Note: Today I’m republishing a blog from 4 years ago. I found this one as I was wrapping up the first draft of my upcoming book “Dancing the Tightrope: The Gift of Pressure, Fear and Failure.” I wrote this piece 3 months before falling from a different horse in a much less scary situation. At the time I wrote this, I could not have known what I didn’t know yet. Dancing the Tightrope chronicles my 3 year journey to get back on the horse that threw me. It took a full book to describe the changes that have happened since that accident.
Perhaps the most important indicator of all that has changed happened just this past week. I was in Camden training with Bruce Anderson (check out the podcast link below), when the highest pressure situation I could have imagined occurred.
Bruce had me working with his horse with only a bareback pad and one rein around his neck. No bridle. We were in a solid round pen that feels more like a stockade. Suddenly, there were sounds of a helicopter coming low and fast. I looked over at Bruce and asked “How’s Marley with helicopters?” His answer? “We’re about to find out.” At that moment, the helicopter was directly over us and then it was gone in a flash. The beast was from the local Army base – a Chinook – and it was less that 200 feet off the ground. A few seconds later, another one came over. This time Bruce caught it as it flew away. Marley and just stood there. No drama, no adrenaline.
What I didn’t know 4 years ago was how much I could learn to use those internal fear signals in a different way. Looking back on this blog, it feels like a part of me was peering into the future.
Originally Posted 6/29/2017
My theme for this week seems to be adrenaline. Let me start by saying that there is a joke in our house about who is the real adrenaline junkie around here. I contend that it’s me. And I got a lot of adrenaline this week. It’s left me pondering how to use this involuntary pulse of fight, flight or freeze energy pulsing through my veins. What would happen if I actually channeled it instead of running away or curling up in a ball of “make it go away?” What is the best choice to make between that moment of stimulus and response? And how do I continue to build the inner fortitude to tolerate discomfort and get comfortable with being uncomfortable?
From the outside looking in, almost no one would see me as the daring one. So if I’m the one who is such a chicken, how can I be the adrenaline junkie?
It’s all a matter of perspective. I’m married to a “mountain dew” man who does everything from extreme scuba diving to sky diving to horse endurance racing to doing back flips off of giant boathouses. By all accounts, he looks like the adrenaline junkie in our household. He has spent his whole life doing brave and daring things. Most activities don’t even touch his fear system. So while he is considered an adrenaline junkie, he has to work VERY hard to get a hit of adrenaline.
Me on the other hand? I was raised in a “don’t go near the edge” household and I didn’t. As a result, I was generally a careful child who turned into a fearful adult. (I hate admitting this.) My fear system gets jacked with the slightest hint of danger. Because my threshold is so low, I get hits of adrenaline all the time. That’s why I say I’m the true junkie in our house. I’m the one getting regular doses of it
So what happened this week to fill me with adrenaline? Oh let me count the ways. It started with the spider on the boat platform. No, I’m not scared of spiders. (I used to be but that’s another story.) When I saw him as I was stepping on the platform to ski, I moved my boot so as not to step on him and the boot suddenly slipped out from under me. Imagine the feeling of hitting wet ice, add a boat with jagged edges to fall on and you will get an idea of the next move. I managed to sit back into the boat without doing the splits or crashing onto my knees.
Once I recovered my “poise” I realized that I had taken one of the biggest hits of adrenaline in my recent memory. My heart was racing, my stomach was flipping and I generally felt incapacitated. I looked at Jen, my driver/daughter who knows my tendencies and me so well and said “I can’t ski like this.” I sat on the boat and said “Give me a minute.” Of course, adrenaline takes awhile to drain from your system and I said as much. She offered to ski and let me get calmed down. That was certainly an option.
And then it hit me. (The perspective, that is – not more adrenaline.) My body had just inadvertently created tournament conditions for me. The feeling I was having was no different than the feeling I have before skiing in a tournament. Being able to perform with that kind of energetic surge in the body is a hugely valuable skill, and one that I have not mastered. This was my chance to practice with the inner feeling of true tournament conditions.
So I looked at Jen and said, “Let’s see if I can use this. I’m gonna ski.”
The first pass proved why tournament conditions are so difficult. I overshot every buoy. Even though I had anticipated being stronger than normal, it was difficult to corral all the energy surging through my body. Had I been in a tournament, my performance would have been short lived.
It was on the next few passes that I started understanding how to channel the energy in a productive way. When my mind caught up with my body’s enhanced capabilities, I skied my best of the summer to that point. By far. In fact, the next day, I was missing that surge when I skied.
