Episode 172-What to do with feelings like terrified and scared

“I’m terrified to ride her. I’m terrified to be in the pasture with her. I’m terrified to screw her up. I’m scared to get on. I’ve tried to ride my old horse to gain some confidence back. But at this point in time, I’m scared and I want to find the joy I used to have in riding. Any help would be great.”
While answering this listener question, I discuss the difference between a physical threat causing discomfort or mental thought causing discomfort. I discuss separating physical danger from what it feels like to experience your mind creating an emotion. I also share how to identify a ‘clean’ emotion, so you can decide if it is useful or if it is holding you back.


Episode 172-What to do with feelings like terrified and scared.mp3
Stacy Westfall: [00:00:00] He was healthy. I had just won the Congress freestyle on him seven months earlier. He was riding better than ever. And then he was gone.

Announcer: [00:00:13] Podcasting from a little cabin on a hill, this is the Stacy Westfall podcast, Stacy’s goal is simple: to teach you to understand why horses do what they do, as well as the action steps for creating clear, confident communication with your horses.

Stacy Westfall: [00:00:32] Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall, and I help riders become confident, communicate clearly, and get better results with their horses. This season of the podcast is a Q&A. If you have a question you’d like me to answer you can leave a voicemail by visiting my website and looking for the orange button that says, “Leave Voicemail For Podcast.” Before I start this episode, I’m inviting you to participate in this episode. If you agree to participate, here we go. What I want you to do is pause for just a moment and remember a time that you felt terrified. You’ll understand why I’m asking you to do this in a minute. But right now, think back to a time that you felt terrified. When I did this, I did not immediately have an answer. Do you? The next place that my brain took me was to the TV show, Yellowstone. My husband and I have been binge-watching it, and there are moments that happen in that show where I like to think if I were there, I would be terrified. But that’s not the same thing as me remembering the feeling of terrified. So I kept looking around and then I finally found my moment of terror, something I could remember feeling.

Stacy Westfall: [00:02:00] Have you got yours yet? My moment was in high school. I was driving my grandfather’s pickup truck. I was about to pull into my grandparents’ house. So I was only driving about 35 miles an hour on a small road and the road was slanted downhill and I would have to turn right to pull into their driveway. And as I went to slow down, I put my foot on the brake pedal and as I pressed down, it dropped all the way to the floor with no resistance and I couldn’t pump the brakes because it didn’t come back in that split second. I felt terrified. My mind raced. Time slowed down, but in a bad way, kind of because it seemed to just give me more time to think about all the things that were about to go wrong. Just past my grandparents’ house, the road dropped steeply down, like if you picture a sledding hill that you could slide down in the winter, it was like that. So my mind was thinking of all these things that could go wrong. I could head down over the hill. I could swerve into a tree. I could swerve into a ditch. And then finally, two other options that I had been taught when driving popped into my head. I could use the emergency brake. And even though this was an automatic pickup truck, I had been told that I could throw it into a different gear or into park. And although that would be terrible for the vehicle, it would get me stopped. So this big old pickup truck had an emergency brake down on the floor, one of those ones you step on, and I stomped it to the floor as I turned into my grandparents’ driveway, aiming for the giant tree in the yard. Thankfully, it stopped. I got out. The after-effects of feeling terror for me were almost worse than the moment of terror itself because I thought it was going to vomit. Then I realize how tense I felt, and I knew that I was thankful that there was no one else there because I could feel the desire to lash out. So have you recalled your moment of terror in your life yet? If not, that’s OK. I’m going to use a less terrifying example later on and maybe you’ll relate to that one. But either way, let’s listen to this week’s question.

