OCD, Our Brains, and Us

by smokedsalmon freedigitalphotos.net

by smokedsalmon freedigitalphotos.net

Why is it that the idea of “mental illness” is so much scarier to many people than any other illness? We talk freely about cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, yet whisper about Bipolar Disorder, schizophrenia, and OCD. Of course the media portrayal of these illnesses doesn’t help, but surely there must be more to it than that.

While the “physical illnesses” mentioned above are seen as diseases that happen to us, the “mental illnesses” are perceived as us. We get cancer, but we are obsessive-compulsive. Cancer is separate from us. OCD is us. Indeed, many people incorrectly believe that those with “mental illnesses” typically have no insight or understanding as to what is happening to them.

Why do we think this way? I believe it’s because “mental illnesses” are illnesses of the brain. And we are our brains, right?

Well, no. We are not our brains. Our brains, like our livers, kidneys, and hearts, are organs in our body. And just like any other organ, they can sometimes function improperly, or become diseased. Indeed, because the brain is the most complex organ in the human body, there are many different things that can go wrong with it.

In this interesting article on mindfulness and neuroplasticity, there is much discussion on how the brain can be retrained and rewired. Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, a world-renowned expert in neuroplasticity and the author of Brain Lock, talks about studies he conducted on mindfulness in the mid 1980’s:

“It seemed worth investigating whether learning to observe your sensations and thoughts with the calm clarity of an external witness could strengthen the capacity to resist the insistent thoughts of OCD.”

The ultimate conclusion from his well-conducted studies? “The mind can change the brain.”

To me, this is clear evidence that our brains are not who we are. They are an organ in our bodies that to some extent at least, can be trained. If you are as annoyed as I am with all the quotation marks I use in this post surrounding “physical illness” and “mental illness,” now is as good a time as any to say I do not plan on distinguishing illnesses in this way any more. Because OCD and other so-called “mental illnesses” are illnesses of the brain, which is an organ in our body, I believe they are as much physical illnesses as are diseases of any other organ.

But if we are not our brains, then who are we? A great question with, I’m guessing, many answers. We are our hearts, our minds, our spirits, our souls. But never are we our illnesses, no matter which organ they happen to arise from.







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9 Responses to OCD, Our Brains, and Us

  1. Karen says:

    This is an excellent point. I have been mulling over in my mind a potential post about this on my blog too. I really like the term “brain based disorder”. After all in things such as cancer, heart disease, or asthma or diabetes—-certain parts of the body are diseased. They don’t function properly and chemicals are off. It should be no different for a brain disorder. The brain is not functioning properly, and chemicals in the brain are off. Also, both physical and brain disorders affect you physically, emotionally, and mentally. People are so much more apt to empathize with a physical disorder. And you are right, I think many see those with different mental diagnoses as “who they are”. We are more than our brain based disorders, and I think all forms of illness should not go under under “mental” or “physical” illnesses (sorry for my quotations too). They are all medical illnesses really, no matter what part of the body they affect. Thanks for this post!

    • You’re welcome, Karen, and thanks for sharing your thoughts as well. I also prefer the term brain disorder and will use it even more frequently now. Wishing you and your loved ones all the best for 2015.

  2. To believe that our brains cannot change would be to ignore the mass amounts of data on neuroplasticity! There are people who have suffered severe brain damage, even lost parts of their brain and the brain has rerouted circuits, changed where things happens and has brought itself back to it’s normal functioning (or at least functional)! This is why when people get stuck, feel recovery isn’t possible etc. I can’t jump on that horrible band wagon. My brain has already changed and it will continue to do so if I put in the effort.

  3. Reblogged this on Jackie Lea Sommers and commented:

  4. Great post, Janet! It is so easy to think of our brains as who we are. Mindfulness has helped me to see myself differently. We’re very complex creatures, much more than one organ of our body!

    Happy New Year’

  5. Exactly. This is what I try to tell people all the time.. For instance, me being a student that has to do a lot of hard work and focusing, I was always afraid that my sensorimotor ocd symptoms as well as my other mental obssessions (sexual, death…) would affect my daily life… But what I have realised the past few months is that it doesn’t matter what my brain is throwing at me while I’m studying, I can still manage to do complex tasks despite the symptoms… the sensorimotor thoughts (about blinking and breathing) or any other mental thoughts can come and go, it wouldn’t affect my mind because it functions independently from my brain.. therefore my brain can think whatever it wants, it doesn’t matter really. I wouldn’t affect my “happiness” or the fulfilling life I wanna have

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