Excited Versus Nervous

Shift your perspective about the difference between anxiety and excitement to ease your show-pen jitters.

By Jane Pike

You might experience strong emotions before you compete. Using them positively can influence the outcome of your performance. (Photo by Carolyn Simancik)

You’ve probably heard it said that anxiety and excitement provide the same physical experience and that the only difference between them exists in your head. Does the difference in your experience come down to your perspective or the meaning you’ve attached to the situation at hand based on previous experiences?

I believe the answer is a little bit of both. Here’s why.

Handling Charged Emotions

Anxiety and excitement are both examples of activated nervous system states. Both of these emotions trigger your sympathetic nervous system to kick into action and create a level of arousal in your body that sends additional energy into your system. How well you deal with this type of response depends on your capacity to handle these charged emotions, and that level of tolerance varies from person to person. In fact, many people have trouble uncoupling any type of activation in their system that stems from fear and concern, and as a consequence, only find themselves able to tolerate a small amount of stimulation (be that anxiety or excitement) before becoming overwhelmed. For some people, that  mental overload can even progress to the extent that they shut down and freeze up.

Riding in the show pen is one example of a stimulating situation that can be overwhelming for many people. Competition of any sort requires you to process more information from your environment in a limited time period. You’ll also experience a shot of adrenaline as a natural consequence of the experience. To be able to “hold” that adrenaline and the resulting emotion within your body without feeling yourself dissociate or clam up means you need to acclimatise yourself to higher levels of activation. First, work on building your tolerance for stimulation away from the show ring, then you can apply the tactics you’ve practiced to more easily deal with the same feelings once you’re inside the pen.

What Do You Really Feel?

Of all the situations I work with on a regular basis as a mindset coach, anxiety ranks at the top of the list. But it’s also one of the most socially acceptable states to defer to when it comes to labeling and recognizing how you feel. I’ve realized that, for the most part, any level of activation in the body that makes you feel uncomfortable or takes you outside your window of tolerance is often described as anxiety.

But when you start to get curious about what’s actually happening in your body and mind, that’s not always the correct identification. In fact, the internal walkie-talkie system between your nervous system and your brain can be so unclear about emotionally charged situations that it can be hard to pinpoint exactly what you’re feeling, even when you’re in the midst of it.

Your ability to manage charged emotions—such as anxiety and frustration—begins outside the show pen so you can laser-focus when you’re competing. (Photo by Kaycie Timm)

For example, anger and frustration have a similar energy, but our culture and interpersonal relationships have often deemed those two emotions as shameful or overly negative. If you lack understanding of or experience with healthy or mindful anger (which is a necessary emotion that allows you to channel an energy of assertiveness, strength, and competitive spirit), then it’s easier to feel the experience of it and automatically chuck it in the anxiety bucket for good measure.

You might have become so frozen and muted by charged emotions in the past that any level of vitality in your system feels dangerous. So even if you’re in a situation where you feel excitement or joy, your nervous system can’t hold or contain the experience in a way that allows you to feel in control of it. Instead of properly balancing that energy in your system, you find yourself boiling over.

To be an effective partner for your horse, you need to be able to manage those bigger energies without moving into flight or freeze. You must recognize that the uprising of energy in your system isn’t always anxiety, and begin to track how you feel in relation to certain events and situations so you can expand your capacity and stay rooted to yourself in the midst of big emotions, both in and out of the show pen.

Put It Into Action

As you move through your day, notice the times you feel uplifted or excited. How does that feel to you? What’s the experience you’re having at a sensation level? See if you can stay with it and observe, avoiding the temptation to create a narrative around your experience.

The same goes for anxiety. If you feel a little concern coming into your system, notice how it feels in your body. You don’t have to change it in any way; just notice what’s happening and begin to develop a language that allows you to discern the nuances of how you feel in different activated states.

Learning to be able to “hold” more experiences within your body and adjust your framework accordingly begins at this level—of discerning how you actually feel and being able to take appropriate, constructive action based on the information that gives you. 


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. Visit confidentrider.online to learn more.