Wednesday, April 30, 2014

White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts - Book Review

In White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts, Daniel Wegner explores the topics of consciousness, obsession, suppression, and mental control. This is an insightful read for anyone interested in general psychology, not just those suffering from OCD or some other mental disorder (although I did find much of the material particularly applicable to OCD). If you’ve ever been plagued by a disturbing image, had trouble dieting, or even just had a song stuck in your head, this book has something to say to you.

The core of Wegner’s theory is that we are plagued by obsessive thoughts, that is, we have unwanted thoughts that keep coming back to us, because we actively try to suppress them. Attempting to suppress a thought actually increases the frequency with which it will reoccur later. Clearly this has a lot to do with what happens with OCD. The core of the disorder is that we get stuck on a thought (the obsessive part), primarily a disturbing or distressing one, and can’t get away from it no matter how hard we try (the compulsive part). But this is relevant for everyone. If you’ve ever tried to quit drinking or smoking, or even lose weight, you are familiar with this cycle. You set strict rules for yourself and promise to stick to them. But, inevitably, you are reminded of alcohol, nicotine, or carbs wherever you go. You see someone eating a delicious-looking bowl of pasta, or you go to a party and everyone is drinking and lighting up. Even when there appears to be no obvious trigger, you feel the craving. Arguably, there is a lot of chemical craving going on too, but the chemicals are just as active in your brain and nervous system. It seems like no matter how hard you try, the reminders are just too much and you eventually give in.

This is where White Bears comes into play. Wegner argues, with convincing evidence, that when this happens, we shouldn’t keep looking for distractions or put all our energies into suppressing the unwanted thought, which is what we naturally tend to do. Instead, we should sit with the thought and let ourselves habituate, or get used to it. The book gets its title from a famous series of experiments you might have heard of. If you tell someone not to think about a white bear, what are they going to do? Think about white bears of course. The act of trying to suppress a thought automatically brings that thought to mind. It is the same with any unwanted thought. When we stop telling ourselves to not think about something, we give our minds room to let go of the thought naturally. Rather than constantly being on guard against the thought, we can discard it in time like a child discards a toy they got tired of. This theory bares striking resemblance to the theories about mindfulness, which promotes the same concept of sitting with our thoughts in order to let go of them.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone suffering from OCD or any other type of anxiety disorder, as well as anyone else who just has an interest in this type of cognitive psychology. It well definitely make you think twice about the way you think               !

Saturday, April 26, 2014

A Sense of Control

Today I was clicking through the pages of Psychology Today when I came across this short but thought-provoking article entitled “The Importance of Feeling in Control.” It discusses our intense need for a sense of control and the impact it can have on our physical and mental health. Most interestingly, however, it discusses the way in which we find control in times of turmoil, even if none actually exists.

In reading this article I turned to think of a recent change in my life. It would be an understatement to say that my life is a little depressing at the moment. I am currently unemployed and about to have surgery that will keep me immobile for a month. That means that the relatively small pool of activities I have to occupy my time is about to be severely diminished by my inability to get around after surgery. But for the past couple of days I have taken to making lists of things to do with my time. I’m not actually doing anything that I wasn’t doing before – reading various books, watching movies, taking trips to the library and grocery store – but I have found that by making lists and checking items off as I go through the day, I am much happier with how I’m spending my time. I feel more productive and less like I’m wasting away in unemployment, even if only a little. This illusion of control seems to mirror what is discussed in this article.

In a time of great depression and emotional turmoil for me, I am finding some security in tricking myself into a sense of controlled productivity.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand I am very grateful for the recent peak in my moods. Such a simple fix to a horrendous problem is surely to be praised! On the other hand, I am always suspicious of illusions, particularly of the kinds we play on ourselves. Isn’t it true that I AM being hugely unproductive at this time? Don’t I deserve to be reminded that I want to work and spend my days in a worthwhile manner? It seems like a slippery slope to me. One minute I’m happy at having watched a movie today and the next I’m content to ignore more important tasks in favor of mindless ones. As long as I get to check it off the list, right?