I came to see the adrenaline as enhancing my capabilities rather than debilitating me.
Over the past few years, I’ve been “rewiring” my brain to make it less sensitive to those fear hits. For example, the first time I drove a boat through a ski course, my heart was pounding and the boat guides seemed to scream past me at mach 4. Now I drive said course every day at faster speeds with advanced shortline skiers – deliberate practice and familiarity have made the once scary now the norm.
But of course, you know my lessons on managing fear and adrenaline were not yet over. I’m sure you have heard the old saying “If you fall off the horse, you gotta get back on.” I got to test that one as well.
A friend invited me over to ride her horse, which was one of my very favorite things to do as a young woman. Almost all of my riding had been on the very calm, nose to tail riding horses typical of public riding stables. Yes, I had been on “real horses” – but not that often. And all of my riding has been “western” riding. The difference between “western” and English are much more than a different saddle.
We started with catching and grooming my mount, which gave the horse and me a chance to know each other and build trust. Smart move. Then we mounted up in the ring and I started learning how to ride all over again. Different saddle, different reins, real horse. And unlike my ski, the horse could feel my every emotion. Just knowing that made it a little harder for me to settle in at first.
After a while, I did begin to get comfortable and we started speeding up. Just like in snow skiing, it’s important to learn the basics of how to slow down before you get too much momentum. In this case, it’s with a live animal who understands specific signals. The first couple of times were ok – I was able to get him going and stop without too much trouble.
Then while the horse was moving in a quick gait, I inadvertently gave a “go” signal when my deepest desire was to stop. Before I knew it, we were running. This was certainly not what I expected! You can imagine what happened inside of me. My body was now in full flight or fight mode. I was literally in flight mode – and I would have loved to be able to fly off that horse and land on my two feet.
My friend was calmly giving me instructions on what to do. I’m not sure how she could be so calm while I felt like I was on a runaway train. Damn, why won’t this horse stop? Needless to say, when we got stopped, my first instinct was to get off that horse!
She knew better and I knew better. That horse would never respect me again. First we debriefed in those few minutes while I was still astride him. We realized my western riding style conflicted with his training. My stop signal was confusing to him and my adrenaline sense of flight came through as the stronger signal.
So I went back to walking for a few minutes to regain my composure and reconnect with the horse - while my system was pulsing with the huge hit of adrenaline. In this case, I intentionally channeled that feeling into deep focus, connection and gratitude with the horse. He did eventually slow down and he was simply doing his best to please me. And I had managed to stay on through the whole thing. Whew!
You may be wondering what all this talk about adrenaline has to do with business. At work, we rarely talk about it in these terms. We don’t say “Wow, when you called my idea stupid, I got a hit of adrenaline.” Or “Dang, I get super-scared when I see you and your boss talking because half the time, it means I’m getting in trouble for something I’ve done.” We are mature, powerful business people – so we frame those adrenaline hits as “just business” or we don’t even realize that we are in a reactive mode.
That lack of awareness can cost us.
Here’s the problem with adrenaline. We don’t really have a choice about when it hits us. It’s based on our history, our personal fears, our experiences with parents, teachers or bosses. When that stimulus hits us, we start operating in fight or flight mode when the conditions actually call for us to be calm and reasonable. We are more likely to escalate a conflict, to take something personally, to get hurt or defensive, or just pick a fight.
All that energy surging through our system tells us to DO SOMETHING and we do.
It’s just that we then do something that is probably an overreach for the situation.
You may be thinking “Ok, I get it. I don’t want to overreact and I don’t want to damage relationships. So I will quit having adrenaline.” If it were only so simple. Our inner nervous system decides when we get adrenaline. Our conscious mind has little or nothing to do with it. Unless we do serious self-awareness training, we will get hit when we get hit.
So we first have to learn to deal with the adrenaline hits we get. Start by being aware. Recognize that when you have that pit in your stomach or the leap in the heart, there is a chance that you are surging with more energy than usual. That signal designed to keep you alive and when it hits us in a business environment, it drives behavior that does not match the situation. Learn when your tendency is to fight, flee or freeze.
You may also want to consider doing some inner work to rewire your system to tolerate and normalize those situations that trigger you. You can desensitize yourself if you deliberately practice doing so.
What are your tricks for not letting your fear system override your good judgment? How do you make yourself aware of that choice point between stimulus and response?
Please let me know in the comments – I love learning from you!
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