"How can I deal with OCD thoughts and relieving stress? I feel my mind is constantly running and it also affects my sleep."
If your car suddenly has problems going down the road and is making strange noises, It's probably best to check the tires first, before opening the hood.
The reason is simple- these are the parts that are in direct contact with the world around you, and are most likely to be impacted by what's happening now, in normal everyday situations.
When your brain feels like it's having difficulties, take the same approach.
Start with the lower, simpler levels mechanics first - in this case your neurotransmitters & emotional states, before worrying about higher-level things like your thoughts.
Your Brain, 101
On it's simplest levels, your brain is a very predictable machine, with very predictable goals.
If you look, you can clearly see those goals buried deep within the design of your brain.
At a very simplistic level, here are a few key neurotransmitters that create the emotional sensations that motivate you towards and away from things, every day;
- Cortisol, the feeling of fear - Goal: Stay alive
- Dopamine, the feeling of lust - Goal: Pursue opportunities for food, sex, etc.
- Oxytocin, the feeling of love - Goal: Security- specifically the desire to protect, and be protected, particularly between parents & children or lovers.
- Serotonin, the feeling of acceptance - Goal: Socialize. Among mammals, there is strength in numbers.
- Testosterone & Estrogen - Goal: Reproduce ( dopamine plays a big role here too )
- Prolactin, the feeling of satisfaction - Goal: Slow down, you've had enough for now.
This is oversimplified, in that there are hundreds of neurotransmitters, each of which may have more than one function, and which may even work in combination to create new drivers.
Why do We Have These?
All of these neurotransmitters are designed to create strong sensations ( which we call emotions ) that get your attention in a big way.
I personally divide emotions as follows;
- Pleasure - a pleasant reward for something you have done or achieved. Yay orgasm.
- Pain - a harsh, uncomfortable sensation that demands urgent action. Physical pain such as touching a hot stove is an example we can relate to well.
Pain is further divided into two categories;
- Cravings - I want this so, so much, if I don't get it, I feel like I will die
- Aversions - I really, really don't want that. If I cannot escape it, I feel like I will die.
Our brain sees our entire world as a landscape of things it wants to push us towards or pull us away from.
Think about your sense of taste. Why does fat taste so good? How did that happen? From an evolutionary standpoint, fat is 9 calories of energy per gram, and carbohydrates and proteins are only 4. Therefore when you eat fat, your brain rewards you with a more pleasurable sensation. Sugar also gives you a big win, because it's readily, immediately processed energy, and your reptile brain wants you to have as much as possible.
It's all about survival.
Where do "OCD" Thoughts Come From?
When your neurotransmitters are at abnormally high or low levels, all kinds of things feel like they are going sideways in your head.
OCD-level distraction, sleeplessness, grief, heartbreak, anxiety, depression, loneliness, even not-good-enough thoughts can be traced pretty directly to these neurotransmitters.
You'll notice too, that every one of the affected neurotransmitters is generating sensations in the "pain" category of emotions- because pain is all about pushing you to take an action.
All pain emotions are designed to provoke action. Until you take action, that emotion will persist like a painful and annoying splinter, and rule your world.
Identifying the Problem
In general, you should be able to identify where the imbalance is, based on the type of recurring thoughts you're having.
If Dopamine is abnormally high;
- "I can't stop thinking about... cigarettes, porn, video games, my social media account..."
- "I have constant cravings for... sugar, chocolate, nicotine, gambling, sexy things."
If Serotonin is abnormally low;
- "I feel depressed and unmotivated all the time."
- "I'm so lonely, but I feel like no one likes me and I don't want to be social."
If an Oxytocin love-connection is strong;
- "I can't stop thinking about this person."
- "I can't stand being apart from this person, they make me so happy."
If an Oxytocin love-connection is broken or injured;
- "I feel so homesick."
- "My partner left, I feel so much heartbreak."
- "OMG my world is falling apart."
If Cortisol is abnormally high;
- "I feel incredibly anxious about everything in my world."
- "I can't sleep, or rest, without feeling highly anxious."
You may well find yourself with more than one imbalance here, because an imbalance in one neurotransmitter can lead to an imbalance in another one.
It's important to understand that I'm using the term "imbalance" lightly.
Most of us have healthy, normal brains that work as designed - and the experiences you're feeling are natural and important. You're probably not broken, and everything you're feeling is there for a reason. A small change in your lifestyle choices can change everything.
With straight-up OCD distractions, where everything is distracting you, Dopamine is your usually the culprit.
Dopamine is your motivation system and is usually the first and most powerful source of distracted thoughts. Its goal is to wrestle your attention away from whatever you're doing now, and towards something that it thinks is important.
But what when it's out of whack, and it thinks everything is important, or nothing is important?
