Tip #33 The 2 (or 3) brains

From some emails that I have received, I realised that some of you have been having problems with acceptance and mindfulness – and how to use these to not engage with your thoughts. I think a big part of the struggle is understanding why you should not engage with your thoughts. Once you understand this, I believe that you can make a little bit more progress.

There are at least 2 or 3 (according to the picture) ways to divide the brain. Some of you have come across the idea in psychology of  a reptilian brain and mammalian brain. Without getting too nerdy, I like to think of it as a part of the brain that you can control and the other one that you can’t.

You can’t control the processes that go on in the EMOTIONAL AND REPTILIAN BRAIN. But you can control the processes in the THINKING brain. The best you can do is using your THINKING brain to educate the responses from your EMOTIONAL AND REPTILIAN BRAIN. As with every form of education and training it will take time.

In ROCD, most of the stuff happens in the part of the brain that you cannot control. So trying to use your thinking brain to bring some order to this unruly part of the brain is not going to work. They – emotional and reptilian – do not respond to logic and reason very well. Most of the time you are not even aware that they are there and working. So trying to shut down something that you can’t see, does not hear you or understand what you are trying to explain is a complete waste of time. In fact, it is only to make matters worst. Because the only thing it understands is your emotional response – frustration.

And to make matters worst, your reptilian and mammalian brain will in MOST instances override your thinking brain. If this was not true, then you could switch off anxiety like you flick a button. But you can’t. The only thing you can do is to decrease your response to these stimuli and over time this will educate your other parts of the brain.

The dialogue is something like this:

Reptilian brain – “I better watch out. Something is wrong here. Why do I feel anxious? I need to run away. This feel uncomfortable. My stomach hurts.Better sound the alarm” Passes the message to the emotional brain.

Emotional brain – ” Why can’t I hear anything (feel any love)? Where is that annoying sound coming from?” Passes the message to the thinking brain.

Thinking brain – ” Hmm, there must be something wrong with the relationship because I am not feeling love or in love. I feel anxious now.  Passes the message to the reptilian brain.

Can you see the cycle here? A better mindful response could  be something like this:

Thinking brain – ” This is my experience in this particular moment. It just is.” Passes the message to the reptilian brain.

This last response defuses any need for overanalysing (feeding the reptilian and mammalian brain), for reassurance and for understanding. In practice, this teaches the part of the brain that we cannot control to feel less anxious and not to sound the alarm every time.

The good news is that this works. The bad news is that it will take time. You will have to go through this process of  rewiring many times before you start seeing some improvement.

p.s. this is the link for the picture. Some good content there by the way. http://copingskills4kids.net/Emotional_Coping_Brain.html

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28 comments

  1. I’m in the recovery stage and I’ve gotten a lot better but I’ve become so numb. Usually my numbness doesn’t last long but right now it’s been lasting longer then usual. Is it normal to feel numb? If so, how do I cope with it and try to get it to go away?

    My anxiety and depression lingers with me throughout the day, would that have anything to do with the numbness? Because when anxiety is there it’s hard to feel other emotions right?

    Btw, I know this is a little explicit but has anyone else’s sex drive decreased since rocd and anxiety?

    1. Mine has…I find myself checking to see if I feel anything or if I feel “infatuated” enough. Although, after spending this weekend with my SO I promised myself to just let go of all my worries and thoughts and I did pretty well and had a good time for once! It’s honestly been like 9 months since that’s happened.Thoughts still came up but I reacted to them just like how Blip has suggested. It’s hard but after a while you tend to get sick of using all of your energy trying to fight or check the thoughts.

      Try reading the book Brain Lock by Jeffrey M. Schwartz. It’s for OCD in general and there’s a four step process that has been helping me a lot!

