- The book explains how your brain works and how you can use that knowledge to manage your obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) by rewiring your cortex and your amygdala, the two main areas in the brain that are involved in OCD.
- The book teaches you how to break the cycle of anxiety, obsession, and compulsion by using neuroscience-based skills, such as recognizing and labeling your thoughts, challenging and changing your beliefs, practicing exposure and response prevention, using relaxation techniques, and developing positive habits.
- The book also provides examples, exercises, worksheets, and resources to help you apply these skills in your daily life and overcome the common obstacles that prevent you from manifesting your desires.
Rewire Your OCD Brain (2021) presents compelling evidence behind the origins of anxiety, and explains how this knowledge can be combined with easy-to-apply hacks to manage obsessive behavior and regain control over your life.
Introduction: Learn how your brain works to gain control over your obsessive mind
Table of Contents
Let’s begin this summary with an example.
Manuel has been brilliant at work, but faced with the prospect of an upcoming presentation, he becomes anxious. As the day of the presentation draws closer, he starts to fret more and more about what he’s left out.
After going over his work several times, he starts to scrutinize sentences to make sure they’re well structured. The idea of standing in front of his bosses terrifies him so much that he finds himself sweating even at the thought of it.
Manuel is a classic case of an obsessive person. Every obsessive person has some behavior that has a hold over them and, in extreme cases, can seriously impair their lives and relationships.
Luckily, recent advances in neuroscience and brain imaging have now provided some answers to what’s going on in the brain when we worry, and with this knowledge, we can begin to reverse obsessive habits before they get out of hand. That’s the gift you’re about to unwrap in this summary to Rewire Your OCD Brain by Catherine M. Pittman and William H. Youngs.
Worries, anxieties, and obsessions
What qualifies as an obsessive thought? To answer this, it’s important to first make the distinction among worries, anxieties, and the thoughts that come to dominate a person’s life.
When you worry, you’re thinking about what could go wrong. Unlike an obsessive thought, this changes from time to time, depending on the circumstances or the day. In this situation you move on once you get a result.
Anxieties tend to hang around longer, but usually also dissipate with time.
Obsessions, though, simply don’t go away. Let’s say you just had an interview for a job. You keep thinking about what happened, what might have happened, or what will happen once they start reviewing your file.
Then you pick up your certificates and start searching for the grades that might bring you down. From here you start stressing about that math class you hated in school – and it just goes on and on and on. That’s an obsessive behavior you’re likely to repeat even after you get the job.
Whether inherited or acquired through experience, these thoughts have one thing in common: they work in cycles. They lurk in the background and influence the way you live and the decisions you make.
For another person it might be the image of a violent scene that keeps popping up in their mind – maybe an accident or thoughts of an assault, and the fear that that generates.
An obsession might also take the form of an impulse. Someone might suddenly feel the urge to drive in front of a moving train, and then hold that thought to the point where the person starts obsessing about self-harm.
Obsessive thoughts take different forms, but they embody common themes – the fear of contamination, a strong desire to organize things and events in a particular order, violence and aggression, sexual violence and impulses, and the desire to avoid mistakes.
Religious obsessions can cripple people with guilt or embolden them with a conviction to act in the hope they’ll find relief. Every obsessive person will do something to find relief, repeatedly performing an act till it becomes a compulsion.
Do you find yourself going to check the door every ten minutes, or getting annoyed if your shoes are not in a particular order? Maybe you keep reading that email you’ve read 20 times already.
Compulsive behaviors provide relief, but it’s only temporary. Long-term solutions start with addressing the root cause of anxiety – and that’s what you’re going to learn next.
The amygdala’s role in anxiety and obsession
Now, imagine it’s a Friday and you’re driving to a neighboring town to catch up with some old friends. Suddenly, a car speeds into your lane as you drive down the freeway. Your reaction is instant. You swerve off the road and hit the brakes as you pull up on the grass.
