Breaking A Painful Thought Pattern
This is a summary of an effective, plasticity-based tool that helps when we start ruminating about something and can’t stop even though it’s distressfully pointless.
Unlocking Brain-Lock (Based on the work of behavioral neurologist Jeffrey M. Schwartz)
Normally when we make a mistake, three things happen.
First, we get a “mistake feeling,” that nagging sense that something’s wrong, or that we did something wrong.
Second, we become anxious, and that anxiety drives us to correct or remedy the nagging feeling.
Third, when we have corrected the mistake, an automatic gearshift in our brain allows us to move on to the next thought or activity. Then both the “mistake feeling” and the anxiety disappear.
But with brain-lock (present in patterns of obsessive compulsion) the cycle doesn’t complete. The brain does not move on or “turn the page”. Even though we have corrected the grammar mistake, washed the germs off our hands, or apologized for forgetting our friend’s birthday, we continue to obsess. The automatic gearshift does not work, and the mistake feeling and its pursuant anxiety build in intensity.
Three parts of the brain are involved in obsessive thought:
- We detect mistakes with our orbital frontal cortex. The more obsessive a person is, the more activated the orbital frontal cortex is. The “mistake feeling” is generated here.
- Once the orbital frontal cortex has fired the “mistake feeling” it sends a signal to the cingulate gyrus, located in the deepest part of the cortex. The cingulate triggers that dreadful anxiety feeling that something terrible is going to happen unless we correct this mistake. It sends signals to both the gut and the heart, causing the typical physical sensations we associate with dread. If you get that horrible feeling in the pit of your stomach, you know your cingulate gyrus has been activated.
- The “automatic gearshift,” the caudate nucleus, sits deep in the center of the brain and allows our thoughts to flow from one to the next unless, as happens with obsessive thought, the caudate becomes extremely “sticky”.
Brain scans reveal that during obsessive patterns, all three brain areas are in a hyperactive state. The orbital frontal cortex and the cingulate gyrus turn on and stay on as though locked in the “on position” together—one reason that Schwartz calls this “brain lock.” Because the caudate doesn’t “shift the gear” automatically, the orbital frontal cortex and the cingulate continue to fire off their signals, increasing the mistake feeling and the anxiety.
Because the person has already corrected the mistake, these are, of course, false alarms. The malfunctioning caudate is probably overactive because it is stuck and is still being inundated with signals from the orbital frontal cortex.
So, Schwartz wondered whether a person could shift the caudate “manually” by paying constant, effortful attention and actively focusing on something besides the worry, such as a new, pleasurable activity. This approach makes plastic sense because it “grows” a new brain circuit that gives pleasure and triggers dopamine release which, as we know, rewards the new activity and consolidates and grows new neuronal connections. This new circuit can eventually compete with the older one, and according to use it or lose it, the pathological networks will weaken. With this treatment we don’t so much “break” bad habits as replace painful, ineffective behaviors with more effective ones.
Steps to resetting brain-lock:
- Relabel what is happening. Whatever the details, this is an episode of obsessive thought, or brain-lock. Recall the three parts of the brain biologically activated right now. (I like to encourage the practice of sending love to these three parts of the brain, utterly confused right now, causing distressful behavior.)
- Speak a confirmatory statement out loud, something like: “Yes, I do have a real problem right now, but it’s not that I forgot to wish my best friend a happy birthday. It’s brain-lock.” This relabeling statement allows us to get some distance from the content of the obsession and view it in somewhat the same way Buddhists view suffering in meditation: they observe it, rather than judge it (which is the foundation of my book, S.T.A.R. Philosophy, Fascinated Observer’s Guide). By separating like this, we separate ourselves from the obsessive pattern. During this time, remind yourself that the reason the attack doesn’t go away is nothing more than faulty circuitry.
- After you have acknowledged that the worry is a symptom of brain-lock, the next crucial step is to refocus on a positive, pleasure-giving activity the moment you become aware you’re entering an obsessive pattern. This could be gardening, watching your favorite comedy, taking your dog for a walk, painting, anything that normally brings you joy. If this happens in the car, be ready to listen to an audio book or a podcast that brings you to a good mental/emotional/spiritual place.This is not meant to sound easy. With brain-lock it isn’t. But this is a practice that actually starts to retrain the sticky “manual transmission” in the brain to shift over to the cerebral cortex, one effortful thought or action at a time.Every time a person works on manually shifting their gears, they begin fixing their faulty “transmission” by growing new circuits and altering the caudate. Be refocusing, you are learning not to get sucked in by the content of an obsession but to work around it. I encourage you to think of the use-it-or-lose-it principle. Each moment you spend thinking of the symptom—believing you’re unlovable, for example—you deepen that obsessive circuit. By bypassing it, you are on the road to losing it. With obsessions and compulsions, the more you do it, the more you want to do it; the less you do it, the less you want to do it.
- Realize, it’s what you do, not what you feel here! It’s essential to understand that it’s not what you feel while applying the technique that counts (you may feel frustration, difficulty, anguish), it’s what you do. The struggle is not to make the feeling go away; the struggle is not to give in to the feeling –by acting out a compulsion, or choosing to think about the obsession. This technique will not give immediate relief. That’s okay! Lasting neuroplastic changes take time (6 months to 2 years, actually). This lays the groundwork for permanent change.The goal is to “change the channel” to some new activity for 15-30 minutes when you’re having an obsessive attack of brain-lock. If you can’t resist your thoughts for that long, any time spent resisting is beneficial, even if it’s only for a minute! That resistance, that effort, is what appears to lay down new circuits.
Great References in relation to this resource:
The Brain That Changes Itself by N. Doidge
The Mind And The Brain: Neuroplasticity and the power of mental force by J.M. Schwartz & S. Begley