Managing obsessive behavior
First, it helps to review a situation when your internal alarm goes off. Remember, false signals can trigger a defense response. When the alarm goes off and you start to feel extreme anxiety, observe and acknowledge your body’s reaction and take note of the symptoms.
In the case of a panic attack, notice the rate at which your heart pounds, how tense your muscles feel, and whether you’re sweating. This level of self-awareness diverts some attention from the crisis, reducing the activation level of the amygdala. You’ll also learn to see these reactions as normal and less threatening afterwards.
Another trick when you panic or experience obsessive thoughts is diversion. The mind can’t give the same level of focus to two things at once, so replace a thought with another, more interesting or engaging one. Go out, call someone, and try fun tasks that require less effort.
While these conscious attempts at pacifying your defense response can be helpful, you have to remember that the troops must go to war once they’ve been rallied. The defense response has to run its course once it’s been initiated. Fortunately for you, you can redirect these restless forces to show their bravado in less harmful places.
Spend that extra energy on exercise and outdoor activities. Once it’s spent, the amygdala will order a retreat, and you’ll experience less stress. Your muscles will then relax and your heart rate will begin to slow down. Exercise also releases some of the same feel-good hormones that are triggered by prescribed anxiety medication, giving you a boost without side effects.
You now understand your amazing capacity to contemplate things in the distant future – a superpower that triggers a defense response when it anticipates problems you might never even encounter. Bring yourself back to the present when you notice yourself drifting. See, feel, listen, and experience the things in your immediate environment.
Practice deep breathing, mindful meditation, and muscle relaxation exercises to mitigate defense triggers. If you can’t dismiss obsessive thoughts when you go to bed, try reading or listening to a podcast to divert your thoughts. Imagine something pleasant you’d like to see or experience, or hold tight to a fond memory.
As you incorporate mindfulness, presence, deep breathing, and exercise into your daily life, try as much as you can to recognise those things you can control, and those that are out of your reach. Acceptance and gratitude for what you have will make you less obsessive about things you can’t control.
Rewiring your brain
Taming your brain’s natural defense mechanism is tough, but the brain has an intriguing property that makes it pretty malleable with consistent effort.
Spiders and barking dogs might scare a little kid, granted, but consider the case of kids eating at a McDonald’s with their parents. Not so scary, right? But if one of them – say, Tom – is yelled at for rubbing barbecue sauce on his face, his brain might later register barbecue sauce as a threat because of its association with yelling.
That’s how your brain learns – by associating circumstances or objects with emotion, whether positive or negative.
Tom might grow up to be suspicious of barbecue sauce, depending on how that event affected and shaped him. Maybe he even forgets that it ever happened, but his amygdala remembers and rings the alarm whenever it encounters barbecue sauce in the future.
Because the amygdala lacks the capacity to process and explain what’s going on like the cortex can, it triggers a fight, flight, or freeze response, resulting in anxiety or obsessive thoughts.
What’s going on here?
In simple terms, barbecue sauce code travels in the brain through a particular set of neurons every time. Yelling code travels its own route, every time. Firing these two codes through their different routes at the same time strengthens their association as well as the trauma that’s linked to them.
This sounds depressing, but it should actually give you hope. What this means is that if you’re firing a different set of neurons associated with delightful objects or events, you initiate and memorize warmth.
Use this knowledge to engage in new activities that create new associations, and new pathways and structures will start to form in your gorgeous brain. Done repeatedly, the physical structure of the brain will actually change – no matter your age. This is what neuroscientists call neuroplasticity.
This technique can be used to slowly reintroduce you to your anxieties through exposure therapy. When this happens, you’re teaching your amygdala not to fear what it previously fought against.
Through this process, you’re also learning to tolerate the symptoms it activates. It’s crucial that you resist compulsive behaviors while you take this step. Indulging in compulsive behavior will fire neurons associated with your obsessions and trigger a defense response. A good exposure can guide you through this process.
Taking these steps in the right doses over time will rewire your OCD brain.