  2. I used to do that all the time! I find myself doing that sometimes still as well, but once again it’s just the ugly ROCD. Plus since we’re feeling anxious, it’s hard to feel any other emotion especially anything to do with sex. Cause our mind is clouded with negative thoughts and feelings how are we supposed to be excited and really into it? It’s just another thing anxiety ruins, but I feel as we begin to recover and progress in our recovery it will slowly come back

    Yay! I’m very glad to hear that, that’s great news! It’s a good thing you made a concious effort to say to yourself “hey I won’t let these thoughts get to me because I want to enjoy a weekend with my SO” it shows that you love him! I do what you did this weekend many times, if I’m seeing him I try to remind myself not to get caught up in the anxious feelings and thoughts and just let it be. But some days are just harder then others and it takes over.

    It’s good you’re making an effort to have great times with him and not let ROCD get in th way!

    I’m surprised you mentioned brain lock, because I actually read that book and its great! It has really helped me! Once again obviously some days are easier then others but it has really helped! I can enjoy the time I spend with my boyfriend a lot more then being plagued with ROCD’S thoughts and anxiety feelings

    My biggest mistake was/still is focusing on my emotions too much. You know the thoughts where you don’t feel love “oh I don’t feel the love so I must not love him” etc. those used to and still do have a huge power over me, I need to put less attention on my emotions but idk how to sometimes!

    I always think to myself, if we didn’t love our SO we wouldn’t want to work through this torturous ROCD. It really shows strength in us and our love we have for our partners.

  3. Yes! I couldn’t agree with you more. One day I broke down and told my SO my fears of not loving him enough or in the right way and the fact that it was making me sick. He said that if I didn’t love him I wouldn’t be feeling so worried or so sick about it…it just goes to show how much you really do love them. I think if we can keep reminding ourselves that things will get better.

  4. Exactly!
    That’s a good point, we don’t worry about things if they are true, so the fact that we are worrying ourselves sick to these thoughts means that we love them so much. Also the fact that we go back and forth between knowing we love then and being confused and not knowing is a sign that it’s just ROCD. because if we didn’t love them, we would KNOW and wouldn’t even worry about it. This plays a part in HOCD as well(which I’ve had for a little less then a year) we go back and forth with being confused with our sexual orientation. Even though you know deep down you’re straight you’re mind tells you otherwise so you get confused. But once again if we were gay or lesbian, we would KNOW and not worry about being gay or lesbian but we’d worry about how to come out.

    It’s just crazy how ROCD, HOCD and anxiety can play with your mind.

    I think people who are strong are the ones that can handle anxiety, and when anxiety strikes the only way we can cope is to be strong. So we should all be proud of ourselves!

  5. I just want to say how happy i was to come across this blog! Blip is doing a great job an after suffering from ROCD a few years ago without knowing what was causing my feelings and thoughts i really could have done with something like this to help me through! I was put on anti depressants for my anxiety which did help an i was able to continue a healthy relationship for 4 an half years (ROCD came about 9months into relationship) which came to an end when ‘he’ finished it funnily enough and i was heartbroken!! Took me almost a year to get over it an yet i was close to ending it with him when i was at the height of my anxiety as i believed i didnt love him enough! So just goes to show us ROCD sufferers can and DO love deeply!! Maybe too deeply which is why we drive ourselves crazy with worry when we think something may be wrong! Well i have recently started a new relationship and same feelings and thoughts have began again! I was taken off my antidepressants couple pf years ago and managed fine but this time I know what is causing these irrational doubts an fears and i refuse to let them get the better of me or ruin my perfect new relationship! Just understanding that I am not weird and this is a condition helps me alot, im not ruling out ever taking medication again as it did work for me but this time i’m gonna try meditation and self help first an see how i go! Just thought i would share my story! Good luck everyone x

  6. Thank you for sharing your story! It’s very inspiring!

    I’m really sorry to hear that your last relationship ended! But I’m glad you are in a relationship now and not gonna let ROCD ruin it!

    May I ask if you recovered from rocd with your last relationship? And what did you do to work on it?

    If you have any questions feel free to ask!:)

    Stay strong and just remember if we didn’t love our partners we wouldn’t be suffering through this!