You might think you made that call, but the decision was actually made before you became consciously aware of it.
You go through this same decision-making process every second, it just happens on a smaller scale. Your five senses are always picking up information to feed to your brain. Most of this feedback happens subconsciously, so you’re hardly aware of how you come to some of the decisions you make.
There are two possible sensory pathways information can take when picked up by any one or more of your sensory organs.
When, say, you enter a hot room, your skin sends that information to your thalamus, near the center of your brain. From here the information is relayed to your brain’s cortex, where the information is processed.
At this stage, you’re not reacting yet to how hot the room is. This is because the processed information hasn’t reached the captain of the ship. When the cortex interprets the information and sends it to the captain, a small part of your brain called the amygdala, it’ll steer you into action. That’s when you open the window or turn on the AC.
This thoughtful action uses the cortex pathway to process information. That’s the first of our two sensory pathways.
Now, if you’re walking down the street and someone fires a weapon, your reaction has to be more urgent. Processing the information in the cortex will waste valuable time, so it goes straight to the amygdala.
The amygdala tells your body to produce more adrenaline and glucose so you can sprint off to safety. It narrows your eyes to focus on where you’re running to. The amygdala is the organ kicking off the reaction that diverts blood flow from your digestive system to your muscles so you can vanish.
You’ll barely be aware of some of the moves you make. That’s because information will be going from your thalamus straight to your amygdala through what is called – you guessed it – the amygdala pathway. That’s the second of our two sensory pathways.
When this works, it’s a lifesaving mechanism. Trouble is, the amygdala lacks the capacity to read and interpret information. If it sees a barking dog coming toward you, it assumes the worst and triggers a reaction even when there might be no problem at all.
Why can’t you just order this illiterate watchman to behave, you might wonder.
Well, that’s really difficult. Millions of years of human evolution have trained the amygdala to sniff threats and either fight, flee, or freeze. You’re dealing with a wily client that can’t seem to forget how it helped our ancestors escape wild animals and invading tribes.
Its motto is “Better safe than sorry.”
This human defense mechanism is meant to protect you, but once it falsely labels an action as a threat, it will continue to trigger a reaction whenever it comes across something similar, causing you anxiety. For people with OCD, this reaction is intense.
And while people can’t control the data that bypasses their cortex for their amygdala, there are other ways they can start controlling their own anxiety.
How your cortex causes anxiety
You’ve learned how your amygdala activates an uncontrollable defense response when unprocessed information reaches it directly from the thalamus. But sometimes it’s not just your amygdala causing your anxiety – it’s you. This means you can control this.
Take Sheila, for example, who wakes up with a headache. Her thoughts soon drift to fears about a brain tumor as she contemplates the pain in her head. Sheila’s aware of these thoughts because they’re happening in her cortex, but her amygdala’s monitoring through connections it has with the cortex. It misreads the commotion and triggers a defense response, causing distress.
In Sheila’s case, it’s a sensory input from her pain that’s causing her anxiety.
Now consider Tony, who’s enjoying his coffee on a cozy train ride. He starts thinking about his girlfriend, and how she hasn’t texted him this morning. Now he wonders if he’s doing enough to make her happy. And then he starts worrying about losing her. He feels an urge to text, but is scared she’ll be mad if he wakes her.
Unlike Sheila’s anxiety which is triggered by her headache – a sensory input – Tony’s anxiety is purely thought-generated. Both cases produce the same result. The conscious thoughts generated in the cortex will trigger a defense response in each person.
The defense can cause hormonal changes as the body prepares to fight, flee, or freeze. A person with OCD might interpret the emotional changes as a validation of their fears. This validation reinforces the anxiety, and they start to spiral into cycles of distress.
Cognitive fusion – the tendency to believe things we imagine – can be amplified by the human capacity to anticipate and react well before danger is close. In many ways it’s a superpower. That’s how humans organize to build skyscrapers and predict storms.
