Avoiding The Overthink

Aug 27, 2013 - 7:26 AM
Jody Jaffe has come up with coping systems to prevent her overactive brain from getting in the way of her body performing its job over a fence. Photo by Action Shots Photography.

I’ve been overthinking everything since I could think. Part of it is my culture; I come from a people who, if they didn’t invent psychoanalysis, certainly perpetrated it on the world.

But a larger part of it is that I can get my brain to listen to me much easier than I can my body. I can zip through a puzzle while I can’t follow even the most basic instructions in a Step Aerobics class. And I’ve been that way since before all the knocks to my head. I am not a natural athlete. I am klutzy, uncoordinated and built to sit in front of a computer, not on a horse. As my trainer, Gordon Reistrup, says of his shorter-legged riders, “Think clothespin on an orange.”

Unfortunately, my grand passion is an athletic endeavor. So I read Paige Cade’s recent blog, “Don’t Think, Just Do,” with great interest—and pride. I taught her journalism at Hollins, where she was one of my best students. And I’ve watched her ride. She is a natural athlete, plus she’s been riding since before she could write. So to read that she, too, struggles with overthinking and silencing the chatter was gratifying in a schadenfreude kind of way.

The truth is, I think most of us struggle with overthinking both in athletic pursuits and life in general. We are a cerebral society, or at least much more cerebral than when we had to hunt or gather to survive. As a result, the thinking part of our brains has become a bully, routinely shouting out what Paige called in her column, the “ innate, almost involuntary, muscle memory part of the brain (which has developed over years of training and practice).”

All the chatter that hijacks us as we try to jump a course or meditate or swing a golf club is about as useful to humans as ticks are to the ecosystem. Perhaps there is an entomologist somewhere who can make a case for ticks, but I doubt it. The only plausible explanation for their existence is that Wall Street bankers have to reincarnate to something.

Likewise for chatter. It does nothing but screw things up and make you doubt your abilities. How many times have I been on course when I started thinking about the latest injury I read about in the Chronicle or wondered if my horse would shy at the man behind the bushes or worried about that long ride to the single oxer? I’ve been riding now for 40 years, plenty of time to develop enough muscle memory to at least get around a puny 2’6” course. I’m not talking about riding in the Grand Prix.

So the question becomes how do we shut up the bully brain? For Paige, a natural athlete who hasn’t seen the inside of even a fraction the number of emergency rooms that I have, it’s a matter of just riding the trip. “Concentrating on feeling my horse underneath me and feeling just enough wind on my face tells me if I have enough pace,” she said.

For my friend Kathy Eichelberger, another natural athlete dubbed “The Tick,” by her foxhunting buddies because she can stick to anything, it comes down to the trust she has in her two off-the-track Thoroughbreds. “In the past I overthought stuff,” she said. “And I began to just repeat ‘rhythm, rhythm’ to get away from the ‘voice.’ I think that now, especially because I know and trust these two horses so well and I so love jumping them, that I am relaxed and not really thinking about much. So now it is not an active process to turn off the chatter.” 

Tricking Your Brain

I’d love to concentrate on the wind on my face or how much I love jumping my horse, but those are the kinds of things you say when you have natural athletic abilities like Paige and Kathy. For the athletically challenged like myself, it ain’t that easy. You need something more than a breeze and trust. That’s where visualization and trickery come in.

Many years ago, I read an article about the limbic system, our paleo-mammalian brain in charge of survival, sensory perception, movement (and a host of other things). I extrapolated that must be where whatever shred of athletic ability I have resides, along with the muscle-memory I’d accrued from all those laps around the cornfields with no stirrups and jumping courses on my machine of a horse, Brenda Starr. The illustration in the article showed the limbic brain to be at the base of the head, near the neck. So I devised an exercise where, just as I’m about to jump, I visualize shutting off the top of my brain and shifting control to the base of my neck. I augment that with words to the effect of, “OK limbic system, you’re in charge.”

My thinking brain is a very big bully, so periodically I have to push it back under the rock by repeating the visualization and verbal affirmation, much like I was taught in meditation to lead the mind back to the breath or the mantra.

That’s visualization, which works. But for me, what works better is trickery, much like I used to trick my sons by adding healthy stuff to their chocolate chip waffle batter. I’d distract them with the chocolate, and they’d eat the wheat germ.

Psychologists have a nicer name than trickery. They call it hyper-focus technique, and I learned it when I went to get help after my son almost died. I couldn’t stop obsessing about him in the ICU, and as a result I was in a constant state of grief and anxiety. The psychologist asked me to get to that obsessing place, which wasn’t hard. Just as I started feeling the barbed wire tightening around my heart, she told me to look at the flower in the fabric on the sofa and then describe it in exacting detail.

Best wire cutters ever. Before I even got to the leaf, the barbed wire was gone. I continued to use that technique whenever I felt the wire start clamping shut until eventually the obsessing stopped.

In other words, I hyper-focused myself out of anxiety, which is exactly what Gordon, my trainer, had me do in my last lesson. You don’t need the major anxiety of a loved one’s brush with mortality to use this technique. It works if you get a little tense as you approach the fence.

I was riding my OTTB mare, Cassie, who had been quiet and steady while we flatted. But as we started jumping, she got a little quick. Gordon told me to focus only on keeping my shoulders back and think of nothing else. So the more I hyper-focused on keeping my shoulders back, the quieter my bully brain got. I’d given it a task. I’d so thoroughly occupied it that it could no longer flood me with images of me in a cast or a coma or whatever new horror it could devise. I tricked it into submission, so my innate, muscle memory brain could take the reins.

And guess what? My horse jumped perfectly.

Jody Jaffe is the author of “Horse of a Different Killer,” “Chestnut Mare, Beware,” and “In Colt Blood,” which have been featured in People Magazine and translated into German, Japanese and Czech. She is also the co-author of the novels, “Thief of Words,” and “Shenandoah Summer.” She is a journalist who was on a team at the Charlotte Observer that won the Pulitzer Prize. Her articles have been published in many major newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Washingtonian and Practical Horseman. In addition, she teaches journalism at Hollins University. She lives on a farm in Lexington, Va., with her husband, John Muncie, and their eight horses. She attempts to ride hunters with her trainer, the ever-patient, Gordon Reistrup.


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