Conquer Anxiety by Anticipating Success

Need to get in the right headspace? Believe in yourself!

By Jane Pike

Luca Fappani pats his horse in the center of the arena after a run.
Instead of focusing on the anxiety of competing, try focusing on the feelings you have after your ride—euphoria, joy, appreciation for you horse. (Photo by Jennifer Paulson)

It’s the day before the show. You’ve been trying to distract yourself all week, but frankly, you can’t get your mind to focus on anything else. The worst thing about it? It feels like Groundhog Day. You feel a growing sense of anxiety in your stomach, and the more you try not to think about it, the worse it seems to get. 

But do you know what’s really annoying? Things have been going well at home with your horse. It’s just that as soon as you step into the arena to do your thing, the wheels fall off. Things that come easily in training feel totally out of reach. At this rate, it’ll be a miracle if you manage to hold it together at all.

Or so your mind would have you think, thanks to “anticipation anxiety.”

But do you know what’s really annoying? Things have been going well at home with your horse. It’s just that as soon as you step into the arena to do your thing, the wheels fall off. Things that come easily in training feel totally out of reach. At this rate, it’ll be a miracle if you manage to hold it together at all.

Or so your mind would have you think, thanks to “anticipation anxiety.”

But do you know what’s really annoying? Things have been going well at home with your horse. It’s just that as soon as you step into the arena to do your thing, the wheels fall off. Things that come easily in training feel totally out of reach. At this rate, it’ll be a miracle if you manage to hold it together at all.

Or so your mind would have you think, thanks to “anticipation anxiety.”

A Real Buzzkill

Of all the “competition curses” out there, anticipation anxiety gets the top spot on the list. It does an excellent job of messing up your brain space at the times when you really need it to be clear and on task. What’s more, anticipation anxiety feeds on itself to the point where it can be hard to define yourself as a rider or competitor without somehow adding that into the mix, too. Before you know it, you no longer see anxiety as a behavior but as part of your competitive identity.

Oh, I’m an anxious competitor, you might say.

Or…

I’m good in training, but I usually blow it in competition. My nerves often get the best of me. 

As soon as you fuse an emotional experience as part of your intrinsic makeup, you distance yourself from the ability to find a solution. Instead, you need to understand anxiety as exactly that: an emotional experience that calls you to get prepared and invites you to use your mental superpowers so they’re working for you, not against you.

Breaking Down the Break Down  

Let’s discuss the two main avenues that create anxiety, and perhaps more importantly, what you can do about it. 

The first is what I refer to as the “thought pathway,” where worry, rumination, or self-doubt trigger the physical experience of anxiety as the end point. The second is when an emotional and/or environmental trigger cues the amygdala (the part of your brain responsible for triggering the anxiety response) to sound the alarm, and as a consequence, you feel anxious. In the first instance, you experience anxiety as a direct consequence of the thoughts you’re entertaining and the meaning you’re attaching to them. Although the space between the thought and the feeling may become smaller and smaller, the more “practiced” you become at feeling anxious, the experience of anxiety in this case is essentially a cumulative one. 

Jordan McBurney smiles while holder her horse.
Choosing anxiety or success is a choice. Anticipating success give you the mindset you need to overcome negative thoughts and build on a positive outlook. (Photo by Carolyn Simancik)

In the case of anxiety brought about by environmental or emotional triggers, the experience of anxiety is instant and often defies logical thought and reasoning. (This is a common form of anxiety when there’s been accident, injury, or some kind of trauma.) While it’s usual for a relationship to exist between the two, the experience of “instant onset anxiety” usually creates anticipation anxiety about it happening in the future. The difference in how they come about means that the solution needs to be specific for each also. 

For the purposes of this article, I’ll share a mind hack that allows you to cut the anticipation anxiety loop and instead anticipate success. Before we get to that, however, you must understand how you create anticipation anxiety in the first place. 

Creating the Loop

To feel anxious, your thoughts need to go to a future-focused place where you imagine something you’re hoping to avoid or the worst-case scenario coming to life. In the case of competition, you might fester on concerns of your horse misbehaving or things not going as planned in front of a judge. As you do so, you create a mental movie: you see the scene unfolding in your mind’s eye, and you fill in the detail. You feel the feelings as if it was occurring in the here and now. You fill in the blanks with enough sensory detail for your unconscious mind (which has no concept of what’s real or imagined) to register the experience as happening now, creating a chain reaction in your brain and nervous system that leads to the experience of anxiety. 

This is what makes you feel anxious and uneasy, even if what you’re concerned about is nothing more than an imagined projection. Knowing this, you can use the same principles to create feelings of confidence and success.

The Hack

To anticipate success, I’d like you to transport yourself to 10 minutes past the successful completion of your run. When you’re anxious about your draw coming up, imagine what you’d see, hear, and feel 10 minutes after the successful completion of your pattern. If you’re riding at a lesson or in clinic and it’s causing you concern, in your mind’s eye, bring to light what it would look like 10 minutes after it wrapped up.

Here’s an example. It’s 10 minutes after you’ve finished your run. You’re back at the stalls unsaddling your horse. You’ve undone the cinch, and you can see steam rising off your horse’s skin; he’s still hot and a little sweaty. You give him a pat and feel the warmth of happiness in the pit of your stomach. You look around and see your friends and trainer, congratulating you on the great job. You give your horse a pat and tell him what a good boy he is, sliding the saddle off and putting it on the rack.

When it comes to anticipation, choosing anxiety or choosing success is a choice. For the most part, we’ve trained ourselves into feeling anxious, and as a consequence, feel disempowered to create an experience that’s any different. This “anticipate success” method gives you the means to hack your usual modus operandi and choose again; by focusing on what you want to feel, you create an experience that’s supportive of the outcomes you desire and allow for an entirely different set of experiences and possibilities.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jane Pike of The Confident Rider

Jane Pike is an equestrian mindset coach who specializes in giving riders worldwide the skills they need to ride with confidence and the mental fitness to be focused and in the zone for competition. Through her business, Confident Rider, she guides both amateur and professional riders through a process for managing their mindset in the saddle. Visit confidentrider.online to learn more.