Jun 17, 2012 / 5:00 am
Everyone at some time has thoughts that lead to feelings of fear or anxiety. That is completely normal and these feelings can actually help us to make healthy choices. For instance, feeling fear about how to cross a busy street in heavy traffic would be a valid fear and one that can save your life. But when anxiety or fear becomes the backdrop of our lives, it can be debilitating.
That is what life is like for someone who is suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). With OCD the caudate nucleus in the brain - which acts like a manual gear shift allowing us to move from one thought to the next - is not working functionally. The thought gets triggered, followed by the feelings of fear or anxiety, followed by behaviours to try to decrease the anxiety. But regardless of how many times a person with OCD performs the behaviour to stop the anxiety, the thought does not stop, and the anxiety is only slightly reduced temporarily. In an attempt to decrease anxiety more, the behaviour becomes obsessive.
Take the simple act of washing your hands, for example. A normal thought and behavior is to wash your hands after you go to the washroom. For the person with OCD, they never feel like their hands are clean because the brain gets stuck in the thought of “germs can make me sick”. The brain does not move forward to the next logical thought, which is “and now that I have washed my hands, I do not have germs anymore”. What happens instead is they get stuck in the feeling of being contaminated with germs and because of this they try to alleviate the feeling by continuously washing their hands.
But because their brain is locked into this pattern, the ritual of hand washing does not alleviate the feeling and the behaviour becomes unhealthy, even to the point where they scrub their hands until they are bleeding. But what the sufferer often fails to realize is that every time they engage in the ritual of obsessive hand washing, they are actually strengthening the pathological neural circuit in the brain that is causing the problem to begin with. The brain is stuck in a rut, or it’s simply having a hiccup and continuing to wash their hands makes that stuck groove even deeper. Like an old record with a deep skip in it, they unconsciously repeat the same thought over and over again.
A good example of this is in the movie the Aviator, based on the life of Howard Hughes. Howard was one of the wealthiest people in the world, a renowned inventor, successful businessman and philanthropist who – unfortunately - also suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Leonardo DiCaprio portrayed Howard Hughes in the movie. DiCaprio did such a great job of method acting (becoming the character of Howard Hughes) that he actually developed a transient case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. He studied the nuances and traits of OCD so well that he changed the structure and function of his own brain through repeated practice. In fact, it took him months after finishing the film to retrain his brain to work functionally again.
So it is possible to retrain the brain, or rewire the neural circuits that are not working functionally with OCD? According to Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, yes you can! Dr. Schwartz is a renowned neuroscientist and author of many books on the subject including You Are Not Your Brain: The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your Life. Through functional brain imaging and a specific form of cognitive behavioral therapy, Dr. Schwartz has proven that through our conscious awareness and volition to change our thoughts and behaviours, we can act back on the brain to change brain structure and function - and in the case of OCD, get the caudate nucleus or the gear shift to start functioning again.
And in the words of Jeffery Schwartz, “Don’t believe everything you think.” Your brain could indeed be in a hiccup.
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