Everyone at some time has thoughts that lead to feelings of fear or anxiety.
That is completely normal as these feelings can actually help us to make healthy choices.
For instance, feeling fear about how to cross a busy street in heavy traffic could end up saving 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 as an example the simple act of washing your hands. A normal thought and behaviour 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 of now that I have washed my hands, I do not have germs anymore.
What happens instead is a person with OCD gets stuck in the feeling of being contaminated with germs and because of this will try to alleviate the feeling by continuously washing their hands, even to the point where they scrub their hands until they are bleeding.
But what an OCD 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.
Their 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.
Hughes was one of the wealthiest people in the world, a renowned inventor and philanthropist who suffered from OCD.
Leonardo DiCaprio portrayed Hughes in the movie and identified with the character so well that he developed a transient case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. It took him months after 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 with OCD.
Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz is a renowned neuroscientist and author of many books on the subject. Through functional brain imaging and a specific form of cognitive behavioural therapy, Dr. Schwartz has proven that, through our conscious awareness and volition to change our thoughts and behaviours, we can change our brain structure and function.
In Dr. Schwartz words: “Don’t believe everything you think.”
Your brain could indeed be in a hiccup.