Caller: [00:04:44] Hi, Stacy, I’m under 40 years old and I’ve owned a total of six horses in my life. Unfortunately, the reason why I’m leaving this message is because I’ve owned the last three within the last year. I started horses when I was real young with an old horse who taught me everything. I went to a horse that we taught each other some stuff, and then at 17, I broke out my first horse myself. I still have that horse. He’s lovely and wonderful, but I thought it was time for me to start over. So I bought a young horse last spring. That young horse unfortunately hurt me, threw me twice, had some significant injuries, but mostly some emotional injuries. I ended up deciding to sell him. I went and bought a safe horse, and about 16 days after having him, he was found tragically dead in the pasture. So then I went on to my third horse in one year, but I am terrified. I’m terrified to ride her. I’m terrified to be in the pasture with her. I’m terrified to screw her up. I’m scared to get on. I’ve tried to ride my old horse to gain some confidence back. But at this point in time, I’m scared and I want to find the joy I used to have in riding. Any help would be great.

Stacy Westfall: [00:06:04] Thank you for leaving this question and for being specific. You’ll see how that’s going to help later on in the podcast. The first idea that I would like to introduce is that I’m going to say for the sake of this podcast that there are two different kinds of terror. There’s physical terror and there’s mental terror. Obviously, they cross over into each other. But for the sake of this podcast, I want to pretend that we can separate them. My example at the beginning, driving the truck and losing the brakes, would be an example of a physical threat causing terror. In the voicemail that I just played, the possible physical terror moment that I heard was the sentence, The young horse, unfortunately, hurt me, threw me twice, and had some significant injuries.” The most interesting thing is that the last five words of that sentence are, “but mostly some emotional injuries.” So let me read the whole thing again. “That young horse, unfortunately, hurt me, threw me twice, had some significant injuries, but mostly some emotional injuries.” So let’s go back to my idea of separating the two. There is physical terror, which is a physical threat causing the feeling of terror, and mental terror, which would be a mental thought causing terror. My first advice for this caller is to take a deep breath and really actually recognize what you did there. You actually already know that there’s a separation between the physical and the mental, which is made even more impressive because of the “significant injuries.” So despite those, you still know that there’s a difference and that is saying something. What it tells me is that you can feel what I’m going to call the pause between the two, the pause between the physical event and the mental event. So what this tells me is that you’re actually very aware, and right now, the first choice you have is this. I just told you that I think based on your voicemail that you are aware of the physical versus the mental. When you hear me say that, one choice you have is to hear me say that, agree with me and then beat yourself up because, you know, there’s a difference and you should have conquered this already. Or another choice is you can hear me say that you have that awareness, you can agree with me and you can let yourself feel that pause. Now, when you go to feel that pause, that knowing that there’s a difference, you might feel the temptation to judge yourself. And if you can, in that moment, feel that temptation to judge yourself and yet get even more curious as to what you could learn as you try to separate the feeling of physical terror from mental terror, you’re already onto yourself. Let’s explore it a little bit more.

Stacy Westfall: [00:09:59] I looked up the word terrified. And in the dictionary, it defines terrified as cause to feel extreme fear. So I didn’t love that. It didn’t feel that complete, so I looked it up in the thesaurus where it says afraid, petrified, scared stiff, alarmed, fearful, frightened, horrified, horror-struck, paralyzed with fear, scared, scary, shocked, spooked, shaking like a leaf. I mentioned a minute ago that you might feel tempted to judge yourself. And I’m going to call this temptation to judge yourself, your brain inviting you back into the cycle. Now, why would your brain or some part of your brain want to keep you in a terrible cycle where terrified is coming up? I’ll ask a question, is there less physical risk if you don’t ride? Less chance of a physical threat? And I would say that a part of your brain would answer yes, there’s less risk if I don’t get on the horse. I won’t experience any of this. There’s no chance of me being hurt. There’s no risk of failure. So the part of your brain that’s hardwired for safety thinks that feeling terror will stop you from riding and therefore save your life. So if you follow that line of thinking, the feeling of terror in this moment in your brain, this mental terror often steps in when your brain is trying to keep you from doing something that maybe it sees as a physical threat. But if we continue to pretend that we can fully separate the two types of terror, then that means we can look at physical terror as one thing and mental terror, meaning the mental thought causing the feeling of terror. If we pretend that we can separate these two completely, then we can really look at the phrase that you used, “but mostly some emotional injuries.” I really appreciate that you included the sentence where you said, “I’ve tried to ride my old horse to gain some confidence back. But at this point in time, I’m scared.” The reason I really like that you included it is because earlier you were very clear that your old horse was lovely and wonderful and yet you’re scared. And I think that the very end of this sentence again holds a clue. Here’s what the full sentence says. “I tried to ride my old horse to gain some confidence back. But at this point in time, I’m scared and I want to find the joy.” The phrase, “I want to find the joy,” sounds like a really pleasant phrase, a great thing to aim for. And I think in some cases it is. But I’m going to suggest something different here. I’m going to suggest that possibly the longing for the joy is blocking you from allowing where you’re actually at right now. Here are a few phrases that you said in your message. I’ve shortened them so that you could really hear the essence of the phrase. And then what I’m going to do is I’m going to read the shortened phrase and then I’m going to say what pops into my head as a reaction if it were me saying the phrase, OK, here we go.

