Lost in Thought

by Matt B. on October 15, 2014

For many people, the phrase ‘lost in thought’ suggests something vaguely pleasant – a slow, dreamy, afternoon-ish kind of feeling. For obsessive-compulsives, getting lost in thought can be more painful – a tornado funnel in which we lose track of the OCD management techniques we most need. Also discussed: why awareness of our thoughts is so important, and why it’s so difficult for OC’s to cultivate; how worries can become more convincing the longer they stick around; and why it helps to label our compulsions using quick shorthand.

Rough Transcript

The first thing I want to talk about today is being lost in thought. It’s funny the phrase “being lost in thought” or “lost in thought” is one that carries a more or less positive valence in our culture, I think. Certainly the phrase “lost in thought” can be used to describe somebody who squarely or absent-minded, but it can also be used to describe the professor who’s just so taken with an idea that he or she is unable to attend to the regular world.

We think there’s something charming about that. I mean so caught up in one’s own ideas or notions or thoughts that one literally becomes lost. For somebody going through an OCD experience, being lost in thought is a decidedly negative experience. This isn’t a charming eccentric way of being. It’s a terrifying one. It’s a way of being caught in a tumble dry cycle.

The trick though is that we often don’t recognize that that’s what’s happening to us. We are caught up in our thoughts and the thoughts are so close and there are so many of them and they’re swirling so fast. It’s like being in the funnel of a tornado. We can’t see anything else, so I’ll just speak for myself here. It becomes difficult to distinguish them from reality itself.

I, for one, take my most intense bouts of intrusive thoughts to be just reality, a shitty reality to be sure. A reality that was imposed upon me, the one I would never choose for myself, the one that I might or might not have wind up in because of my own incompetence or indiscipline but nonetheless, reality. The thoughts that are coming at me, the fears that thoughts are generating, the ideas about what’s likely to happen now that this chain of events is in motion, the catastrophes that are coming around the bend.

These are terrifying but they’re terrifying reality. That’s how I experience them. It’s just a Cormac McCarthy post-apocalyptic world that I live in but that’s where I live.

One of the things that I love about the book I’m reading at the moment – this is the book I’ve been talking about for the past couple of episodes. You Are Not Your Brain by Jeffrey Schwartz is how he points out so clearly and spends a ton of time elucidating exactly how we make this basic mistake of taking our thoughts to be reality.

One of the things that he said in this last chapter that I’ve been working on that really hit home was that we think without being aware that we’re thinking. In other words, every thought that comes into my mind, I take to forget another facet of reality, another thing I have to deal with, another aspect of a problem that just got uncovered and shown to me and it’s my responsibility to do something about it.

The phrasing that I use – it’s his phrasing is key here, thinking without being aware that we’re thinking. Dr Schwartz makes quite a lot of the mindfulness traditions. I’ll get into a little bit more about mindfulness in a moment. But for the time being, I just want to point out that he’s talking about something really specific. The experience of thinking without awareness that that’s what we’re doing. We just do it.

We’re just so caught up in it that it represents the totality of our mental experience. He talks about the difference between being caught up in thought that way and being aware that we’re thinking. The latter experience is a very different one especially for those of you, who’ve gone any mindfulness or meditation practice, you’ll recognize the difference. There’s a world of difference between being caught up in an activity and having no perspective on it on one hand, and on the other hand, being able to recognize that you’re caught up in an activity.

The awareness – just being aware that you’re caught up in a cycle of destructive thought doesn’t of course disperse those thoughts. It doesn’t dissipate the cycle or make the pain go away immediately. But it is not only a call to a totally experience in of it itself, but it’s also key to some of the more effective responses that we can take up when we’re in the midst of this sort of experience.

So I want to illustrate the difference here with an experience that I just had half an hour ago. I’m in the shower and taking my notes as I sometimes do. It appears to be a new theme for the show and immediately become afraid that I have brushed my fingers against my eyes in the course of doing so and become paralyzed for a moment unsure about what to do.

I’m under assault from all angles, lots of different types of thoughts coming at me, suggestions from one corner of my mind to stand there and let myself feel all the feelings. From another quarter, I thought that I ought to do an exposure exercise right here and now to actually lean in to the fear that I might have touched my eyes by touching them more and in deliberate way.

