Monday, November 16, 2009

Are You Worried? (Part 2 About Your Brain)

Originally uploaded by hkvam
In my previous blog entry, I wrote about this amazing book, The Brain That Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge, M.D. As I continue to read it, I'm struck by how much control we really have over our mental and physical well-being. How our brains are malleable and can respond to visualization and repetitive learning or exercise. I just finished a chapter that applies to all of us at some point in our lives. It's about worry and how we can stop it.

Doidge begins by talking about people with OCD (obsessive-compulisive disorder). This is worry gone wild. Chronic anxiety caused by out-of-control, exaggerated thinking. Like Jack Nicholson in the movie As Good As It Gets. He's a germaphobic, constantly washing his hands and engaging in obsessive behaviors like avoiding sidewalk cracks and locking and unlocking his door multiple times. He's trapped in his loopy behaviors and worries.

OCD traditionally has been treated with cognitive behavioral therapy, having people focus on the content of the symptoms, then incrementally exposing them to the source of their fears. This has had mixed results, especially with severe cases. But the laws of neuroplasticity suggest that focusing on the symptoms only reinforces them in the brain. A new therapy is emerging that can unlock the OCD brain, growing new brain circuits that replace bad behaviors with better ones.

The therapy involves some specific steps. First, the person having the attack re-labels what is happening to him, realizing that his current experience is not an attack of germs (or whatever) but an episode of OCD. Re-labeling allows the person to get some distance from the content of the episode, the same way Buddhists "observe" during meditation and separate themselves from their minds. The next step is to refocus on a positive, pleasure-giving activity the moment the OCD attack begins, replacing fear thoughts with pleasure thoughts. This activity "changes the channel" and forces the thoughts in a different direction. It doesn't matter if the OCD sufferer is still feeling the anxiety. It's repetitively, intensively applying the technique that counts. After a time, the brain "unlocks" and the OCD episodes get less and less intense.

How does this apply to you? We all worry and get anxious. Sometimes it's mild, but often it can be debilitating. You fret, you think about the worst case scenarios, you dwell on the content of your anxiety. But this only strengthens the fear connections in your brain. Rarely does the content of your anxiety justify the suffering.

The next time you get into a worry phase, test out the neuroplasticity therapy. Re-label what's happening to you. The sky isn't falling, it's just an episode of anxiety. Then force yourself to refocus your thoughts on something pleasant, even if you don't feel it. You must use your will for this, refocusing for 15-20 minutes. Like exercise. You will weaken the worry link, and soon your mind will unlock and the anxiety will dissipate. You are free to be productive again. You have the power to change yourself. I challenge you to give it a try!

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