The defense mechanisms of people with OCD, however, overestimate the danger, sending the amygdala into overdrive. When a woman with OCD randomly thinks about hurting her child, she has no idea that 90 percent of people will have flashes of thought that make no sense to them. The only difference between her and others is that she dwells on the thought, which reinforces it to the point where she is afraid she poses a danger to her own baby.
Knowing the root cause of anxiety is a great step to ridding yourself of guilt and engaging in the processes that will help you manage obsessions.
Managing obsessive behavior
By now you have a good understanding of your body’s defense response and how that leads to anxiety and fuels obsessions. So how do you use that knowledge to live a more fulfilling life?
First, it helps to review a situation when your internal alarm goes off. Remember, false signals can trigger a defense response. When the alarm goes off and you start to feel extreme anxiety, observe and acknowledge your body’s reaction and take note of the symptoms.
In the case of a panic attack, notice the rate at which your heart pounds, how tense your muscles feel, and whether you’re sweating. This level of self-awareness diverts some attention from the crisis, reducing the activation level of the amygdala. You’ll also learn to see these reactions as normal and less threatening afterwards.
Another trick when you panic or experience obsessive thoughts is diversion. The mind can’t give the same level of focus to two things at once, so replace a thought with another, more interesting or engaging one. Go out, call someone, and try fun tasks that require less effort.
While these conscious attempts at pacifying your defense response can be helpful, you have to remember that the troops must go to war once they’ve been rallied. The defense response has to run its course once it’s been initiated. Fortunately for you, you can redirect these restless forces to show their bravado in less harmful places.
Spend that extra energy on exercise and outdoor activities. Once it’s spent, the amygdala will order a retreat, and you’ll experience less stress. Your muscles will then relax and your heart rate will begin to slow down. Exercise also releases some of the same feel-good hormones that are triggered by prescribed anxiety medication, giving you a boost without side effects.
You now understand your amazing capacity to contemplate things in the distant future – a superpower that triggers a defense response when it anticipates problems you might never even encounter. Bring yourself back to the present when you notice yourself drifting. See, feel, listen, and experience the things in your immediate environment.
Practice deep breathing, mindful meditation, and muscle relaxation exercises to mitigate defense triggers. If you can’t dismiss obsessive thoughts when you go to bed, try reading or listening to a podcast to divert your thoughts. Imagine something pleasant you’d like to see or experience, or hold tight to a fond memory.
As you incorporate mindfulness, presence, deep breathing, and exercise into your daily life, try as much as you can to recognise those things you can control, and those that are out of your reach. Acceptance and gratitude for what you have will make you less obsessive about things you can’t control.
Rewiring your brain
Taming your brain’s natural defense mechanism is tough, but the brain has an intriguing property that makes it pretty malleable with consistent effort.
Spiders and barking dogs might scare a little kid, granted, but consider the case of kids eating at a McDonald’s with their parents. Not so scary, right? But if one of them – say, Tom – is yelled at for rubbing barbecue sauce on his face, his brain might later register barbecue sauce as a threat because of its association with yelling.
That’s how your brain learns – by associating circumstances or objects with emotion, whether positive or negative.
Tom might grow up to be suspicious of barbecue sauce, depending on how that event affected and shaped him. Maybe he even forgets that it ever happened, but his amygdala remembers and rings the alarm whenever it encounters barbecue sauce in the future.
Because the amygdala lacks the capacity to process and explain what’s going on like the cortex can, it triggers a fight, flight, or freeze response, resulting in anxiety or obsessive thoughts.
What’s going on here?
In simple terms, barbecue sauce code travels in the brain through a particular set of neurons every time. Yelling code travels its own route, every time. Firing these two codes through their different routes at the same time strengthens their association as well as the trauma that’s linked to them.
This sounds depressing, but it should actually give you hope. What this means is that if you’re firing a different set of neurons associated with delightful objects or events, you initiate and memorize warmth.