Why Dopamine Gets Imbalanced
It's rather easy to manipulate our dopamine externally. Show me a picture of a pizza and you'll probably trigger some dopamine. Show me a 50% off ad, or a swimsuit-clad model, and my reptilian brain stands to attention.
Unfortunately we live in a world where everyone is after our dopamine.
- Advertisers & Marketers - anyone trying to sell you anything, is trying to trigger your dopamine. Ever wonder why "sex sells"? There you go.
- Food & Drug Manufacturers - any food product you can consume, those companies want you to consume more of it. Manufactured food products are engineered to maximize this, through the addition of sugar, nicotine, and caffeine. McDonald's has tripled the amount of sugar in it's hamburgers since 1989.times
- Tech Publishing Companies - Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, all want you to use their service as much as possible, and see as many ads as possible.
- Electronics Manufacturers - why do you think there are regular upgrades to your iPhone? Did you really need a new iPhone? Was your old one failing you?
Dopamine triggers are everywhere.
For most people, the key things that imbalance your dopamine system include Facebook, video games, porn, sugar, caffeine, nicotine, gambling, alcohol, and certain recreational drugs.
Watch out for those in particular.
How To Overcome This
A quick look at your lifestyle should highlight anything that may be spiking your dopamine. A porn habit, or regular fast food, constant video gaming or Facebooking are common problems for many.
Choose to take control of these, and replace them with things like exercise, and socializing.
It will be hard at first. Commit anyway.
In just a few weeks, you'll feel like a new person.
If you think your dopamine is imbalanced, but you are not certain of the cause, consider doing a dopamine fast to see how that affects you.
Primary signs of imbalance include depression, anxiety, severe loneliness, and "not good enough" story.
I haven't researched specific science-supported approaches to this, but here's what's worked great for me.
- Gym, every day. It has a huge impact on me. Part of it is simply getting away from work, getting out in public, moving my body- but there is also a lot of positive feedback that happens on an emotional level.
- Be social. Even when - especially when - you don't feel like it. You may even be feeling social anxiety. Go out in public anyway. Connect. Call a friend. Treat it as a series of experiments, and evaluate how you feel before and after.
- Manage your dopamine-triggers. I personally find that there is a connection between my dopamine levels and my serotonin levels. When my dopamine levels are unusually high, I feel needy, unsettled, and anxious, constantly. This transitions into a depressed state. When I manage my dopamine triggers, my serotonin feels higher. I feel calm, happy, social, and I like myself more.
Indicators are consistently high levels of anxiety, possibly including physical aspects such as high blood pressure.
- First, look for acute causes of stress in your world. A bad relationship, a terrible boss, a health issue that you're ignoring and hoping it will go away on its own. Sort those things out. Change your environment if needed.
- Make Exercise a #1 priority, first thing in the morning- even if it's just 50 press-ups during coffee. I highly recommend weight training, particularly for men - as it seems to have deeper benefits in the reduction of cortisol, and the promotion of serotonin and testosterone.
- Cut substances that make you feel anxious and jittery. For me that's caffeine, if I overdo it, I feel it in a big way. For others, sugar or nicotine might trigger you.
Once you've sorted these things, reflect on look at your thoughts. What thoughts are making you anxious, and feeding an anxiety loop?
A good coach can help you through unpacking these.
Primary signs of imbalance include overwhelming grief, romantic longing, or heartbreak.
I hesitate to use the word imbalance here, because I have not really encountered a case where I'd describe someone as experiencing oxytocin at "toxic" levels. Certainly heartbreak, grief, homesickness or romantic longing can feel overwhelming- but usually this will only happen within a "normal" range.
The reason I think is that whereas neurotransmitters such as dopamine can be triggered externally and directly ( sugar, caffeine, etc. ), oxytocin is generated more internally and situationally.
However it can be very disruptive nonetheless if you don't have a handle on it.
If you feel overwhelmed by grief, romantic longing, heartbreak, it's important to process your thoughts and feelings through journaling.
However you can also reduce the disruptive effects by looking after your serotonin- your sense of calm, peacefulness, and security.
Try some of the approaches in the Re-Balancing Serotonin section to see if that helps as well.
As always, if you're struggling, seek a good coach. Getting outside perspective on what's happening for you, and what you can do about it will make a huge difference in your life.
Message me if you need some guidance - firstname.lastname@example.org
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It's not especially important for this article, but for completeness I'd like to point out that Obsessive Compulsive Disorder ( OCD ) is a clinically diagnosed condition in the DSM-5 manual of psychology.
Obsessions are defined in the DSM-5 as:
Recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges, or images that are experienced, at some time during the disturbance as intrusive and inappropriate, and that cause marked anxiety and distress.
In this article, I use the phrase "OCD thinking" not in the clinical sense, but to describe that all-too-familiar sensation of thought patterns that feel overwhelming, uncontrollable, and uncomfortable.