with my favorite comedians, then, I set my phone countdown timer to “stop playing” after twenty minutes, and off I go to sleep. If I wake back up, I simply do it again. The talking distracts and relaxes my mind, allowing me to sleep or fall back asleep. You can use a meditation app, too, and they all have a sleep section. Insight Timer has bedtime stories read by some of the popular meditation teachers and they are really nice to listen to. You will have to force yourself to do this, by the way. Our default mode is not compatible with a pandemic so just keep adjusting and readjusting and readjusting…you get the point.

Be extra patient with yourself right now, these are tough times and so you need a little more love, both for you and for others. Be safe, be kind, and remember we are all in this together.

All my best,

Dr. Jenny

Anxiety and fear can feel paralyzing, take the joy out of riding, or simply stall your progress. It's one of the most common issues holding riders back. The good news? You CAN gain control. Dr. Susser teaches Becoming More Powerful Than Your Fear in our latest Masterclass. 

Q: For those of us who board at a facility that has now closed, any advice on how to cope with the disappointment of having goals you'd been working towards being put on hold? I am feeling like all the progress I've made and work I've put in has gone to waste. - Abigail 

A: To Abigail and all those hard-working equestrians, no, it has not gone to waste. It is easy at this time to assume that all of your hard work preparing for this summer’s show season has been for naught, but that’s not the case.

First of all, having a sharp, painful reaction to this is to be expected. Everything is heightened right now, especially anything that could be emotional. And what is more emotional than our horses? Many are like Abigail, unable to even visit their horse, compounding further everything having to do with horses. The physical disconnection creates a mental and emotional disconnection, making you upset and then it becomes pretty easy to all of a sudden feel like you have wasted the entire year! 

Take a deep breath, maybe a few, and see if you can calm your body a bit. This is always a good practice to use because our mental upset causes physical upset and vice-versa. If you can notice where you are keeping your psychological stress in your body, you have an easier time letting it go. Oh yeah, and this is what you do with your body and stress as you are getting ready to go in the ring, so this practice will come in handy when you do get back to showing. 

The truth is there are many potential season-wreckers. Anyone out there have a horse that needs to be bubble wrapped? I did! And for those of us with the accident-prone mount, we know that our season teeters on that thin line of soundness anyway. How about a person that needs to be bubble wrapped? Some of us are the part of the partnership that has trouble staying sound! I bring this up because it is easy to focus on the COVID-19 as the cause, and right now it is, but there are a ton of other reasons we might lose a show season. 

I am working with a Para Olympian right now and as we all know, the Olympics and Para Olympics have been postponed a year. For some, that will be the kiss of death for their Olympic dream and for others, it will be the cause. What we did immediately was to re-frame this delay and use it to our advantage as much as possible. So, no Olympics this year? Great, then instead of the goal being to make the team, let’s up the ante and have the new goal to make the podium! That’s right, now the goal is to win a medal! We are going to use the extra time to dive deeper into mental toughness training and pursue a higher goal. I have to tell you, the excitement from this has created a work ethic neither of us expected. 

"Be upset. Yes, be upset, but only for a short time."

If creating a new goal is not inspiring or likely, then adjusting the timeline is necessary. I know that is not very sexy and is probably quite irritating, honestly, but it is the truth. If you or your horse had a soundness issue, then you would have adjusted the timeline. The problem here is that it is not your fault, which seems to make it worse emotionally. Neither of you violated the bubble wrap and you might have been having some of your best rides. Be upset. Yes, be upset, but only for a short time. Denying upset will only make it worse, but letting it drone on will allow it to take over. Then, re-frame, re-focus, and recover. Whatever time and work you “lose” to the epidemic, you can recover. Horses, like humans have muscle memory so you will not go back to square one, you will mostly have to recover your fitness levels. As you resume training, you will actually have a fresher and more advanced eye, which might even work to your advantage. Wouldn’t that be cool? Until then, remind yourself this is temporary and keep taking those deep breaths…

Be extra patient with yourself right now, these are tough times. You might need a little more love, both for you and for others. Be safe, be kind, and remember we are all in this together.

All my best,

Dr. Jenny

Read this next: When Your Barn Closes, Be Kind to Your Barn Owner

Photo by SEH Photography. 


Written by Dr. Jenny Susser

Dr. Jenny Susser has a doctoral degree in Clinical Health Psychology, is New York State licensed, and specializes in Sport Psychology. She is a Certified Mental Performance Consultant with the Association for Applied Sport Psychology and on the U.S. Olympic Registry, the highest distinction for Sport Psychology in the US. Dr. Susser works frequently with equestrian athletes of all pursuits, and has coached numerous Olympic athletes as well as serving as the USEF Team Sport Psychologist in past years.