Avoid Pandemic Pandemonium: Lessons from the Herd
There is a reason why the saying “may you live in interesting times” is viewed as both a blessing and a curse. These are undoubtedly interesting times that were unimaginable just a few months ago. The coronavirus pandemic is causing physical illness, but beyond the thousands affected directly, millions more are being affected emotionally.
Worried humans try to make sense of the world by weaving together stories, often losing the present moment as we focus on the past or future. We fear disaster, wondering if we or those we love will get the virus and what might happen if we do. We also revisit the past, reconsidering our own decisions or those of others and wishing they or we had acted differently to avert this crisis. We have no control over the past or the future, but there are things we can do in the present moment to help us survive this pandemic, physically and mentally.
Save Your Energy
As prey animals, horses are always on high alert for danger. If an animal approaches a herd of horses, they immediately will stop what they are doing, look up, and assess whether the animal is dangerous. Once the horses decide there is no threat because the animal is not a predator, they will quickly return to grazing. This ability to return to grazing is essential to wild horses’ survival. If they wasted their energy by panicking every time something alarmed them, they would exhaust themselves. Instead, horses wisely conserve their energy so when a predator like a mountain lion arrives, the horses are fully prepared to run or fight.
If you’ve ever dropped your dog off at a kennel with persistently barking occupants, you’ve probably noticed that sound can make it hard to think straight. You may become agitated and irritable while waiting to check in. When you pick up your dogs, you might notice they are exhausted because they had to endure that sound for days and may not have been able to sleep. The news cycle in this pandemic can easily become a kennel of barking dogs, continually agitating and exhausting us if we do not manage the flow of information.
Knowledge about what is happening is useful and can help us make well-informed decisions to promote our well-being. Obsessively following the headlines minute by minute, however, can directly harm our health if it causes us to become excessively anxious and lose sleep. Even one night of poor sleep reduces our immune system’s ability to filter and fight viruses. When we are emotionally affected by the virus, we need to conserve our energy by sleeping, eating and doing what we can to keep our immune system strong so we can fight the virus effectively if we do become infected.
Know Your Calm-Down Cues
Understanding the importance of returning to grazing doesn’t mean it is easy to do. The phrase “calm down” originated with horses because when on high alert, they raise their heads high in the air and literally calm down by lowering their heads and returning to grazing. There are several calm-down cues that horses use to naturally release stress and rebalance themselves, often by moving their bodies. Sometimes they shake it off, or stop, drop, and roll, which realigns them physically and mentally. Horses also practice self-soothing behaviors, including one that involves rubbing their noses on their forelegs. This movement releases dopamine, which helps horses feel calmer and brings them back into balance.
Humans have a wide variety of calm-down cues too, but they often forget to use them, especially when caught up in a mental whirlwind. Take some time to consider what your personal calm-down cues are. It might help to make a list that you can refer to when you are particularly stressed. Taking a walk, doing yoga, meditating, talking to a friend (about a subject other than the pandemic), appreciating a sunset, petting your dog, making and eating a delicious dinner, soaking in a warm bath, and other such actions can help you lower your blood pressure and heart rate and come back out of fight-or-flight mode into grazing mode.
When horses return to grazing, they focus on the grass or hay before them. They eat with exuberance and appreciation, noticing and carefully selecting the tastiest bits. They also will drink with enthusiasm, taking long swallows and sometimes sucking their tongues afterward. They enjoy each moment.
In the midst of the pandemic, remember to express gratitude. Your gratitude list may have nothing to do with the pandemic but, if you can’t stop thinking about it, you can use this list. In this present moment, if you are not currently very ill with the coronavirus, there are many things for which to be grateful:
• I am grateful for the gift of today.
• I am grateful for the air I breathe and to my lungs for taking it in every day and filling all my cells with oxygen.
• I am grateful for clean water to drink and wash with, which is not available in many parts of the world.
• I am grateful for my immune system, which has successfully addressed many viruses and bacteria over my lifetime.
• I am grateful for my family, friends and community who support me.
• I am grateful to be healthy today.
Carrie Brady is the creator of Possibilities Farm in Wilton, where she partners with four horses in innovative non-riding programs for personal growth, professional development and wellness. If you aren’t able to visit the farm, Carrie is available for phone coaching from the barn, so you still get personalized advice directly from the herd. Connect at 203-210-7484 or at PossibilitiesFarm.com.