Stacy Westfall: [00:14:00] Found the horse dead in the pasture. Uncontrollable, sad, tragic, risk.

Stacy Westfall: [00:14:10] My third horse in one year. What is happening?

Stacy Westfall: [00:14:16] Terrified to screw her up. I can’t do this again to her, to me. I just can’t do this again.

Stacy Westfall: [00:14:26] Scared to get on. Seriously, I’ve been riding this long, and I don’t even want to get on. What is wrong?

Stacy Westfall: [00:14:35] I’ve tried to gain confidence. And I failed.

Stacy Westfall: [00:14:42] But at this point in time. Time, how much time can I spend here?

Stacy Westfall: [00:14:50] I want to suggest that as you move from this feeling of terrified to the feeling of joy, it’s very likely going to involve exploring a lot of other emotions. I went back again and read each one of the phrases above, and I imagined my own interpretation of the phrase and I made this list of emotions, the emotions that I would relate to each phrase. These might be different for you, so I suggest making your own list. But here’s my list. Sad, vulnerable, afraid, frustrated, incompetent, pressured. Over on my website, I’ll put a downloadable list of feelings in the show notes, and I would suggest looking at that list and finding the words that resonate the most for you with each of those phrases. I think a word list is really helpful because a lot of times there are words that we don’t commonly use that pop off the page, and I really find that useful. The other thing that’s really amazing to notice is that once you reduce it to phrases and emotions, the great thing about life is that we often have the opportunity to learn about the same concept in other areas of our life. I have three sons who are all adults now, which means that we all survived their teenage years. Having teenage boys stretched me in areas where I had fear. One fear that I’ve had for as long as I can remember is a fear of heights. And there was a moment where I found myself climbing a rock wall at Universal Studios in Florida. What’s funny about this moment is that we were on this trip because I had been on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and while we were there, they gave us a trip to Universal Studios, so I could tell you a story about being terrified when I was going to be on The Ellen Show. But I’m skipping over that one, and I’m going to be on the rock wall at Universal Studios. Now picture this, I’m all harnessed up and I start climbing. Two of my boys are already climbing. We’re all doing this as a family. I’m doing this because it doesn’t look hard. I start climbing. I don’t remember the trigger. I don’t remember if I look down or if I pause to catch my breath and looked around. I don’t remember if I looked to the left to see one of my kids that was climbing. But what I do remember is that I was suddenly terrified. I’m talking full freeze panic, terrified, world gone, heart beating. Breathing is the only thing I can hear over my heartbeat. I am terrified. I don’t know why heights have always really scared me, but they always have. And I remember being frozen there and it felt like an eternity. Now I’m sure it was just seconds, or maybe it was a minute, but I didn’t move. And in a fraction of a second in there, I felt what I called earlier, the pause. That pause between the physical and the mental. And I had just enough awareness to realize that there was no actual physical threat at this moment. Unlike when I lost my brakes in my truck, at this moment on the rock wall, I was safe. I was harnessed. I was supervised. I could look down, and I’m not kidding you, I was probably only 10 feet off the ground. I wasn’t very high. I was safe, but I did not feel safe. My heart was racing, my head was pounding with my heartbeat. I was pretty sure I was going to have a headache any moment now. My hands were sweating. I felt terrible. But let me clarify, my body felt terrible in so many ways. But in that pause, there was a part of my brain that was able to recognize I was safe, that I was on a rock wall at Universal Studios in a harness on a sunny day.

