On knowing your triggers.
Kaliwohi almost broke my fingers once. It was last autumn, late evening dusk, and I put him on a lunge line to work him a bit. I was anxious to get him into a rhythmic trot, to get his heart rate up, because he needs to lose weight and get fit as much as I do.
Horses amplify whatever we are feeling, and Kaliwohi felt my sense of pressure. He is normally very relaxed on the lunge line, but this night was different. He sensed my anxiety, and he amplified it. He went from a walk to a canter that quickly escalated into a bolt to the barn.
There are some safety rules that are “no exceptions” to me. Lunge lines are one of those rules. I always, always, always fold the extra length of a lunge line in the “firehose” way in my hand, as a safety measure to assure my hand will not get caught in the loops.
But this night, Kaliwohi bolted so suddenly and so quickly, the extra loops of the lunge line whipped up and one of them caught a finger on my right hand. God’s grace and quick reflexes resulted in only a torqued finger and bruising.
At the barn, Kaliwohi relaxed immediately, despite the lunge line trailing out behind him. He began munching grass without a care in the world. I went and got him and returned to the arena, and he eventually settled down enough to remember what lunging is all about.
But after the lunge session was over, I spent some time trying to figure out what had caused this sudden change in behavior. What had triggered my laid-back mustang to panic?
Horses like routine. Structure helps them feel safe. Upon reflection, I realized I had never worked Kaliwohi at dusk before. I tried to consider the low light and encroaching darkness from his point of view. I realized I was asking him to focus and work when, in his mustang mind, dusk is the time of day when hungry nocturnal beasts begin searching for a meal. Safety, to him, meant getting back to the barn and his herd mates, where they all settle in together for the night.
I’ve never asked Kaliwohi to work at dusk since, and he’s been a perfect gentleman. I respect his need to feel safe.
So what about my own “triggers?” I’m a big believer in taking control of one’s life and one’s feelings and not wallowing in the past. But, letting go of the past is only possible once you’ve worked through whatever unresolved issues remain there.
As a survivor of childhood abuse, my number one emotional need – just like my once-wild mustang – is the need to feel safe. These days, as a high-functioning adult, there are many instances where my initial response to a situation is to feel decidedly unsafe. “I’m not as smart as…” “I’m not as good a rider as…” “I’m not as thin or pretty or quick-witted or [insert quality of your choice] as…” You get the idea.
Or, “I’m not sure I’m going to handle this difficult conversation well.” Or “What if they get angry with me?” “What if they don’t like me anymore?” And on and on and on.
All these triggers don’t make me bolt back to the safety of my home. I’m not a herd animal and my first response to fear, stress, or pressure is not flight.
My first response is food.
But, the good news is: awareness is power. As Maya Angelou said, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
Old Esther’s response to any trigger was high-calorie food. (Helloooo, cookies!) But new Esther is learning much better coping strategies. Here are a few, in case you find them helpful.
If I’m having a “brown bag working lunch” with people who intimidate me, I pack a lunch of apple slices, carrot slices, almonds, dates, and cheese. This lunch allows me to be very tactile with my food. I’m picking up each piece and chewing it well, instead of taking a bite of a too-thick deli sandwich or eating a salad and feeling sloppy while wrangling lettuce into my mouth. By popping bite-sized pieces of healthy food in my mouth one at a time, I get the emotional salve of eating a lot of bites without each bite having excess calories in it.
If I’m having a meeting at a local coffee shop, I order herbal tea instead of a calorie-laden mocha. This not only avoids sugar and calories, but herbal tea is a cleansing, healthy choice and – bonus – no caffeine to add more “jazz” to my nerves.
In some cases, I choose to do for me what I do for Kaliwohi. For him, I don’t work him at dusk. For me, I don’t set morning meetings at bakeries or lunch meetings at pizza shops.
Self-care begins with setting one’s boundaries and respecting them, with knowing what triggers one to unhealthy food choices and finding appropriate ways to manage those stressors so they don’t derail your fitness plan.
During these winter days, I hope you’ll invest some time in self-reflection so you can figure out your own triggers and how to overcome them. Riding season will be back soon enough, and we are getting fitter and healthier, one day at a time, together.