Wholeness Healing Today

Worry and Obsessiveness

Worry and obsessiveness are certainly not fun to live with, yet many people have these symptoms. If this is something that plagues you, you might be interested to know more about the causes and how you might be able to stop these symptoms from ruling your life. It all goes back to the brain. These two traits originate in the cingulate system in the brain. The cingulate system runs longitudinally through the central aspects of the front lobes.

The function of the cingulate system is to allow you to shift thoughts. It gives you cognitive flexibility, the ability to cooperate, the ability to go from idea to idea, and to see options. It also helps you with error detection. Feelings of safety and security come from this part of the brain. In the back area of the cingulate is memory.

Cognitive flexibility is a person’s ability to go with the flow, adapt to changes, shift from one project to another, one thought to another, and have flexibility with people. Really it is about how well you do at managing change and transitioning to something new. When the cingulate system is working, we are able to do this. We can go with the flow and navigate through our day nicely because we can make adjustments as needed.

The cingulate also influences how cooperative we are. When this part of the brain is working effectively, we can easily shift into the cooperative modes of behaviors. This is also an area of the brain that is helpful in planning and goal setting. When it works effectively, we find it easier to plan and set reasonable goals. If it isn’t working optimally, it may cause us to look at situations in a fearful way and feel very unsafe in the world. It could impede our ability to step out and take risks in our life.

Problems can develop with this brain system when you experience emotional trauma. Trauma can decrease the levels of serotonin in this system. The brain may kick into overdrive, having to work hard to keep going and then getting stuck in overdrive. When this happens people can become “stuck” on thoughts, locked into things (rigid) and rethink the same thoughts over and over again (worry and obsess). These people tend to hold on to hurts and grudges from the past, unable to let them go. They can get stuck on negative behaviors and develop compulsions.

Problems with the cingulate system can bring about these behaviors and/or symptoms:

  • Worrying
  • Holding on to hurts from the past
  • Getting stuck on thoughts (obsessions)
  • Getting stuck on behaviors (compulsions)
  • Oppositional behavior
  • Argumentativeness
  • Uncooperativeness, tendency to say no automatically
  • Addictive behaviors (alcohol or drug abuse, eating disorders)
  • Chronic pain
  • Cognitive inflexibility
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • OCD spectrum disorders (excessive preoccupation with body appearance or sensation; neurologic disorders that present with repetitive behaviors such as Tourette syndrome, autism repetitive behaviors driven by pleasure or arousal such as sexual compulsions; trichotillomania and pathological gambling)
  • Eating disorders
  • Road rage

Treatment and healing of the cingulate system is possible. If you or your children experience some of these behaviors, it is important to stop the pattern of these behaviors. Allowing the behaviors to continue strengthens the behaviors. So if your children are oppositional, you must shape the behavior that is acceptable. This is critical. This is one reason why you want to enforce rules in your home with your children, giving them consequences immediately with no warnings. The same would be true with someone with obsessive compulsive disorder. Every time you give in to the behaviors, this pattern gets strengthened in the brain and becomes more prominent.

Another treatment would include exercise. We have established that exercise is good for the brain. In this case, it works to increase the serotonin, makes the mood better, and helps the cingulate system work more efficiently. Exercise also helps to increase energy levels and distract you from the bad thoughts that the cingulated system can loop into. So try to incorporate regular intense aerobic exercise. This is also why, if your children are being oppositional, incorporating an active consequences such as 10 jumping jacks, 10 push-ups, or a lap around the house will increase their serotonin levels and increase their “cooperation”. It is all about the brain!

If you struggle with worry and obsessiveness, your brain may need a diet with more complex carbohydrates and lower protein. This includes foods such as pastas, potatoes, bread, pretzels, and popcorn. Other foods include chicken, turkey, salmon, beef, peanut butter, eggs, and milk. All of these foods increase the L-tryptophan levels which are a natural amino acid building block for serotonin. The calming effect from these foods is often felt within thirty minutes of eating them. So this means that a high protein, low-carbohydrate diet will actually make these issues worse. So pay attention to how you feel after you eat these foods. Do you feel better or worse? The high protein diet is helpful for people with an underactive prefrontal cortex, but not an over active cingulate brain.
Helpful supplements would include 5-HTP or St. John’s Wort. Fish oil is recommended for treatment of all parts of the brain. L-tryptophan is helpful for improving sleep, decreasing aggressiveness and improving mood control. Medications would include antidepressants from the SSRI’s such as Paxil, Zoloft, Celexa, Prozac, Luvox and Effexor XR.

Other suggested treatments would include biofeedback or neurobiofeedback to calm the anterior cingulate. We offer neurobiofeedback at Wholeness Healing Center. This treatment can be quite effective in changing the brain pattern and incorporating new, more effective patterns. Psychotherapy treatment is also useful to work on cognitive/behavioral strategies, relationship counseling, and anger management.

I hope this has peaked your interest and made you more aware of your own patterns and behaviors. If you struggle with worry and obsession, you can change it. It can be quite empowering to know that so many options are available to take charge of making your life better.

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  • Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
    Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner

  • Janie Pfeifer Watson, LICSW, is the founder and director of Wholeness Healing Center, a mental health practice in Grand Island, Nebraska with remote sites in Broken Bow and Kearney. Her expertise encompasses a broad range of areas, including depression, anxiety, attachment and bonding, coaching, couples work, mindfulness, trauma, and grief. She views therapy as an opportunity to learn more about yourself as you step more into being your authentic self. From her perspective this is part of the spiritual journey; on this journey, she serves as a mirror for her clients as they get to know themselves—and, ultimately, to love themselves.


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