Poison Ivy of the Mind

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 a full-blown obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

In his book, Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, one of Dan Seigel’s patients refers to this as “Overactive Checker Deployment.”  Seigel, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA school of Medicine, co-director of the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center, and executive director of the Mindsight Institute, explains that we have brain circuits that have evolved over millions of years to keep us safe. These brain regions include the flight-flight-freeze system of the brain stem, the fear-producing amygdala of the limbic area, and the worrying and planning prefrontal cortex which work together to activate survival reflexes to push our cortical regions to constantly scan for danger. Hence, the “checker.”

Siegel explains that the checker actually protects us and is our friend and 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 just imagined – it can result in chronic worry and anxiety or even full blown OCD.

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 practices teach a person to physically calm themselves and begin 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 neuroanatomy research and verified its effectiveness with brain scans. His four-step therapy is outlined in his book Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior and has become an established treatment for OCD. The four steps are: relabel; reattribute; refocus and revalue.

While I wouldn’t say I had OCD, I definitely had the behavioral tendencies, 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’d follow the four steps and argue with it.  I was just damn determined that I wasn’t going to be a slave to my thoughts anymore.   Over time, with dogged repetition and determination, it worked, and I’m not!

image source:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/piper/

13 Comments

  1. Debbie,
    Thanks for this article and letting us know about this book. I’m very interested in the science behind meditation and mindfulness and it’s ability to help us down-regulate the Fight-Flight response and all those pesky thoughts like anxiety and depression. Yours is a remarkable story and so heartening for anyone trying to manage a brain gone wild. Lots of love and appreciation for you.

  2. Debbie Hampton Reply

    Sandra, thanks for the love! My story even amazes me especially because I had no real idea of what I was doing and no professional guidance. I do believe I was being guided by a beloved brother who is in spirit. I always stumbled onto the right thing at just the right time. Now, I want to share what I have discovered.

    The great thing about these practices is that they can work for anyone. No brain injury required. Taking control of your mind is the key to taking control of your life, I know. It is wonderful that science is backing it up.

  3. Tina Sullivan Reply

    Debbie – you are so right when you say you were “led” to things at the right time. RIGHT NOW my son is doing all of the above, as we gently guide him back to healing… Thanks so much for sharing. (BTW, as I read him some of the info, he said, “That’s makes so much sense.”
    Thanks.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Tina, it makes me so happy that your son is finding some learning through my blog. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

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