Here is what is going on in the OCD Brain.

For those of you out there who think that people with OCD are just quirky and “should just stop doing those weird things,” I’m going to dispel that myth.

You wouldn’t tell somebody who was diabetic to “just stop being diabetic,” or tell someone with the flu, “Oh just stop having the flu you big silly!”

But how many of us with OCD or other mental illnesses hear that from people all the time? I have listened to it so often in my life, and I am a 46-year-old woman who only recently, at 42, got control over this OCD monster. It ebbed and flowed my whole life, but it got to the point where I could not put my clothes on and get out of my house. I am a mother of two and a CEO of a nonprofit, so you can see how this made life very difficult.

Here’s what it feels like with OCD…

It’s like you have a pesky gremlin whispering in your ear, telling you to do something over and over again. Now, this is in no way like somebody who hears voices, but it is like a gremlin in your head. It’s like having an urge or compulsion to do something, whether that’s to wash your hands, organize your soups, collect things, etc. For me, it was just moving through my day. I would try to get dressed and have to start over with better thoughts, go through doors with better thoughts, etc. I eventually started calling it “bing-bonging.” I would have to “rewind,” if you will, and get the thought right. My fears revolved around death and numbers. Everyone with OCD has a different way that OCD manifests for them. However, the horrible feeling is the same.

What’s going on here is that we have a brain Gremlin. I like to call mine Gloria. Personifying OCD can be helpful because it helps you step outside of it and see it for what it is. I even made a video of her for my therapist one time; it was delicious.

I always found that learning about brain chemistry and the science helped me understand and unravel why I was having these problems and start to separate myself from the torturous thoughts.

Imagine your brain is a busy control room with different sections responsible for various functions.

Studies have shown that OCD is linked to imbalances in the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, as well as abnormal activity in specific brain regions, including the orbitofrontal cortex, striatum, and thalamus. These are the areas involved in decision-making, habit formation, and filtering out irrelevant information.

Here’s how the OCD Gremlin operates…

Intrusive Thoughts: OCD starts by planting random, unwanted thoughts in your mind. “What if you left the stove on?” “Did you lock the door properly?” “What if you accidentally said something offensive?” These intrusive thoughts are caused by hyperactivity in the orbitofrontal cortex and striatum, which are responsible for regulating thoughts and behaviors.

Anxiety Alarm: As soon as OCD plants an intrusive thought, it sounds the anxiety alarm. Your brain’s anxiety center (the amygdala) gets all riled up, sending signals of distress throughout your body. Your heart starts racing, your palms get sweaty, and you feel a sense of dread. This is due to an overactive “fight-or-flight” response triggered by the intrusive thoughts.

We’ve all heard of this fight-or-flight response as part of our primitive lizard brain. What’s happening is that you have a chemical imbalance, and that thing that keeps you safe, that amygdala, that says “don’t touch that hot stove,” or “don’t jump off that cliff because that would be very bad” starts misfiring. 

In people who have OCD, that same feeling of “holy crap, a bear is chasing me!” is the same feeling you have when your OCD is triggered. What’s so crazy about OCD is you can be just as scared by the intrusive thought that is not happening to you as you are scared of the bear. 

Obviously, there is something wrong here. I’m not a stupid person, and most people with OCD are quite intelligent because you’re able to function with 90% of your brain tied behind your back.

In order to ease that anxiety that you feel from your amygdala, that fight-or-flight, that panic, that dread, you do the compulsion. But, that compulsion will only relieve your anxiety for a little while. For me, it was seconds, and then the next OCD attack happened, and the next one, and the next one. It was incapacitating.

The thing that you need to understand when you have OCD is that your brain is flexible, and you can change it. You can fix those imbalances, but whenever you do a compulsion in answer to OCD, you make your OCD stronger. Hard stop.

What you resist persists, so if you’re resisting OCD by trying to “compulse” your way out of it, it will only going to get stronger and wiser. OCD will start doing dastardly trickery to up the ante. Once you do the compulsion, your OCD might take a break, but soon enough, it’s back with another thought, and the cycle repeats. 

All of that is due to this thing called the thalamus that acts as a relay station for information flow in your brain and starts to fail to filter out the irrelevant intrusive thoughts, so you’re inevitably teaching your brain that this compulsion is the right way to solve this problem.

So, my sweet friend, the only way out of this OCD cycle is to call your gremlin what it is – an irrelevant nuisance that is giving you irrelevant information. Imagine if someone you didn’t know drove by you right now and screamed, “You big silly jerk!” You might be offended for a hot second, but you would quickly dismiss this as irrelevant information.

Just remember, it is just a faulty circuit in your brain. It is NOT you. It’s your OCD gremlin.