Like scratching poison ivy only makes it itch more, the more you indulge some thoughts and worries, the worse they get. You know what I’m talking about, right? Such pesky thoughts can mess up an otherwise good day, cause someone to lose a job, or at the extreme, can ruin a life and manifest as full blown obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
In his book, Mindsight, one of Dan Seigel’s patients refers to this as “Overactive Checker Deployment.” Seigel explains that we have brain circuits that have evolved over millions of years to keep us safe. This includes the flight-flight-freeze system of the brain stem, the fear-producing amygdala of the limbic area, and the worrying and planning prefrontal cortex. These all work together to activate survival reflexes to push our cortical regions to constantly scan for danger. Hence, the “checker.”
He goes on to explain, that the checker is actually there to protect us and is our friend. He uses the acronym SAM to explain its functioning. First, it scans for danger. If it detects any, either physically or merely in our own thoughts, it sends an alert of fear, and, then, motivates a person to take some action. If the checker gets over enthusiastic, always imagining the worst case scenario and constantly preparing for danger – even if it just imagined, it can result in chronic worry, anxiety or OCD…and some major heart burn and head aches.
Focusing inward and becoming more aware, has proven very successful in decreasing the impact of anxious thoughts and even treating OCD. No wonder the monks are always kinda grinning! Mindfulness strategies teach a person to physically calm themselves and begins the process of self regulation in the brain which, with repetition and neuroplasticity, physically alters the brain circuits.
Jeffrey Schwartz pioneered this practice in the 1990′s by combining his interest in Buddhist philosophy with his nueroatonomy research and verified its effectiveness with brain scans. His four-step therapy is outlined in his book Brain Lock and has become an established treatment for OCD. The four steps are: relabel; reattribute; refocus and revalue.
While I would not say I had OCD, I definitely had the tendencies behaviorally, and had through-the-roof anxiety and obsessive thoughts. After reading his book, I had reminders with the four steps posted everywhere — on my refrigerator, in my meditation corner, on my bathroom mirror and even on the dashboard of my car.
Every time one of the nasty, little thoughts that were all too common to me before, that led to depression and a suicide attempt, would pop up I would follow the four steps and argue with it. I was just damn determined that I was not going to be a slave to them any more. Over time, with dogged repetition and determination, it worked, and I am not!