Stacy Westfall: [00:20:01] Now, at this point, I’ve actually been stuck in this moment for long enough that the instructor actually like looked up and asked me if I needed help. And I said no and I felt a moment, a twinge of guilt. Because it felt like I had been up there an hour, but I hadn’t been. I looked around. I could see one of my kids was done, another one was starting. It felt like an hour. And yes, it really had been longer than “normal.” But I also recognized that I was having a moment here and I said, no guilt. You’re not welcome and no, I’m not judging myself. I’m going to sit here and I’m going to explore mental fear for just a few moments. And I would love to tell you that this was a one-time thing. But as I remember it, my kids then decided to take up rock climbing all the time. So there was a lot more rock climbing in my future, which turned out to be an amazing learning tool because it gave me more and more opportunity to continually practice separating the physical sensation and the mental terror. So again, at an indoor rock climbing wall in Ohio, I was able to feel this and separate it. And then at a rock climbing wall in Kentucky, more practice feeling this and separating it. And again, at an outdoor rock wall with a guide, that one took me almost back to the original terror, but I was able to handle it in a different way because I was able to understand I’m in a harness and I’m safe. And yet my body is screaming at me that I’m not. About the time I thought I’d conquered it with the climbing, my boys then got into zip lining. So maybe I need a T-shirt that says I survived raising three boys, or maybe I should thank them because really they taught me a ton of lessons that I never would have naturally signed up for. All I want you to take away from this is that you can learn to feel this pause anywhere that you are actually physically safe and yet you’re feeling discomfort. Because at the end of the day, the trick is allowing that discomfort, exploring it. My hands are sweating. My shoulders are tight. My breathing is shallow. My heart is racing. I’m not in physical danger. This is what it feels like to experience my mind creating an emotion. If you start to look around for these moments every day and you start remembering that list of emotions that I read a minute ago, you’ll see even more opportunity. You don’t have to go to terror to explore this. You can go to sad, vulnerable, afraid, frustrated, incompetent, pressured. And once you make your own custom list, that’s when you can start to study some of these other emotions that you may be feeling when you are standing outside the pasture, looking at your horse. When you’re able to identify that you’re safe and yet you’re feeling afraid, when you start exploring this in your body and realizing that it’s your brain creating it, I find that it separates, it gives me that pause. And for me, that is everything. In the fall of 2011 and the beginning of 2012, I said goodbye to three horses in a five-month period. My first horse was 30, and we euthanized her in December. It was planned. The next horse was Roxy in February. She was pregnant. It was completely unexpected. And the third horse was Vaquero in May. He was healthy. I had just won the Congress freestyle on him seven months earlier. He was riding better than ever. And then he was gone. I mention this to say that the lessons I learned in that time period were hard.

