Monday, June 21, 2010

OCD and Mindfulness meditation

1) Introduction

Obsessive Compulsive disorder is a disorder caused due to a stuck circuit in the brain.
More specifically, the neuronal circuit between: orbital frontal cortex, caudate nucleus and anterior cingulate cortex is on overdrive.

The orbital frontal cortex is the part of frontal cortex that is associated with detecting errors or 'something is wrong' in the environment. This area is on overdrive in people with OCD and hence there is always a feeling that something is wrong. The circuit moves onto the cingulate cortex which is associated with compulsion, which makes the people with OCD act compulsively whenever they have a feeling of 'something is wrong'.

In Neuroscience, there is a classical phrase: 'Neurons that fire together wire together'.
When the feeling of 'something is wrong' is followed by a compulsion to do something (e.g. twitch the hand or some other action)... This sequence gets hard wired in the brain (stronger neural connection).

However, through mindful response... E.g. following 'something is wrong' by a relaxing activity instead of the compulsive action, the circuit is remodeled into something that is more benign.
Ofcourse in the beginning, this mindful action is difficult because of the hard-wiring of the circuit.
But with practice, the circuit weakens and stops bothering the person as much.

2) My experience

I had OCD during my senior high school and first two years of college. In the beginning(first 6 months), it was a gruelling experience. I didn't know why I had these obsessive thoughts that were so troublesome. Ofcourse, I didn't know at that point that it was a stuck circuit. My only respite from these 'something is wrong' thoughts was sleep. A psychiatrist prescribed a tranquilizing drug(fludac) - I think it had an affect on my visual cortex area or the areas related to imagination - Because, since then I have had trouble visualizing(in my mind) objects clearly. Ofcourse, the drug did help make the thoughts less menacing. I think these drugs fall under the class of SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors). Sertonin is a natural biochemical that has a calming influence on the brain.

In my second year of college, I attended a 3 day workshop on mindfulness meditation and other breath based techniques.
I remember clearly, the instructions was to observe my thoughts passively without any commentary or reaction. It was hard, these thoughts had given me a lot of trouble - But I tried anyway. I soon found (a few days later), that my condition was getting better.
I continued my practice of mindfulness meditation and also took up running everyday.
Within 6 months, I was a different person. The obsessive thoughts no longer bothered me (circuit had weakened quite a bit) and I was out of depression (which was also a problem during that time). Further more, running gave me a lot of energy and enthusiasm for life.
It was quite a recovery!! There were small relapses(whose frequency began to diminish), but I knew what to do - be responsive (instead of being compulsive or reactive), mindfully.

3) Neuro-plasticity

It is quite a remarkable thing that a person can change the neuronal circuits in the brain merely through a different mental/physical response. This phenomenon of changeability of neuronal circuits in the brain is known as neuro-plasticity. Neuro-plasticity is supposed to be at its peak during childhood(where the brain is very mouldable and adaptable). This ability does continue with age (although to a lesser degree).

I was reading a book on The mind and the brain: Neuroplasiticity and the power of mental force by Jefferey M. Schwartz and Sharon Begley. The detailed description of what happens in a OCD patient as given in the book is fascinating. I can put together what I experienced with what happens chemically in the brain as described in the book for a better picture of what was going on with me.

Neuroplasticity as a concept is very fascinating as it puts the responsibility for a good life squarely on oneself(ones mind and brain). Don't like your life? - Change your brain by changing your actions and thoughts and voila, neuronal circuits change and you act more responsibly. Ofcourse these changes in actions and thoughts have to be made consistently, so that benign circuits are preferred over malign circuits. Are you very emotional and worried? Perhaps your amygdala is on overdrive or your basal gangila is on overdrive. Solution: Either drugs(with side-effects) or mindfulness meditation(also a host of other alternatives). The latter has no side effects and can help bring in neuronal circuits that are conducive for a more peaceful and clear mind.

4) Questions, questions and more questions!

A very fundamental question that arises (also asked in the book mentioned above) is this:
Is the mind different from the brain? This question arises easily in the case of OCD.
In the case of a mindful response, it was as if my mind was willing a different response to my obsessive thoughts that was followed up by the brain so that the brain was beginning to rewire accordingly. If the mind is indeed different from the brain - Where is the seat of the mind?
Is it a phenomenon of the brain - Is it a higher level abstraction of the brain functions? Or is it something that is fundamentally immaterial - not made up of matter. This is also a question of fundamental physics - String theory claims that the fundamental essence of matter is energy - Which is immaterial. So is mind some abstract form of energy that is immaterial. If so, can it function independently of the body-brain framework? If it can, then we can begin to ask questions on what happens to this mind after death? And thus, we enter a whole new realm that science hasn't dared to enter yet.


Anonymous said...

Great post! I will have to try it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a great post!

ANIL YADAV said...

Thanks Karthik for sharing the science of this matter.

Since long I was also suffering and in turn ruining my life with OCD but now am though slowly coming out of its loop via medidation.

What you call the mind, capable of directing the brain, is probably a shade of conciousness

Vivek Goyal said...

Nice article. I am sure what you are calling as Mindful meditation is the same as what we call Vipassana mediation here in India.

Marvin said...

Great read! Would like to share a link -

Anonymous said...

OCD is hard for anyone without OCD to understand.I have been suffering from OCD and its about time that I used a combination of drugs and meditation. Great read. Thanks for your post

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much. Your articles give me lots of hope.

Kidbux said...

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Hi Karthik,

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All the best,

Nicole Lascurain | Assistant Marketing Manager
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