What is one trait that tends to link all Highly Sensitive People? The dangers of rumination ~ Overthinking, getting stuck in our heads, and cycling through obsessive thoughts. It’s one of the most difficult aspects of being highly sensitive. Highly Sensitive People have what is referred to as Sensory Processing Sensitivity, which is defined as “an increased sensitivity of the central nervous system and a deeper cognitive processing of physical, social, and emotional stimuli.” Research done with functional MRI’s revealed that the brains of HSPs take longer to respond, but light up more extensively than non-HSPs. This led to the scientific conclusion that the brains of HSPs process more elaborately.
Heavy cognitive processing can easily and naturally lead to getting caught in thought loops, or cyclical thinking, which can be highly distressing, exhausting, and, when it becomes obsessive, pretty terrifying. The dangers of rumination are very real–anxiety, depression, and tragic levels of chronic stress just to name a few.
Is there a link between OCD and the HSP?
As I shared in my memoir, Stark Raving Zen, I myself suffered from the psychiatric diagnosis of OCD until my spontaneous shamanic initiation (DMS-IV Spiritual Emergency) at the age of 39. One of the defining characteristics of a Spiritual Emergency is an unexplained spontaneous improvement in previously diagnosed psychological disorders. I was gifted about a 90% remission in my OCD as a result of the series of “supernatural” events I experienced in the book. (I believe they aren’t supernatural at all, but simply the normal aspects of humanity that have been culturally dissected from us over thousands of years.)
Though both those with OCD (~ 2% of the population) and the HSP (20-30% of the population) process emotions differently than the normal population–much more deeply and completely–and both are overthinkers who tend to get locked in repetitive cognition, that is where the similarities end. The bottom line is OCD is a disorder, because it’s due to faulty wiring, and Sensory Processing Sensitivity is not. When the HSP learns to harness their thinking patterns, and channel that deep processing in ways that benefit them, it can absolutely be productive and beneficial. When I suffered from OCD I knew that cleaning the kitchen to the point of the skin falling off my hands was tragic and terrible, but I could not stop. An HSP uses their sensitivity to actually keep themself safe.
Whether it be OCD or HSP, there is a formula that works to halt overthinking, obsessive thoughts (we can have the occasional obsessive thought without suffering from a full-blown OCD diagnosis), and the dangers of rumination. It’s based on the work of behavioral neurologist Jeffrey M. Schwartz, and I believe it’s a tool that every Highly Sensitive Person needs. (It’s critical to those with OCD, and my heart holds special love for everybody who lives within the relentlessly iron grip of obsessive-compulsive disorder.)
Though this plasticity-based treatment helps with OCD patterns, it’s also highly effective with more everyday concerns ~ the dangers of rumination, or repetitively cycling through thoughts that cause us pain and distress. With HSPs we often fixate over something we did “wrong”, so I’ll use that as the context here.
Normally when we make a mistake, three things happen.
First, we get a “mistake feeling,” that nagging sense that something’s wrong. Second, we become anxious, and that anxiety drives us to correct the mistake. 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, and thought rumination) the cycle doesn’t complete. The brain does not move on or “turn the page”. Even though we have corrected the spelling mistake, washed the salad dressing off our shirt, or apologized for getting someone’s name wrong, we continue to beat ourselves up. The automatic gearshift does not work, and the mistake feeling and its pursuant anxiety build in intensity, getting stuck in our system. This is the definition of an obsessive thought.
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, via the vagus nerve, 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.
- Enter the “automatic gearshift,” the caudate nucleus. 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”. (In full-blown OCD the caudate nucleus is faulty.)
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.
This is where our resilience steps in.
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 plasticity 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 the law of 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, see this as 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, painfully confused right now, causing us distress.)
- Speak a confirmatory statement out loud. Something like: “Yes, I do have a real problem right now, but it’s not that I called Bill, Bob. 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 first book, The Fascinated Observer). By stepping back from it 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. It happens to the best of us!
- After you have acknowledged that the worry is a symptom of brain-lock, the next crucial step is to refocus. Turn yourself toward 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. It doesn’t have to be what your inner critic deems to be productive. The only importance is getting out of the dangers of rumination. If a brain-lock patterns 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; 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 a rumination but to work around it. I encourage you to think of the use it or lose it principle. Each moment you spend invested in the symptom—believing your mistake was unforgivable, for example—you deepen that obsessive circuit. By bypassing it–choosing an alternative–you are on the road to losing it. With obsessions and compulsions, remember the universal rule: 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, this practice is about what you do, not what you feel! 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 point is not to make the feeling go away; the actual goal is to not give in to the feeling –by acting out a compulsion, or succumbing to the dangers of rumination. This technique will not give immediate relief. That’s okay! Lasting neuroplastic changes take some time (6 months to 2 years, actually, though you’ll see an improvement long before that). This lays the groundwork for permanent change.
Strive to “change the channel” to some new activity for 15-30 minutes when you’re stuck in 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.
The dangers of rumination can be altered, changed, worked through, and even healed.
You don’t have to accept that patterns of obsession or overthinking are permanent, no matter if you’re a Highly Sensitive Person and/or somebody who struggles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I myself can check both of those boxes, and I can promise you this technique absolutely unlocked not only my brain, but the chains around my heart that the complexity of these two traits in tandem forged.
If you want a deeper dive into this fascinating topic, I recommend reading, “The Brain That Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge, MD. (I will warn you that there are animal studies referred to in the book that I found to be upsetting. I know my audience–and I just wanted to give you that information before you dive right in.)
Please let me know in the comments if this article was helpful to you, if you have any questions, or if you’d like to share any piece of your own story around OCD/HSP and patterns of obsessive thoughts.