    1. I must admit i think the anti depressants were the main help in my case, they stopped the racing thoughts an doubts which eventually stopped the obsession! Because afterall it is the O and not the R that is the problem as blip explains on numerous occasions! I definately think ROCD is caused by an imbalance of chemicals in the brain or any type of OCD for that matter. So by increasing the amount of serotonin to a more ‘normal’ level does help. I’m not saying drugs are the only solution though they just helped in my case but this time I’m going to attempt to get through it using some of the techniques blip talks about on here because I dont like to rely on medication if im honest. But in answer to your question yes i would say i did recover from ROCD and i wasnt on medication the entire time we were together which gives me more hope this time as i know i can overcome these thoughts, its a constant battle but i refuse to give up! There was times throughout my last relationship were a thought may pop up, but they would not get the better of me and i was able to push them away without them causin me much anxiety or stress. I found keeping positive sayings (there are plenty on here!) close at hand and if i had a low moment to read over them always helps! However when i suffered from it last time i spent hours upon hours googling my symtoms and never came across the term ROCD i have only recently learnt about this condition and feel stronger than ever knowing other people are experiencing the same thing i went through! I hardly spoke to anyone last time about it as the 2 people i did speak to said things like sounds like you have fallen out of love with him! an its not normal having all these doubts! are u sure your happy in this relationship?! which then made the obsessing worse and caused me even more anxiety! Felt like nobody understood what i was going through! So finding this site almost 5 years later is amazing for me! And as the feelings an thoughts have recently returned it goes to show we would be like this with anyone! It is NOT our relationship!!! Or the person were with for that matter! I would probly have these doubts if i was married to Brad Pitt! Its a condition! But one i believe we can overcome! i think its something we will always have to work on, although im feeling positive about over coming it again! X

      1. Also i dont know if this will b helpful to anyone but i came across this which i posted 5 years ago in an online forum, see if people have had the same thoughts or similar! I laugh now readin it as I know how heartbroken i was when he ended the relationship 3years after i posted it! So that gives me strength now in my current relationship when i start having any doubts because i know i do love him no matter what my silly mind tells me! :

        Hi I’m 21 and have been with my boyfriend for more than a year now, and madly in love. But just over the past 2 months something has felt weird. I have never until now questioned my love for him, and have never had doubts and this is why i feel so upset, because i don’t understand what brought this on. He is absolutely great, gorgeous looking, funny, caring and loves me to pieces and were so compatible. He has even said one day he wants to marry me. The idea of that used to excite me but because these thoughts and doubts keep popping in my head, i’m anxious and worry all the time, the more i try to blank them out, the more they come and it’s really getting me down..so much that he has even started to notice and asks how i’m feeling all the time, which makes me worse because i dont think i can talk to him about this. I feel like something is missing, i just want to be back to the way i used to feel, at the moment i just feel numb. I love being around him,but i am beginning to worry that i love him but am falling out of being IN love with him. I don’t have the feeling like i want to go out and meet other people or nothing like that, i am very loyal to him and don’t think i would be interested in anyone else anyway. Could this be because the honeymoon period is finally over? but I really really love and care for him, and if I’m going to fall out of love with him, I would just rather end it now. It would kill me to break his heart and i’m terrified it could be a huge mistake, I want him to be the one.
        For brief moments I think I don’t love him enough, but then I realise I love him again. I sometimes think about what it would be like 2 be without him, and it really hurts, and I realise I love him again). And it feels so wrong to feel I have no feelings, even if it is for a second. I even sometimes try to imagine him with someone else sometimes i get a reaction from myself, other times i don’t. But deep down i know that we belong together. i’m just so confused and feel so guilty for having these thoughts. surely i should be sure about my partner?
        I worry that there is something wrong with me, if i’m suddenly not loving this perfect guy anymore for no reason, i fear i will never be happy with anyone. Has anyone else ever felt like this? if so how did you get through it? or can anyone just give me some advice please? help!! thanks

  7. hi blip. great blog – it’s calm and well written. it’s certainly helped me calm down tonight after a particularly tough day of ROCD anxiety.

