Before we get into this week's topic, I just wanted to share that I had the privilege of being a guest on the Our Power is Within Podcast with the lovely & thought-provoking Chazmith Newton. If you haven't listened to it yet, you can access it here: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/our-power-is-within/id1530264924?i=1000533850252
While this blog primarily focuses on OCD, the same tools and principles apply to any situation where we are perseverating on thoughts and have trouble redirecting our brains. A lot of people who are in the process of retraining display obsessive compulsive tendencies. If you find yourself having trouble changing the channel in your brain, or redirecting your thoughts, please read on!
Q: Do you have any tips and experience with recovery from OCD? Could you please eventually address on how to incrementally on obsession and compulsive Pops? My daughter came into such behaviour because of the Pandemic and the globalized fear of getting contaminated. For the topic of OCD there is very little information on how to implement (brain retraining).
A: The first place to start with working with OCD is to ensure we have a good understanding of what is happening in the brain. Understanding is the critical foundation from which we can then intervene. It is so important to recognize that OCD or even OCD tendencies are false messages that the brain is sending. The brain is stuck in a loop, and the way out is to recognize what is going on, rise above it by not believing everything you think, and redirecting the brain through taking action. Action can be brain retraining rounds, or we can do the process described below.
Jeffrey Schwartz book "Brain Lock" is an excellent resource for anyone recovering from OCD. He has a four step method to rewiring. The first step is to Relabel. This requires us to be a curious observer of ourselves and to recognize when the brain is going into obsessive thoughts and compulsive urges. We cannot change what we are not aware of, so being able to recognize it and label it is key. As Jeffrey Schwartz says, "It requires conscious recognition and mental registration of the obsessive or compulsive symptom. You should literally make mental notes, such as, 'This thought is an obsession; this urge is a compulsive urge.' You must make the effort to manage the intense biologically mediated thoughts and urges that intrude so insistently into consciousness." He describes the mindful observer aspect of self as an "Impartial Spectator." We want to start separating our self from the false messages that the brain is sending. So rather than thinking, "I want to wash my hands" we relabel it as "I don't feel the need to wash my hands. My brain is having a compulsive urge to perform the compulsion of washing my hands."By assertively relabeling these thoughts and urges we can begin to understand that they are false messages and have little or no basis in reality. These obsessions and compulsions are caused by biological imbalances in the brain, and we have the ability to override them and ultimately rebalance the brain.
Don't get caught up in trying to make the thoughts or urges go away by simply relabeling them. What we resist persists, so by fighting with them we are reinforcing the maladaptive pathways in the brain that reinforce the OCD. Instead we bring our attention to what we can control, which is our behavioural response to those thoughts and urges. According to Dr. Schwartz, by learning to resist the thoughts and urges, we actually change the biochemistry that is causing the symptoms.
The second step is to Reattribute the obsessions and urges to the actual cause, which is OCD. Rather than thinking "I am having this thought/urge," we want to think "OCD is causing me to have this thoughts/urge." We can substitute "my brain" for OCD if that is preferable. Either way you are separating yourself from what your brain is doing. Dr. Schwartz sums this up in one sentence. "It's not me, it's my OCD." Here we are recognizing that the feeling and discomfort are due to a biological imbalance in the brain. By acknowledging this and understanding that these are false messages that will go away as the brain rewires, we learn to separate ourselves from the messages and not take them as seriously.
We know that the caudate nucleus in the brain is partly responsible for this disorder. We can think of the caudate nucleus as a gear shift that allows us to move our focus from one thing to another. In OCD (or when we perseverate and get stuck on certain thoughts) the gear shift isn't working properly. By retraining the brain we are re-teaching this part of the brain how to properly shift gears once again.
These first two steps (relabel & reattribute) are usually completed together. We relabel the obsession or compulsion and then attribute it to the OCD or to your brain (not your true self or essence).
Step three is to Refocus. Refocusing involves us manually shifting the gears (since our brain is unable to do it on its own). This step takes work and dedication. The idea here is to work around the thoughts and urges by shifting attention to something else, even for a few moments. The brain will likely still be chattering away to you in the background, trying to get your attention back to what it is stuck on, but instead we use effort and focus to move our attention to other things. Any constructive or pleasant behaviour is helpful as a go-to. Some people use hobbies, or movement such as taking a walk or doing light exercise, listening to music or a podcast to redirect attention away from the unwanted/unhelpful pattern that is playing out. You can start the process by saying to yourself, "I am experiencing a symptom of OCD. I choose to do another behaviour in this moment." With time you will learn that the intense thoughts and urges that are present doesn't have to control what you do or what you give your attention to. You get to decide how you will respond, and can start to take actions that are more helpful and in alignment with wellbeing.
The last step is to Revalue. As a result of your efforts to relabel, reattribute & refocus, you can now revalue those thoughts and urges. Over time and with practice, the value of those thoughts and urges become a lot lower (i.e. they are not as important to you and no longer need to be entertained). By changing our behaviour and choosing different actions, we find that our feelings change over time on their own. In order to be aware and observe these changes, we need to be in the position of the Impartial Spectator, or have mindful awareness of the changes that are taking place as we effort and repeat this process. As we gain momentum and are successful in actively directing ourselves into other behaviours, we begin to realize (or revalue) that the thoughts and feelings we were initially having are simply false messages not worthy of our attention.
With obsessions, Dr. Schwartz breaks down the Revaluing into two steps which he calls Active Revaluing: Anticipate and Accept. Anticipate means being prepared for the feeling that is coming, knowing that it is likely so that it doesn't take you by surprise or shock you. Accept means we don't waste energy on these thoughts or feelings, or beat ourselves up when they happen. We know what is causing them, that we cannot control their presence, but we can control whether we act on them or instead give our attention to other things and take action in other ways. We remind ourselves that these are false messages from a malfunctioning brain and that by not fighting with them but instead choosing to do other things we are manually overriding the pathways and reteaching our brains how to function optimally.
While our brains may not change overnight, by understanding what is happening and rather than acting on it and instead moving on to the next behaviour, over time our brains will adapt. While we can't control the thought or urges, we can control our behaviour and actions. Through our understanding our our repetition of the new behaviours and actions, we rewire the brain and rebalance the neurochemistry.
In terms of incremental training with practice rounds, you would go into a round of practice each time you had the obsession or the urge, and work toward lengthening the time between the thought and the action that follows the thought. At first, you may only be able to hold off doing the action for a few seconds or minutes, but with practice (and the steps listed above) you can start to extend the time between the thought and the action, breaking down those unhelpful neural pathways.
Until next time!
If you have a question, please email me at email@example.com
Candy Widdifield is Registered Clinical Counsellor, Wellness Coach, and Registered Reiki Master Teacher in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. She works with people all over the world, helping them to optimize their wellbeing and thrive in their lives. Her modalities include coaching, therapy, Reiki and the Safe & Sound Protocol. More information about Candy can be found at www.candywiddifield.com