One of my favorite books of the last decade is "Mind and Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force", by Jeffrey Schwartz, MD and Sharon Begley. I revisit this book again and again for it's rich insights into a wide range of subjects related to the study of consciousness, the brain, the relation between the two, and how researchers have struggled to unravel the mystery of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
Obsessive compulsive thoughts can range from a mildly irritating sense that you might have left the oven on, even though you know you haven’t, right up to the very distressing belief that simply having a negative thought might cause harm to others. Although scientists have not yet agreed on a definitive cause for OCD, there are a number of theories which offer explanations of why some of us develop these very strong, and uncomfortable, intrusive thought patterns.
The biological theory suggests that in OCD sufferers, the brain struggles with turning off particular impulses.
For example, before we leave the house we might check that all the electrical switches have been turned off. Even after we’ve checked, the impulse to do so still remains, and so we may experience discomfort and concern if we do not check once more. Another theory suggests that the cause may be psychological, and that people with OCD place too much importance – through no fault of their own – on the kinds of intrusive thoughts that everyone experiences from time to time (for example, “Did I leave the oven on?” or “Am I a bad person?”).
Rather than letting these thoughts come and go naturally, OCD sufferers may believe that something bad will happen unless these thoughts are acted upon, or even that the very act of having certain thoughts is causing bad things to occur. Stress, depression and traumatic life events, while not considered to be causes, can act as triggers of obsessive compulsive thoughts, and often aggravate our pre-existing problems.
At its worst OCD can be debilitating, and even if we can function normally with these thought patterns, they may still cause anxiety and depression. Yet mindfulness offers some hope.
Using the Breath as an Anchor
When we’re caught in repetitive or obsessive thought cycles, we’re not present. Instead, we’re trapped in painful what-if’s or ruminations about how things we’ve said or done may have affected others negatively. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is a gentle awareness of the present moment. Practicing mindfulness can really help us break free of this internal trap, by grounding us in the reality of the moment, while also helping us cultivate a greater sense of kindness and compassion towards ourselves.
In mindfulness meditation, we train our minds to focus on the here and now. We give our brains something to focus its attention on (i.e. the breath or a piece of fruit), whilst at the same time, encouraging ourselves to notice when our minds are wandering away from that focal point, and gently bringing it back each time. This practice can help us develop a healthier relationship with our thoughts, by encouraging patience and kindness within ourselves when we get carried away by mental chatter. This can be immensely helpful when it comes to obsessive compulsive thoughts.
When we find ourselves caught in obsessive thoughts, there is one focal point which is always available to us: our breath. For as long as we’re alive, we’ll always be breathing, and so directing our attention away from our thoughts and onto the breath is an option that will always be there. By paying attention to the physical sensations of breathing, like how the air feels as it fills our nostrils or how our chest expands and relaxes with each breath, we can take some of the emotional charge out of our obsessive compulsive thoughts and feel more grounded in reality again.
Mindfulness Improves Impulse Control
Studies have shown that mindfulness can be effective for helping us control impulses. When we have a more observational relationship with our thoughts, we’re more able to sit with impulses and urges, patiently being with them and waiting for them to pass, rather than acting on each and every one. For example, if we’re giving up smoking, mindfulness can help us accept the feeling that we want a cigarette, without interpreting our experience to mean that we must have one. This process can also be applied to obsessive compulsive thoughts.
Say, for example, that we are leaving the house and we’ve locked the door behind us. But then a thought pops up that says, “You better check again, just to make sure.” So we double check, and turn to leave, but the same thought arises yet again. If we get caught by this series of impulses, we could be stuck checking the door for the next ten minutes or more.
However, studies suggest that regular mindfulness practice helps our brains become better at regulating impulses by promoting growth in the areas of the brain that are involved in impulse control. This means that mindfulness may be very beneficial for those of us who struggle with obsessive impulses, not just because it makes us more aware of them, but also because it enables our brains to deal with them better, in the same way that exercising makes our muscles stronger and more able to deal with stresses and strains.
In the video below Dr Schwartz talks about a 4-step mindfulness based approach that he developed to treat OCD in his patients.
If we can be patient with our obsessive thoughts, and make efforts to deliberately and repetitively re-focus our attention on something like the breath or our surroundings, we may reach a place where obsessive thoughts can arise and fall away more freely.