    I’ve been reading your last couple of posts and the replies to them. my discovery of ROCD at NYE initially brought me some relief, but of course the doubts returned to me in these still early stages of my current relationship.

    one thing that especially niggles is the idea that, if all we need to do to make progress in our relationships is accept the uncertainty about the course of things, our partner’s physical appearance, the fluctuations in apparent love etc etc, then why do relationships fail at all? surely then everyone would stay together and not ever go though with their doubts and break up/cheat/look for something better? Or are people “without ROCD” able to think of this completely differently? Would appreciate your thoughts.

    1. That is a great question! In a nutshell, ROCD people process things differently than “normal” people. The “what if’s” get stuck in the brain and ROCDers can’t get past that. “Normal” people are more capable of getting past these.

      The other erroneous notion is that better compatibility is something that cannot be developed over time and that you should have it from the very beginning. Everything should be perfect – which is impossible to achieve. “If I just meet the right person, everything will be perfect” You have to become the right person before meeting the “right” person. And even then you risk being dumped for someone that does not fully appreciate who you are.

      I would definitely say from personal experience that how a couple approaches problems together is a main determinant of happiness. One of the many reasons why married my wife was that I knew that she wasn’t a selfish person and she was willing to put effort into the relationship – she supported me through my crazy ROCD period! Here is some more “evidence” of why this is important and the reasons you were looking for:

      http://divorcesupport.about.com/od/isdivorcethesolution/qt/marital_discord.htm

      http://www.saveamarriage.com/marital-problems.htm

      Excluding abuse, relationships fail not because lack of compatibility but because they lack acceptance, commitment and resolve. Basically, you have to work at it to improve it.A good marriage or relationship just does not happen by itself. It is an Hollywood fantasy. A good relationship is hard work. Do the dishes, be considerate, give more than you take, etc – all this when you are tired, stressed, hungry, angry, sad and many other things.

      The other option is just to go from relationship to relationship, dumping or being dumped when you are tired of the other person. People do not just “grow apart” in one day…

      1. I just read your comment and decided to put in my input!
        Personally I’ve struggled with ROCD for 2 years and my boyfriend has no idea, and I find that things have worked out better that way because its VERY difficult for people to fully understand the concept of ROCD. If you tell your partner it could be a hit or miss, they may take it the right way or the wrong way. It depends on your partners personality.
        It’s not an easy for anyone to understand, if us ROCD sufferers find it hard to comprehend.

        You need to make your best judgement on whether or not it’s worth telling your partner.
        But from my experience I would suggest not too, cause it saved a great relationship ending. I know of some people telling there partner and others not telling there partner and it can end up bad or good.

        Telling your partner may be somewhat of a compulsion as well because you feel as though you’re “lying” to them.
        So think it through before you make any movement of telling your partner

      2. Hi, I think honesty is a very good thing. How you approach this depends on the situation. Maybe it would be best to start from the OCD and obsessive perspective rather than focusing on the doubts that come to your mind. Focus on the main problem – OCD – rather than the symptom – relationship thinking.

  8. Blip,

    I was doing so well and didn’t have hardly any doubts until I made the mistake of reading some stupid wedding forum that posters discussed why they knew their ex wasn’t “the one”. I was stupid to read it because I knew it would cause me to have have anxiety, and it did. Some of the posters wrote about how they didn’t “feel” it with their ex and how there was no chemistry or they just couldn’t picture themselves getting married or having kids with this person…

    Now I am panicking because I am scared that I feel this way about my partner sometimes, but yet other times I feel like I want to marry this person and have children with them, and then other times I think I don’t. I really do love my partner though and I really do want to accept him for who he is and I know both of us are compatible and want to make the relationship good together…after reading that forum I keep thinking what if I’m just like these people? What if I actually don’t have ROCD? What if I have to break up with my partner because he’s not my idea of perfect?