A range of other thoughts kind of swirling about. I end up deciding to do the exposure on what we call an in vivo or live exposure kind of in the middle of life as you’re living it. So I picked my nose and I deliberately twist my fingers as I’m doing so, so that they bump against my eyes. Fortunately or unfortunately, who knows, this triggers an additional set of thoughts about whether I’ve touched my eyes and to firm away and to point it away and whether I’ve actually created some damage that wasn’t there before but now is as a result of doing this exposure exercise incorrectly or from the wrong posture or from the wrong mental state.

So I walked out of this experience of attempting to do an exposure and spoil the intrusive thoughts kind of lean into them and desensitize myself to them a bit and instead walk away slightly more traumatized by the experience. More than that, I walk away with the conclusion that I may have actually fucked up my eye in a real way.

So about half an hour later, I’m lying here in bed realizing that I think I feel my eyes feeling a bit weird. I immediately have an interpretation for that which is that “Well, you did fuck them up so perhaps they do feel weird. Would that be so strange if they felt weird if you screw things up?” There is some feedback typically, some sort of physical feedback. Then this is the typical cycle of course. Those of you with OCD will recognize it.

Our minds sort of generate some fantastical scenario and we end up buying it, maybe not right away. Maybe we get worn down and just through sheer repetition, through sheer exposure to the same horrific set of possibilities; they actually sort of creep in and become real. Actually, I had this experience this afternoon worried about something for three or four hours and nothing new would happen.

There’s the original instigating event and I basically spent three or four hours fretting about it, doing my best to lean into the fears but still fretting. I discovered that by the end of the third or fourth hour, I had actually just begun to take it for granted that what I was worried about had come to pass. That was true.

It almost felt like the fact that I had been worrying about it for so long was itself the proof that the worry was justified, that the worry was based in reality. Because why else would I be worried about it for four hours? So in a way that the worries end up justifying themselves and creating the realities that they only initially suggest.

Obviously, that way, that self confirmation process that these worries manage to kickoff in our minds the sort of confirmation by endless repetition, that’s something I want to talk about more at greater length and depth and with more precision in the future. But for now, I just wanted to raise that as a brief side light. So anyway here I am now convinced or fairly convinced – and only then does it occur to me that the thought came first. It wasn’t the feeling in my eyes that came first and created a bunch of thoughts about potential damage that then ran rampant.

It was the thought that came first. It was the thought, the fear underneath that actually created this psychosomatic sensation in my eyes. You know because of course how else would it really work, this idea that I am forever going around detecting the faintest sensations that each of the harbinger of horrible and inevitable decay and degradation and pain and suffering and misery?

The idea that I’m just in sort of on permanent watch for that and I’m really good at it and the tendency to do all that, monitoring has nothing to do with the fact that I have OCD. That strikes me as awfully unlikely. Those two things seem downed up awfully tightly together but I had to see that. I had to become aware that this whole assumption had taken route. This notion that I had damaged my eyes had become a premise, and it was a premise that then gave rise to an actual set of physical feelings.

In other words, it created a world. It created a garden full of fertile soil in which the sensations could actually manifest. That’s the difference that it’s a long winded way perhaps of illustrating the difference between being caught in the world that’s seamless and complete in and of itself. In other words, thinking without being aware of thinking and being aware.

Being aware is recognizing that there’s a process underway and that process is constructing a way to be in the world, a way to look at the world, a way to understand the world but not necessarily a correct or accurate or realistic way of being in the world. It’s that awareness that is, as I said, something we’re going to talk about quite a lot here.

It’s something that for people with OCD is incredibly hard to cultivate because we are perpetually under assault by the most fearsome terrifying destabilizing threatening sensations and feelings and ideas. These are the kinds of things that trigger your emergency protocols. They are the kinds of feelings that are the equivalent of a fire in the building and stop, drop, and roll.

You don’t think about stop, drop, and roll – you know remember when we learn about this as kids. You don’t have a debate about whether it’s time to stop, drop, and roll. We don’t debate the pros and cons. You don’t sort of compare the smoke coming down the hall this time the last time it came down the hall. You know you just stop, drop, and roll or you just jump out the window and climb down the ladder.

Whatever it is, these are the conditions either the mental conditions under which we live. As a result, it’s very, very difficult to have any perspective whatsoever on what’s happening to us.

