Sound familiar? If so, you may have OCD. When we think of OCD, we think of what we can see: someone washing their hands to the point that their skin is red and raw or someone triple-checking to make sure the coffee pot is unplugged. But OCD can manifest in countless ways, often in the form of intrusive, irrational, and bothersome thoughts. Often people with OCD don’t know they have OCD, because repetitive, frightening worries (and trying to solve the problem or disprove the worry in one’s head), isn’t what we think of when we think of OCD.
OCD is the brain’s error and danger detection center (the amygdalae) sending out messages that there is a problem, when there is no problem.
People with OCD often experience disturbing thoughts or uncomfortable physical sensations (obsessions). People with OCD often do things to try to make themselves more comfortable after they have an obsessive thought, like wash their hands or check things (compulsions).
The obsession is the thought or sensation. The compulsion is the activity (a ritual) performed in an effort to make the obsession go away or disprove the obsession. Usually, a compulsion provides momentary relief, and then adds fuel to the fire.
Obsession + compulsion= obsessive compulsive disorder.
When the brain sends out erroneous “danger!” messages, someone with OCD processes these error-and-danger messages and does something in response to the perception that there is danger.
It creates a vicious circuit. When someone with OCD takes action in response to the perceived threat and performs a compulsive ritual, the amygdala receives validation that there was indeed a threat, because the person with OCD reacted to the error message and took action. The amygdala receives confirmation that its alarm bells will be listened to, and it learns to send more of them.
Brain scans of people with OCD are really interesting. The amygdala “glows” from substantially higher than average activity. The frontal lobe of the brain, which controls judgment and focus, is also substantially overactive. This is because after the amygdala sends out an error message, the frontal lobe decides whether there is a problem, and then devotes attention to it. The frontal lobes of people with OCD tend to focus disproportionately on perceived problems and spend time whether threats exist; hence, the frontal lobe also appears to glow in brain scans.
This heightened brain activity explains why some people with OCD perceive that there is conflict around them, when there isn’t any; or that their world is dark, unfriendly, or even menacing. The part of the brain that is in charge of detecting when there is an emergency or problem is sounding, for no real reason, without warning.
The good news: it’s faulty wiring.
There is comfort in understanding the brain science behind OCD. If you grasp that the thoughts, fears, and physical sensations you have are just sections of your brain misbehaving, the thoughts, fears, and physical sensations you have may seem less intimidating.
There’s more comforting news: you can rewire your brain. That’s how people with OCD get better. The same worry circuit that is activated when you act on an obsessive thought can be powered down by learning how to react to your thoughts.
Learn how to react to your thoughts. Contact me for a free coaching consultation, or explore the resources below.
Resources for Learning More About OCD and Brain Science
The International OCD Foundation