    Any suggestions or thoughts?

    1. Hi Kat

      My reply might surprise you but I am actually glad that you read those things. The general principle is not run away from discomfort but to be comfortable with discomfort. The only way to achieve this is to build better tolerance towards discomfort. I don’t think that the mistake was reading it. The mistake was engaging with it. You started to question yourself, and that led to doubt. Doubt led to seeking self-reassurance and self-reassurance leads to more doubt and the cycle goes on. And the anxiety increases. And you will keep on going back and forth. This is a cycle you need to break. Stop the ruminations. If you are spending more than very few minutes a day on this then you know you are not on the right track.

      You already know that when you start to ruminate, your anxiety increases and that leads to numbness. Numbness leads to seeking confirmatory feelings and the more you want these the less you will have them and the cycle goes on again. I would say that if you are anxiety is still high, you use this an opportunity to practice your mindfulness techniques. You can only learn to ride the waves when there are waves present!

      Go easy on yourself and learn from these experiences!

  9. Blip,

    Wow, that really does put it into perspective! I reread my comment and realized the process I went through to get to where I was feeling anxiety and doubt! Thanks for your reply and your suggestions! So far I’ve been doing great and things are slowly taking a turn in a positive direction! I guess it’s normal to have slip ups here and there to educate us how we react to different things.

  10. Dear Blip,

    I want to tell you what a great help this blog has been for me. I have discovered this blog at a late stage in my OCD and in my relationship. But my boyfriend and I are opening a new leaf now and I want to be as healthy as I can be for us. I have a small request; I was wondering if you could write an article specifically about sex with ROCD and how difficult it is for an ROCD sufferer to engage in making love. It would be very useful.

    Thank you.

    1. Mara that is a great idea! I actually suffer from that too and it’s very difficult to make love with ROCD. I would appreciate an article on that as well, seeing as I still struggle with it.

    2. Hi guys, I am not sure if I would be the best person to write about this. All I know is that depression plays a good part in decrease of libido. So to improve this, you would have to improve your depressive state. Second, this is just a symptom, not a “real” problem. The problem is the thinking that leads to this.

  11. Hello Guys! I didn’t know were else to write..but I need a few encouraging words and I just want to let out a few things. My bf is coming to pick me up for a valentine’s surprise in an hour and instead of getting ready and getting excited. I’m sitting here just crying my eyes out. I know that the road to recovery is hard but today was beyond hard. I just woke up knowing that i’m going to have a bad day. As soon as I opened my eyes, my heart started beating fast and it didn’t stop. I stayed anxious all throughout work and just feeling as though I don’t deserve my bf and that I’m lying to myself. I just want this to go away. Some days are easier to ignore that thoughts but others it’s so hard. Please tell me I’m not alone.

    1. Don’t worry! You are not alone!
      It’s okay to feel anxious, especially when you wake up and especially because you have ROCD. valentines day is about LOVE. our obsession is about LOVE. Of course you’re gonna feel anxious! You’re normal for feeling this way. Feeling anxious when you wake up is okay, but the way we react to these emotions is not okay. The fact that you thought to yourself “today is gonna be a bad day” was just setting yourself up for a negative day!

      Instead you should say “I feel anxious today, and I may have a bad day but I won’t let it ruin a great time with my boyfriend”
      Don’t beat yourself up over it, and just relax and let the emotions and thoughts come and go. Let them be. Whenever a negative thought or feeling comes up just say to yourself “oh well it’s just a thought or feeling who cares” and just let it go, don’t analyze it.

      I’ll be honest yesterday I spent the day with my boyfriend because I will not see him today, and he surprised me with flowers and my favorite chocolate. As much as I loved everything and was very thankful for it, my anxious mind made it difficult to fully enjoy the gift and instead I was searching for that feeling but of course didnt get it. But I relapsed now its because I was wanting and looking for the feeling of love and happiness, but the more you focus on wanting a feeling the less likely it will appear.
      For today, don’t focus on feelings and just enjoy any emotions that comes good or bad. That way you may experience more of the happier feelings because you aren’t focusing on wanting them.