Stacy Westfall: [00:24:56] Preparing for this podcast, I looked up an old blog post and I described the time period as crushing. I also used the words shocked and sad. And I want to clarify that I wanted to be sad. I was shocked, which felt terrible and was my actual experience at the time. Allowing the feeling is not the same as wallowing in it. Allowing is useful. Wallowing is not useful. And denying that you have the feeling and trying to stuff it down and pretend it doesn’t exist is also not useful. And to try to tell you how to know whether it’s useful or not, it’s such a personal thing because I’m going to introduce yet another concept, and it’s the idea that a feeling can be clean. And I think that when they’re–when they’re clean is when they’re still useful because a feeling can feel terrible and clean at the same time. It’s the clean part that’s interesting because it makes it not feel as stuck. And I actually think there’s something to do with the judgment, but I’m going to let you untangle that on your own. But for me, I’m always trying to remember moments where I can feel the clean truth of something. And finding a moment where you find a clean, terrible emotion–look, it doesn’t even sound like a great exercise, does it? But I remember mine. I remember being at my dad’s funeral and I remember in those days leading up to it. I remember because his death was unexpected and there was this collective feeling of shock and sadness and crying, lots of crying. I remember it because the interesting thing about funerals is that everyone expects to feel terrible. So it’s more likely that it’s allowed by you, by others, and so in the middle of this terrible but clean emotion, I remember a moment where somebody told a story about my dad. And we all laughed, and the laughter was pure and clean and clear. If I had to describe it in physical terms like something else I’ve experienced, it was like the sun, this ray of sun breaking through the clouds. It was an amazingly clean feeling. But it didn’t stay. But to me, I hold that memory as this brilliant reminder of how clean emotions actually move. The sadness that I felt in that moment was pure and clean. And that moment of laughter, it felt like delight, that moment of that memory that made us all laugh was pure also. And to me, it’s that contrast that makes life really interesting. The exercise of separating the physical from the mental in an area like you’re struggling with in this question is really important because if I don’t separate it, then it’s also possible for me to send this cycle in a different direction. It is very possible to become afraid of being afraid. And when I’m mentally afraid of being mentally afraid I become afraid of feeling afraid, and it’s a cycle that feeds itself. It’s a cycle where we can actually create the feeling of terror. And we know we can feel it in our body, I just gave you all these examples. And then that feeling in our body seems to reinforce that fear in our mind, even though we’re not actually in physical danger. But the amazing news, again, is that if we can recognize that pause even for a moment we can begin to see a glimmer of hope.

Stacy Westfall: [00:29:40] Now your work might be in the horse world. Maybe you’re going to feel some of these yucky emotions that you need to allow so that you can move past them and you want to practice allowing them cleanly. Maybe you do that by standing outside of the pasture. And remember what I told you when I was on the rock wall and I was tempted to feel guilt because I was taking longer than it should have? I just said, no, right now I’m not feeling guilt. Right now I’m studying fear. So when you’re standing outside that pasture and you’re feeling whatever comes up for you, if you feel a secondary thing like guilt or judgment, just say, not now for this five minutes, this 15 minutes, whatever you decide. The one I’m focused on is this one. The most excellent news is we don’t need to conquer our mental fear by touching physical fear. I suggest conquering mental fear by recognizing that, while we are physically safe. Then we can understand that the fear we’re feeling, even though we’re feeling it in our body, even though it might feel like terror at that moment when we are safe, we can understand more clearly that we’re creating this with our minds. And to me, this is how we can begin to find an edge into moving past and finding what we are truly capable of. That’s what I have for you today. Thanks for listening.

Announcer: [00:31:34] If you enjoy listening to Stacy’s podcast, please visit stacywestfall.com for articles, videos, and tips to help you and your horse succeed.

Links mentioned in podcast:

DOWNLOAD: Feelings/Emotion word list

Download (PDF, 832KB)

2012 Blog post about Stacy called ‘crushing’
The Worst Five Months

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  1. Alison Hamm on March 2, 2022 at 10:22 pm

    This was so good. I’ve delt with mental and emotional fear due to something I can’t ever really point to what caused it, as well as fear from physical mishaps while riding. Thank you Stacy, for opening this up and disecting it so well. I’ll be listening to this a couple more times. Fear comes in different forms and from different places. I have been fighting a fear of driving on busy interstate hiways for 30+ years. I had one incident that started the whole thing and I still do not understand what caused it. I went from being a very confident happy automobile driver to one with paralyzing panic. I had a bad horse accident that I physically healed from but still have the residual mental and emotional left over fear from. I have to work on these to this day. I’m better, but not completely healed and just might never really be. Again, thank you so much for this podcast.

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