Getting Unstuck: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Maurie, age 32, visited Amen Clinics because he was struggling with chronic tension. He worried constantly about things at work. Even though he got good annual performance reviews, he was convinced his boss was going to fire him.

The worrisome thoughts looped over and over in his mind. He was sure the relentless thoughts were the reason why he was suffering from headaches and muscle tension. He believed they might also be behind the irritability he was experiencing.

Maurie was stuck, and nothing he had tried was working for him.

Have you ever felt stuck on a thought? Nagged by worry you simply can’t seem to banish from your mind? Walked down the street with a difficult conversation constantly replaying in your head?

Sometimes our busy brains play a scenario over and over again, without a solution.

Often, we imagine the worst.

With such a busy brain, we can’t fall asleep. Or, we awaken in the middle of the night with the cracked record of worries playing over and over again. We’re stuck, just like Maurie.

The image of being stuck, as it turns out, is a useful way of understanding what’s literally happening in our brain. This is when you need to learn how to get unstuck.

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The brain’s error-detection circuits can also get stuck on high alert. This is when you need to learn how to get unstuck. Click To Tweet

ERROR DETECTION IN THE BRAIN

Our brains are hardwired to detect mistakes.

We have error-detection circuits in the brain that constantly search for potential mistakes or dangers, orienting the organism to take steps to protect itself. This error-detection capacity, which happens automatically, serves a purpose. It optimizes our chances of survival.

This error-detection system is found in the anterior cingulate gyrus (ACG). The ACG is located deep inside the frontal lobes.

This part of the brain acts like the brain’s gear shifter. It helps us go from one thought to another or from one activity to another.

The brain-imaging work with SPECT scans at Amen Clinics shows that when this part of the brain is overactive, people are more likely to have trouble shifting their attention. They tend to get stuck on thoughts or behaviors.

For example, they may get stuck on obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviors, which is seen in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Healthy Active SPECT Scan

 

White equals most active part of the brain, typically in cerebellum in back, bottom area

 

Overactive Active SPECT Scan

Healthy Active SPECT Scan

White equals most active part of the brain, typically in cerebellum in back, bottom area

Overactive Active SPECT Scan

Increased ACG activity (arrow).

In addition, when the ACG works too hard, it is associated with finding too many errors, or being overly critical. People with an overactive ACG tend to focus too much on what’s wrong with their life rather than what’s going well in their life.

When Maurie, who was mentioned earlier, visited Amen Clinics, his SPECT scans showed overactivity in the ACG. It helped explain why he kept getting stuck on obsessive thoughts.

HOW ERROR DETECTION WORKS

Think of the antivirus program on your computer. It scans each website, download, and e-mail for threats. When the antivirus protection works well, it’s almost invisible. It works in the background, holding things up just for just a few milliseconds as it scans for unwanted intruders.

However, imagine that the antivirus program is not functioning well. In that case, it might flag nearly every website, e-mail, and document as being a potential threat, even when no threat is there. The flow of your work on the computer would be slowed down immensely.

Eventually, the computer might become paralyzed, and with it your ability to work. That’s what happens when the error-detection circuits in your brain are overactive.

You become slow, sometimes to the point of paralysis, needing to check and recheck and check again. Stuck—sometimes to the nth degree.

Error-checking matters. Our ancestors from many thousands of years ago needed to constantly scan for threats to their existence.

Whether in matters of hygiene (think cleanliness and contamination obsessions such as repetitive and excessive hand washing) or the safety of one’s family and dwelling (think lock-checking compulsions), checking and even double-checking likely improved the chances of staying safe and secure, of surviving.

Obviously, survival behaviors have their place, and mild stuck-ness on these behaviors may be a good thing. For example, regular hand washing reduces the risk of contamination and the spread of infection.

However, more severe obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors that interfere with daily life are the mistake-detection circuitry run amok. The antivirus program flags every little thing, paralyzing the computer and blocking you from doing the work you need to accomplish.

It’s time to learn how to keep your brain’s error-detection system from getting stuck, so you can clear your head of unwanted obsessive thoughts.

HOW TO GET UNSTUCK

The good news is, you can learn how to stop obsessive thoughts. Here are a pair of proven techniques that have worked for thousands of patients at Amen Clinics.

  1. Practice thought stopping.

Whenever thoughts begin looping or getting stuck inside your head, envision a big, red traffic stop sign and silently say, “STOP! This is simply my anterior cingulate gyrus getting stuck.”

For many individuals, actively putting a halt to these thoughts can help you develop better control over them. Some Amen Clinics patients wear a rubber band on their wrists and snap it whenever they sense a troublesome thought beginning to loop.

The quick snap can shake you out of a neural rut. Over time, you may notice that you don’t need to snap the rubber band as often.

  1. Learn how to distract yourself.

One of the best ways to get unstuck is to notice when you get stuck on negative thoughts and then do something to distract yourself. Distraction can be a very helpful strategy. Simple ways to distract yourself include:

  • Sing (or hum) a favorite song.
  • Listen to music that makes you feel good.
  • Take a walk.
  • Do a few jumping jacks, push-ups, or other form of exercise.
  • Take a quick shower, especially a cold one.
  • Do something creative, such as drawing, painting, or knitting.
  • Recite a poem or prayer either quietly or silently.
  • Watch a couple funny videos (bookmark them so you can find them quickly).
  • Do gardening.
  • Play with a pet.
  • Do structured meditation.
  • Focus on a word and try not to let any other words or thoughts enter your mind. Choose a positive word, such as “love,” “hope,” or “calm.” If other thoughts try to creep in, imagine a broom sweeping them away.

During Maurie’s visit at Amen Clinics, he learned that distraction might help him get unstuck. To help him get past his negative thoughts, he chose several songs he like and played them whenever he felt stuck.

It worked! He enjoyed the music, and he began to feel empowered. He liked the feeling of having some control over his thinking patterns. The more he practiced using distraction as a tool, the better he got at getting unstuck.

Some of the patients at Amen Clinics who have too much activity in the ACG and tend to get stuck find it beneficial to create a distraction list. It may help you too. Write down all sorts of things you can do to distract yourself when troublesome thoughts arise.

Whenever one of those pesky thoughts pops up, grab your list and choose one of the distractions. You may find that the quicker you intervene, the easier it is to put a halt to the looping thought.

Because of this, it’s a good idea to keep a copy of your list on your phone or in your purse, briefcase, or backpack. Having it handy can be very helpful.

Start practicing these free, simple strategies to get unstuck today. By actively distracting yourself from obsessive thoughts or by blocking them, you can gain control over them. Over time, they will no longer have control over you. 

OCD and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

2 Comments »

  1. Thought stopping or avoidance is not the way. it actually makes things worse. For people dealing with OCD, research shows that ERP (exposure response prevention) is the best way to make the obsessive thought pattern dissipate. People who suffer from OCD should find a therapist specialized in OCD who can guide you through ERP.

    Comment by Chris A — January 26, 2024 @ 8:32 PM

  2. Great article. Helped me to understand the why of OCD, and information is power.
    Jotted down a lot of the interventions for distracting the self.

    Comment by Maureen — January 27, 2024 @ 10:22 AM

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