  12. Thank you for your blog. I feel I am definitely an rocd sufferer. It has been very hard to accept that it isn’t about the relationship because this is my first serious relationship, but the way you describe the way our brains over function incorrectly is very telling. Plus I have also had obsessions surrounding religion as well.

    1. I think this post has helped me the most.its good to know that there are other parts of the brain than thinking brain.Even I have known I have OCD still I thought I kind of have to figure everything out with myself. I understand now better what it means to not to engaged with the thoughts.
      Few questions to any of you:
      I have this feeling often that I miss my boyfriend even he is right next to me. Its like wanting to be close to him and escaping at the same time…why?

      Since my ROCD started by docusing on my bf’s physical appearnce and the flaws and obsess about it.so now just by seeing his face I can have a spike and sometimes he looks good and sometimes bad and this can happen in five minutes. Anyone experiencing this? Please say Im not alone.its hooorrible!
      Other than that,Im progressing.big thank to Blip and to my therapist.

  13. hello rosie,

    I have it also with looks. But when she looks good i feel good…..for 10 minutes then i find something else.

  14. Your blog has brought me so much relief so thank you for that. I was wondering as recovering begins is it normal to still feel empty and searching for that “feeling” I used to feel so strongly even when I wasn’t with my boyfriend and it is scary now that I can’t. I can’t remember how I used to be either. I keep trying to remember how I would react and when I would normally be thinking about him and if I am not after trying to recover from 3 months of horrible anxiety and thoughts of not loving him and needing to get out I am scared it may not have been ROCD. I am constantly checking myself. Everything! I just scared and want my love feelings back and everything to normal again!

  15. Hi! I have come to realize I have ROCD. My issue is that I experience my emotions extremely physically, especially anxiety. It feels exactly like guilt and makes my good emotions dampened, so I don’t experience them physically. This leads to lots of checking. “am I feeling how I should feel” kind of stuff. If I am feeling good just the checking can make me have ROCD thoughts and feelings. I can just say to myself “these are ocd thoughts” and try to let them pass without getting upset, but my gut still knots up and I get very physically anxious. I’m terrified of medication because ssri type ones have caused me psychosis and worsened anxiety in the past. What can I do about my physical sensations? I just want to feel that wave of warmth rush through me when he hugs me, you know? And I do, but it’s overshadowed by the physical anxiety sensations. I just want to feel fully again. Do you think 5htp could help? I have been working on getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, but it is very hard to resist longing for the feelings I know I am capable of experiencing!

    I feel like I am being deprived, and that I am lying by acting as if I am feeling fully. I often feel like I am lying if I express emotion when I am kind of numb. Like the words and actions happen then I’m like “am I just going through the motions?”

    This always gets worst in April. And how do you know if the honeymoon stage is over? I guess I’ve felt so strongly for two years straight it scares me not to now? I don’t think it’s the honeymoon stage ending, though, because I’ve felt this exact anxiety induced numbness before, only during menstruation when my hormones are nuts. Which makes me think my hormones might be to blame?

    As you can see,I have a hard time resisting the search for external/easily fixable reasons for my anxiety. It’s been bad, but never for a month straight like it is now, and I did miss my period last month (not pregnant) so yeah, I just keep impulsively trying to find reasons and explanations.

    Mainly, what can I do about the checking? It presents itself as an intrusive thought, so it just happens before I realize I’m doing it! And how can I manage my physical anxiety and feel things again?

    1. Hi if you do not want to try an SSRI after discussing this with your doctor, then I would try a more “natural” alternative. I have had good reports from people that have changed their diet and started to exercise. I also think that mindfulness is a good bost forward. From my experience, you need to sort the mental state before the physical state. And that is where I would start.

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