Understanding our Brain and Mind

Why rOCD might be harder to treat today

Hello everyone,

busy couple of weeks babysitting the little one in the evenings so that my wife can finish off her MSc (Psychology). I have really lucked out as my wife finds time to keep the household running, work on her dissertation and takes care of the toddler during the day. I am still catching up on a backlog of emails and comments on the website. People are coming back from the summer and trying to settle back into new or old routines and the day-to-day reality is starting to settle in.

During summertime, we keep ourselves busy and well entertained and in most instances rOCD takes a backseat. With the end of summer, rOCD starts to take a front row seat now. Maybe because of stress or other factors. I have been starting to notice a common theme when it comes to mindfulness and the e-mails I have been receiving. I will share it here because I think people will benefit from it. When I ask people about mindfulness, most of the time these are the two most common answers:

“I have tried mindfulness.” Or “I have done mindfulness a couple of times”.

Let me ask you this question. You know you have a marathon to run and you know you need to train for it. Can you imagine before the race starts, saying: “I went running a couple of times” or “I have tried running”?

Relationship OCD is not a sprint and it will never be. It is one of the hardest marathons that you will ever run.

Ask yourself another question – is the work of genius a gift or hard work? Would Michelangelo have been capable of producing his lifeworks if he had been as distracted as us?

This is what he said of himself –

If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.

Your ability to focus, be diligent and be patient with yourself will largely determine your progress.


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

Tip #32 The answer is not in your brain but in your ACTIONS.

The picture above is a scan of the brain and it is self-explanatory.Let us look at one example.

Imagine you are driving a car and you have one light that comes up on the dashboard. You can quickly understand what is going on and try to solve the problem. Maybe you are low on gas, oil, etc. Now you have 30 lights on. Can you easily understand and solve the problem?

It is the same thing with our OCD brains, there are always lights going on and off on the dashboard… and if we are expecting our brains to give us some useful information on how to solve the problem when the dashboard is malfunctioning then we will never solve it! There is no useful information there! The only thing we can take from it, is that the dashboard is malfunctioning!  What other dashboards are there that are always blinking at the tune of 30 or more lights for second? Exactly, it is not a dashboard anymore. It is a Christmas tree! 🙂

Would you let a Christmas tree tell you which way to turn or go? I know it is a ridiculous example but one that we, ROCD sufferers do often. The solution: forget about the Christmas tree and set your own course independently of how you feel in the moment.

Tip #4 Sleight of hand

Well, don’t ever think that you can be smarter than your brain. It will get you in ways that you have never  thought possible before. I had to learn this the hard way with my ROCD. But once I knew how the trick was done I wasn’t fooled again (at least as easily!).

See this video and realise how un-awesome it is at the end. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YN0I-TZFn58

Our brain has its own tricks for survival and functioning. The problem is when these same tricks are the cause of much wrong doing in ROCD. From my experience the most common ones are:

  • Association
  • Exclusion
  • Addiction

I call this the sleight of hand of the brain in ROCD. Those who are familiar with the English language know what the expression sleight of hand means. For those who aren’t here is the wikipedia link. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleight_of_hand

Association starts with the expectation of wanting to feel/think or not feel/think a certain way. For example, the boyfriend or girlfriend is away for awhile and we do not miss him much for some reason. If that happens it is because we do not have real feelings for that person. Can you see the sleight of hand here of association? We might have been very busy,  tired or we just not are the missing type very much. But the brain went and decided that that association is true. And from what I have seen in OCD not just ROCD, it tends to go and pick the worst case scenario. The other classic one is I feel anxiety when I am with the other person then if this was right I would not be feeling this way.

Exclusion is another funny one. Once we make our minds about something the brain goes and looks for an exclusion to the rule. Ufff, I finally found out that I have ROCD. Once you achieve that “certainty” your brain starts to think about the exception. “Maybe it isn’t true because this and this happened or I feel this and that way” and there it goes 3.5 hours of thinking down the drain.

Addiction, this one is less obvious. But simple to explain. The more we think about something the more we want to think about it. It is very true with ROCD and it creates almost an addiction to trying to find the answers or evidence to our questions. The fact that we engage in problem solving  with our brain is almost a release from stress. Only to find out something that we do not want to find out with our questioning. YOUR BRAIN WANTS YOU TO KEEP LOOKING FOR AN ANSWER. Then we start all over again. Oh, and another extension of this is being obsessed about our symptoms and talking endlessly about them. More about this in the next post.

Here is an exercise for you. Can you think about how you are falling prey to any of these brain tricks by your ROCD?

Tip #3 The brain shovel

The lesson that I took from my ROCD experience is that I cannot “out-think” my brain. In other words, if my brain has a problem or is imbalanced, any thinking that I do with it has the risk or not being very good. Using the heart as an example, it is like having a heart attack and then trying to run a marathon afterwards. This is what we ROCD sufferers do with our brains. The irony is that ROCD is caused by a defective brain and we try to get rid of ROCD by using the same tools that caused ROCD in the first place. Something like using a shovel or pick-axe (picture) to get out of a hole.

Think about these  questions:

1) How is my brain asking me to use a shovel to get out of the ROCD hole? What do I need to do to get out of the hole?

2) What does this quote from Einstein means?

“Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.” – Albert Einstein

Tip #1 Know that the brain is an organ

The brain is like any other organ in the body and is responsible for a lot more things than we give it credit for. And sometimes, like the heart, liver and lungs has a problem and does not function properly anymore.  We tend to forget about this in our society and because most of the time we cannot “measure” the brain in the same way we measure the heart, liver or lungs we approach these type of problems differently. We tend to look for a quick fix or “magic thought” that would solve our ROCD problems. Sometimes it will require medication to balance out the hormones in the brain. Some mental disorders such as depression and anxiety have been linked to neurotransmitters problems in the brain. Sometimes exercise will help stimulate the brain to self-heal. Other times it just goes away with time. Other times you will need a combination of different things.

The important thing is to realise that our understanding of the brain is not perfect and evolving.

Here is an interesting link to think about.