Use this knowledge to engage in new activities that create new associations, and new pathways and structures will start to form in your gorgeous brain. Done repeatedly, the physical structure of the brain will actually change – no matter your age. This is what neuroscientists call neuroplasticity.
This technique can be used to slowly reintroduce you to your anxieties through exposure therapy. When this happens, you’re teaching your amygdala not to fear what it previously fought against.
Through this process, you’re also learning to tolerate the symptoms it activates. It’s crucial that you resist compulsive behaviors while you take this step. Indulging in compulsive behavior will fire neurons associated with your obsessions and trigger a defense response. A good exposure can guide you through this process.
Taking these steps in the right doses over time will rewire your OCD brain.
Obsessive thoughts can dominate your life, but understanding how your brain works is the key to managing distress and anxiety. What happens when you become anxious is a natural defensive mechanism that’s meant to protect you, yet your system can be triggered based on false or exaggerated threats.
Your capacity to think can also trigger your system to anticipate and fight phantom threats. Sometimes the war in your body is declared without your knowledge. So try to always maintain a second perspective or look at the evidence critically when you become aware of anxiety. When you do get triggered, find a distraction, exercise, or just observe and let a panic attack run its course. Don’t over think random thoughts.
To achieve the best results, use your brain’s ability to form new routes and structures to create new memories and associations. Gradually engage your fears through exposure therapy till your body learns how harmless some threats can be. Doing this consistently will set you up to live your best life.
Psychology, Mental Health, Self-Help, Neuroscience, Nonfiction, Science, Personal Growth, Happiness
Rewire Your OCD Brain is a book that explains how your brain works and how you can use that knowledge to manage your obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The book focuses on the two main areas in the brain that are involved in OCD: the cortex and the amygdala. The cortex is the part of the brain that is responsible for rational thinking, planning, and problem-solving. The amygdala is the part of the brain that is responsible for emotional reactions, such as fear, anger, and anxiety.
The book argues that OCD is caused by a miscommunication between the cortex and the amygdala. The cortex generates random thoughts that are harmless and normal, but the amygdala interprets them as dangerous and true, and triggers a fight-or-flight response. This creates a cycle of anxiety, obsession, and compulsion, where you feel compelled to perform certain rituals or behaviors to reduce your distress. However, this only reinforces the amygdala’s false alarm and makes your OCD worse.
The book teaches you how to break this cycle by rewiring your brain using neuroscience-based skills. These skills include:
- Understanding how your brain works and why you have OCD
- Recognizing and labeling your thoughts as just thoughts, not facts
- Challenging and changing your negative beliefs and assumptions
- Practicing exposure and response prevention (ERP), which is facing your fears without performing your compulsions
- Using relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, meditation, and mindfulness, to calm your amygdala
- Developing positive habits, such as exercise, sleep, nutrition, and social support, to improve your mood and well-being
The book also provides examples, exercises, worksheets, and resources to help you apply these skills in your daily life.
Rewire Your OCD Brain is a book that offers a clear and practical guide to understanding and managing your OCD. The book is written in a friendly and conversational tone that makes it easy to follow and relate to. The book is also full of scientific evidence and research that supports its claims and recommendations.
The book does not promise a quick fix or a cure for OCD, but rather a realistic and effective approach that requires commitment and practice. The book acknowledges that rewiring your brain is not easy or comfortable, but it is possible and rewarding. The book also emphasizes that you are not alone or crazy for having OCD, but rather a normal person with a brain that works differently.
The book is not only useful for people who have OCD, but also for anyone who wants to learn more about how their brain works and how they can improve their mental health. The book can help you gain more insight into your own thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, as well as those of others. The book can also help you develop more compassion, empathy, and understanding for yourself and others.
Rewire Your OCD Brain is a book that can help you take control of your OCD and your life. It can help you transform your fear into courage, your obsession into freedom, and your compulsion into choice. It can help you rewire your brain for happiness and peace.