What are your thoughts on tricking ourselves to feel happier? Do we deserve to give ourselves a break? Or should we suffer through in the knowledge that it will bring better times once things sort themselves out? How does a sense of control play out in your mental life? Leave me a comment and share your ideas!

Overcoming Obsessive Thoughts - Book Review

This is a great first book to read if you are just starting to explore the world of OCD literature. It contains wonderful explanations of a lot of key concepts in the realm of OCD self-help. Unfortunately, it was not the first book on the subject that I read. By the time I read this book I had heard most of the information  before. That being said, I would still highly recommend this book for anyone suffering from OCD, particularly those who are relatively new to it and still have a lot to learn.

The book recommends a pacing guide totaling 8 weeks, to give adequate time to read the chapters, complete the exercises, and apply the findings. I would seriously encourage putting a great deal of effort into these exercises and taking them seriously. I have to admit that I did not successfully do this myself, mostly because I had already done many of them in other books and practices. But having done them all at some point or another, I can honestly say that they are very helpful and worthwhile, especially if you are using books as an alternative to actual therapy. David Clark and Christine Purdon do an excellent job of outlining and explaining a lot of the practices that I also covered with my therapist.

I think what makes Overcoming Obsessive Thoughts such a great work is that it does a fantastic job of exploring the many different ways in which OCD can present itself, while simultaneously highlighting the underlying trends and themes that all of the various presentations have in common. Many different examples of obsessions and compulsions are described, along with the thought distortions that underlie them. And then there are exercises that guide you in identifying your own obsessions, compulsions, and thought patterns. The book really gives you all of the guidance and information on OCD you could hope for from a therapist or shrink.

One word of caution I would offer is that this is not really a book for family members or friends of those with OCD who are trying to understand the disorder. There are certainly sections within the book that could provide useful information for these readers, but as a whole this work is clearly directed at those who actually have OCD. The exercises and follow-up readings would be very much lost on those who don’t have actual symptoms to observe. If you are a friend or family member looking for reading material, there are much better books to turn to before this one.

Overall, though, Overcoming Obsessive Thoughts is a great resource and guide. Happy reading!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Let Me Introduce Myself

Welcome to OC Me - a blog exploring mental health, mindfulness, and what it’s like living with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). My hope for this space is to be able to explore issues and theories that relate to my experiences in a way that makes them accessible and meaningful to others.

But before I run away with blog logistics, let me take a moment to introduce myself and explain what has brought me here. I am a twenty-something student turned teacher newly relocated to Charlotte, North Carolina. I was just starting my first “real” job last year when I was struck with the vicious onset of OCD. My life quickly spiraled out of control, and I had no idea what was happening to me. I had to leave my job, move home temporarily, and get down to figuring out what was going on. Months of therapy and countless hours spent pouring over books later, I was finally diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder. It’s been a roller-coaster ride, and I’m only just beginning to sort through the mess of it all. But as I turn this corner in my life, I wanted to set up this blog as a place to learn, grow, and share. Everyone is affected by issues of mental health, probable more frequently than any of us would like to admit. I hope you will find some useful and thought-provoking discussions on this blog, so that we can learn and grow to a place of better mental health together. I also hope that you will comment and leave your thoughts for me and other readers to ponder and respond to. I firmly believe that more information is always better, even if we may have different opinions sometimes.

My aim is to post several times a week on a variety of topics. I will review books, recommend articles and websites, start discussions, and sometimes just vent on what is going on in my life. If you have any suggestions or recommendations for topics I should explore, please leave a comment and I will do my best to oblige!

Lastly, I’d like to end with a message of hope. If you are struggling with any type of mental health issue, you know what it feels like when everything seems to be falling apart around you and your life becomes unrecognizable. I want to encourage you and say that these times will pass, that you can get through the hard times to a better future. It’s a battle we have to fight every day, but we are here to support each other through it. Stay strong and fight hard!