Arrest and Redirecting Runaway Thoughts

Our thoughts can run away with us. They pop in our head, like the uninvited dinner guest. Before you know it, those runaway thoughts sit down, strap on a bib and start helping themselves to heaping piles of the dinner we have prepared. Meanwhile, we look on helplessly wondering those thoughts came from and if there are enough mashed potatoes to go around. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a way to usher the interloper back out the door and return to a peaceful dinner in our own home?

One of the tools I’ve been developing in myself over the last few years is “arrest and redirect.” Using it starts with the awareness that not all thoughts are true, nor do they all deserve the royal guest treatment. In fact, a lot of our thoughts are born from our fears and insecurities. We don’t have to let them run away with us. We certainly don’t have to invite them to dinner!

The term “arrest and redirect” came from a hiking trip with my husband Russ and friends. We had reached one of the stunning overlooks into the Hickory Nut Gorge and overlooking Lake Lure. The area features huge bald, curving rocks along the sides of the mountains.

We decided to stop at the edge of one of them for a short snack. We had been walking on fallen acorns all day. It was like walking on marbles. One missed step and we would either fall into the boulders on the hillside or over the edge on the down slope side.

On the rock face, we noticed that the big bald rock we were sitting on was similarly treacherous, with loose stones all over it. I’m not that good with heights, so I was happy to just sit and take in the view. Russ went beyond the official trail along the top of the same rock we were all sitting on.

As I was gazing out over the glorious scenery, I heard the scuffing sound of rocks giving way underfoot. In an instant, my mind had a picture of Russ going over the edge.

I didn’t want to look. But I had to. When I turned to see what was happening, he was on his side, holding onto a bush. The bush was the only thing that arrested his momentum. Had he let go, or had the bush uprooted, he was going over the edge of the mountain. After that, I definitely couldn’t look. I had to turn away while he made his way back.

We can be on solid footing and then we reach an edge or step on metaphorical marbles. Something happens that takes us away from our center and before we know it, our thoughts are running. If we don’t arrest and redirect them, the outcome can send us spiraling.

The first thing we have to recognize is that our thoughts are not the truth. They are more often than not a product of our past. Like Pavlov’s dog, we go on automatic pilot. We can interrupt the thought before it sits down to dinner.

As I’ve been getting back on a variety of horses since my accident, I’ve had to learn to arrest and redirect my thoughts. Horses sometimes make unexpected moves. At first, every move made me think we were running back to the barn. If my mind runs away with me at every unexpected move of the horse, the horse is much more likely to feel like running away with me on his back is a good idea.

One of the first horses to test my ability to arrest and redirect was Shahlik, an Arabian take lessons on with Lynn Brown. The second time out of the controlled area where we usually ride, I had a major opportunity to test my tools. Shahlik and I were walking along behind Lynn and her horse when a turkey flew up out of nowhere. It was behind Lynn’s horse and right under Shah’s nose. Shah immediately took off to the left, running in the direction of the road not fifty feet away, with a huge dump truck bearing down on us. Not only did I have a horse running away with me, my thoughts were running away with me.

Here’s a passage from my upcoming book Dancing the Tightrope, describing the scene from inside my head:

I felt the panic rising in me. For a split second, all my training went out the window. My immediate reaction was to do exactly what I had done on the horse that threw me two and a half years before. I wanted to pull back on the reins, as hard as possible. After all, we were now heading straight for the truck and sure disaster.

In that instant, a part of me waited for Lynn to yell out instructions as she had so often before in our training. Just the week before, we had been in this exact location, practicing emergency stops. I heard nothing and immediately sensed she was dealing with her own spooked horse.

Whatever happened next was on me.

I could either reach for my tools or reach for my panic. Things happened fast. I shortened the reins against his mane, took the right rein and brought his head around while asking his right rear leg to step underneath him. In the blink of an eye, we were stopped, facing the creek. [End of passage]

My first thoughts were blindingly fast and fearful. I had to arrest and redirect. After the turkey flew up, my thoughts went like this:

Oh shit!
Help!
Stop! (As I started to pull back on the reins)
Oh shit!

Then the arrest and redirect:
It’s on me.

“It’s on me” was the thought that arrested the other thoughts and redirected me back to the tools I have been practicing in lower stakes situations.

Let’s play the scene as if I had not learned to arrest and redirect my thoughts.

It’s happening again.
Pulling back on the reins should work Why is he still going?
Why can’t I stop him? What’s wrong with me?
Why can’t I stop these negative thoughts? I’ve already worked on this.
I should know better. I should be past this.
There’s really something wrong with me.
How do I stop this horse? Oh my God, I’m gonna die!

I don’t even want to think about the outcome if those were thoughts in charge while I was under the pressure of being on a frightened horse.

After the adrenaline hit prompted by the turkey and the whites of Shahlik’s eyes, my thoughts naturally went negative. I just didn’t allow them to stay there. I didn’t invite them to dinner.

If I had stayed there, we would have likely careened in front of the truck while my mind wallowed in the awfulness of it all.

When I arrested and then redirected my thoughts, I suddenly had access to a whole range of tools and skills to deal with the situation.

We need the tool of arrest and redirect in the moments when useful thoughts are most difficult to access. We need it when we are emotional and vulnerable. We need it when the pressure is high and the consequences matter.

It may seem strange that negative thoughts like “I should be able to do this” and giving ourselves the Crazy Sports Mom pep talk are more comfortable than reaching for our tools. These methods have secured their place as our friendly “rules” by giving the impression that we are trying to do better - by accepting our punishment.

The punishment creates a vicious cycle that’s really difficult to break - but it’s well traveled territory. There’s a weird comfort in doing what we have always done.

Arrest and redirect provides a road out of the well-worn territory into the unknown. The path will likely be even more uncomfortable as it takes you to the other side of fear.

It’s impossible to suppress negative thoughts. Pushing them down is like trying to contain a leak in a water hose with your hands. The water is still coming out and your hands will be soaking wet.

Instead, assign your mind another task. Arrest the negative thoughts and redirect your mind to solving the problem in front of you.

What kinds of thoughts run away with you? What is your typical response when the uninvited guest shows up? What is the most effective way you have found to regain your focus? How can you practice arrest and redirect before you ever need it?