Inheriting Fear and Anxiety

LascauxhorsewithplantsWhat if some of the fear and anxiety you have when riding comes from fear and anxiety suffered by your grandparents?  Many of the riders I work with state that they don’t know why they are fearful, just that they are.  Recent research suggests that some forms of fear and anxiety may result from experiences our ancestors had that cause them to be anxious or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

A recent study at Emory University showed that fear of a certain smell was passed down from male mice to two subsequent generations of mice.  In this study, researchers caused male mice to become fearful to the smell of cherry blossoms by giving mild shocks to their feet when they released the smell into their cages.  Researchers then bred those mice.  When that next generation of mice first smelled cherry blossoms, they became fearful and anxious, even though they had never had any kind of negative experience to that smell.  The effect lasted through one more generation of mice.  According to the Washington Post, researchers found that those mice actually had “more cherry-blossom-detecting neurons in their noses and more brain space devoted to cherry-blossom-smelling.”

While studies on mice may not be easily translatable to humans, there is similar evidence resulting from human studies.  For instance, studies on humans have shown that a generational effect may result from traumatic events, such as children being more likely to suffer from PTSD if their mothers were also PTSD sufferers due to a trauma.

Genetics is a complicated science, so no one is suggesting that a child will definitely be impacted by environmental influences upon a parent, grandparent or other ancestor.  These studies are puzzle pieces that can help us better understand fear, anxiety and PTSD.  They also encourage scientists to delve further into the impact our DNA has on these issues.  Interestingly, a recent study on mindfulness and gene expression shows us a way to address the issue of these studies’ findings and the fear and anxiety some people experience around horses.

Mindfulness MattersA recent study by researchers in Wisconsin, Spain and France showed the impact that mindfulness may have on gene expression.  After only 8-hours of mindfulness practice, experienced meditators showed reduced levels of pro-inflammatory genes.  The study’s author, Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. founder of The Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, stated, “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first paper that shows rapid alterations in gene expression within subjects associated with mindfulness meditation practice.”  It appears from this study that mindfulness can actually suppress gene expression in some instances, and more studies are needed to further explore this finding.

If some studies show that we may inherit traits of fear and anxiety through our genetic makeup from our ancestors, and other studies show that mindfulness can suppress gene expression, then there is the possibility that mindfulness could be a vehicle to suppress the gene expression of inherited fear and anxiety.  The effect that mindfulness has on fearful riders speaks to this possibility.  All the riders I work with find that mindfulness helps them with their fear, even when there is no discernible reason for them to have that fear.

Even if we can’t pinpoint where our fear and anxiety arises from, even if it’s from an event that occurred a generation or more before our birth and having nothing to do with horses, being mindful appears to be a way to help with the fear and anxiety that we are experiencing now.  I, for one, am excited to see more studies done to see what impact mindfulness has on calming and centering us and helping us to enjoy our horses, and indeed our entire lives, more.

 

Plan Lightly

Rhiannon shaking
Shake off the things that didn’t help you grow in 2013 and get ready for the things coming into your life in 2014.

With New Years Day having just arrived, many people are making resolutions and plans for 2014.  Resolutions and plans such as “I will ride more often this year,” or “ I will be able to do a flying lead change by the end of the year,” abound.  Most people are probably experiencing the same emotions they did last year at this time, when they realized that they hadn’t kept their resolutions or reached their goals from the previous year.  As we make resolutions and plans anew, we tend to berate ourselves for resolutions we didn’t keep last year, plans unfulfilled.  We feel guilt over these situations, but, as we have probably done for more years than we care to remember, we gamely go at it again once January 1 rolls around.

There is another way to look at making resolutions and plans, and it’s something you can use in many facets of your life, including the things you do with horses.  It’s what I call “plan lightly.”  When we work with our horses, we strive to be as light with them as possible.  We have feel of our horse, but we do not yank on the horse or pull or have tight contact.  We have just enough feel for communication but not so much that we are tightly grasping our horse in any way.

We may have in our minds that we are going to go and do something specific with our horse today.  Perhaps it’s the day we’ve planned that our horse will take that right-lead canter from the walk, with no trot stops in between gaits.  If we have been working on that for weeks or months, we may have really built ourselves up to this being the day it happens.  But what if it doesn’t?  If we build a goal up so that it must happen by or at a certain time, then if it doesn’t, we suffer terribly.  We may blame the horse.  We may blame ourselves.  We may blame both the horse and ourselves.  To stop the blame game, which doesn’t help us reach our goal anyway, we need to hold that goal lightly in our minds.

cisco_windy_copyright
Face the New Year knowing you can hold your plans lightly.

We can hold our resolutions and plans the way we should hold the reins when riding, lightly, with feel. We hold our plan like that, so that we can step towards it but so that we can also move and change as it, or circumstances surrounding it, change.  One of the most important things we can keep in mind is that we do not know what the future holds, and while most of us think that whatever we plan is the best possible thing that could happen and in the time frame we want it to, that may not be true.  As it is unfolding, you may think that your plan isn’t working, but in the end, the unexpected things that happen may land you at a place even more spectacular than what you had wanted in the first place.

No matter what your plans for 2014 may be – to move, to change careers, to get that flying lead change, to adopt and gentle that wild Mustang you have always dreamed about – hold that plan lightly.  If you do so, you will find that when 2015 rolls around, you won’t beat yourself up about not meeting your goal if isn’t exactly how you had planned it.  Rather, you will look back and enjoy the time you spent working toward it, perhaps even marveling in how it changed and became more than you could have imagined when you started.