In my experience, the only luck that I’ve had in cultivating that kind of distance, cultivating that kind of awareness about what’s going on in my mind is through deliberate contemplative practices, mindfulness practices, meditation practices, and of course through exposure therapy.

So these two pillars of my management strategy, you might say, are both in some ways built on the cultivation of an awareness of what’s happening rather than a pure reactivity to it. Sometimes, we have that awareness and sometimes we don’t or sometimes we have a little of it maybe not as much as we want. But one thing that we become able to do once we have awareness of what’s happening to us is we become able to label the kinds of mental processes that are underway.

So those of you who again have meditation experience will recognize this as a tactic or a practice that we use in the context of meditation, in the context of sitting meditation and doing basic awareness exercises, doing basic breathing. One instruction that practitioners often receive is the instruction to follow the breath. When you notice that you’ve gone off into thinking or planning or wondering about the future, you simply label that thought process often as thinking and you return to the breath.

You just keep doing that throughout the length of your meditation session. So every time you do become aware that you’ve left your breath and become preoccupied with thought, you simply label that thought. You don’t judge it and you return to the breath.

Dr Schwartz seems to make use of a really similar tactic as the first of his four steps. Schwartz has a four-step method for managing OCD and not just managing it but attempting to do something much more ambitious which is rewire some of our brain circuitry so as to break more self-destructive habits and cultivate healthier habits that are more in lined with the life we really want to live. So his method is built around teaching his patients the tools to do that. The four steps are his flagship tactics for doing so.

I’m just going to say a quick word about the first event which is relabeling. So for somebody in the midst of an intrusive thought or an OCD experience, Schwartz first recommends that when we become aware of what’s happening to us, when we become aware that we’re under assault from what most OCD-triggered professionals would call intrusive thoughts or what he often calls deceptive brain messages that is messages that aren’t based in reality but just are getting triggered by one of the brain’s overactive, self-monitoring centers.

When that happens, we simply label the thoughts as deceptive brain messages. Dr Schwartz includes some lengthy bits of encouragement from former patients of his, current patients of his who describe ways that put this tactic into play or make use of it in our own lives. It was really helpful to read about some of them who not only label their intrusive thoughts at the level of “Hey this is deceptive brain message. You don’t need to buy into it.”

They actually have more specific types of labels. So when one patient finds herself worried about what will happen down the road if such and such occurs and begins to get caught up in all kinds of disasters scenarios and wondering how to deal with them, she simply labels them “what ifs”.

You know a number of other patients have different terms for different types of specific deceptive brain messages that they undergo. I got to say I was just so grateful to encounter some other OCs, people with obsessive-compulsive disorder who have such gentle ways of treating themselves and such specific ways of recognizing the types of traps they’re getting caught in, who have done themselves the great service and given us the gift of giving those experiences a name, a name that we can use, too.

It’s that kind of shorthand that often feels really exactly that is what in need and exactly that I’m missing that I don’t have near enough to hand. I don’t have to wear with all I need to call to mind the tools that would be most useful in the moment when I’m undergoing that assault. The more of these kinds of tools and tactics that other people have learned and have developed for themselves and that we can share with one another the better.

I’ve just been reading the book for the past couple of weeks and already I’m finding that having such an incredibly effective shorthand and applying it in such a ruthless way the way that Dr Schwartz recommends – giving no quarter to the deceptive brain messages, not getting caught up in debates with them, not wondering if maybe this time, it’s slightly different than the last time and whether there’s any need. No, no. None of that.

It sort of slap the label on them right away, deceptive brain messages, a weird sort of flare setup by the brain, that circuitry and these are becoming my labels now. Having such an immediate response seems to be making a really big difference because it’s cutting by half, or in many cases much more than half, the amount of time I spend diddering around and wondering and being dumbstruck and bewildered before I actually remember one or more of the tactics that I’ve got in my tool belt.

There’s something about the sheer compression. It’s like these are OCD management tools that have been zipped up in Zip files and are just sort of right there ready to use. So I’m sure that I’ll have more to say about the remainder of the book as I work through it but I wanted to share those thoughts.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Paul January 3, 2015 at 11:18 am

Hi Matt, I’ve found your Podcasts so good. A real breath of fresh air especially for someone like me who is a terrible reader :)

Do you have an email address as i would really like to share where i am with OCD.

Matt January 3, 2015 at 10:51 pm

I’m glad, Paul!! I’m at mbieber AT gmail

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