“I feel like I’m stuck in my head!”
“My brain is on fire!”
“I can’t stop thinking so much.”
“I feel like a rat on a wheel.”
These are some of the sentiments that land in my inbox all the time. People suffering from the feverish, “stuck in my head” feeling are desperate to get unstuck. The urge to stop these terrifying, repetitive thoughts are the bane of OCD life.
If you’ve been a part of our recovery community here at scrupulosity.com, you may know that my doctoral studies focus on the intersect between religion and culture. I’m trained to perform sociological studies (both quantitative and qualitative) in areas pertaining to spirituality and the cultural world we live in. Naturally, then, I can’t help but approach scrupulosity with this research lens. I want to know, does our modern, western culture have anything to do with the OCD reality of being constantly “stuck in my head?”
My conclusion: yes and no.
Read on for a full explanation and to find some unexpected strategies that might help you reduce your spiritual obsessions and compulsions.
Why Being Stuck in My Head is NOT a Modern Phenomenon
OCD has existed for hundreds of years, probably thousands.
We can read the autobiographies and diaries of historical figures that claimed to have unstoppable blasphemous thoughts, repetitive worries that wouldn’t go away, and bizarre fixations on certain rituals. Using the standard diagnostic criteria that are used to identify OCD in you and me, psychologists can read these documents and posthumously “diagnose” historical figures with OCD.
It’s quite clear that OCD is not a “new” disease. However, it’s not easy to determine whether OCD is increasing, holding steady, or decreasing in frequency. This is because our definition of OCD and our testing methods have changed over time. Plus, nobody has kept a statistical record over the last few hundred years, so we can’t compare rates of OCD in the 2021 general population with rates of OCD in the 1621 general population.
So no–being “stuck in my head” is not a modern phenomenon. We have qualitative evidence to prove this (journals and autobiographies that act as a sort of “interview” of people in the past), but we don’t have quantitative evidence (hard numbers or statistics). Any attempt to say that OCD is increasing or decreasing on a global scale would be mere conjecture, and I won’t be the one to do that guesswork.
However, it is possible to analyze factors that can intensify our own personal struggle with OCD (you may have seen my article about how stress intensifies OCD symptoms, for example). It is to this question that we now turn.
Are There Factors in Modern Society That Intensify Religious OCD?
I do believe that there are factors that intensify religious OCD. As I’ve discussed in my live group coaching sessions and elsewhere on the blog, there are probably a number of considerations that can make your scrupulosity worse:
- An intense, judgmental faith community
- Chronic stress or sudden major stressors
- Toxic misunderstandings of God’s character
- Certain personality factors
None of these aspects relate to modern culture, per se. But there’s one cultural element I’ll add to the list that I think has the potential to intensify OCD: the media-saturated lifestyle of the information age.
Instant Access to Information and Getting Stuck in My Head
OCD feeds us the lie that “uncertainty is intolerable.” This is one of the key concepts I teach in the Scrupulosity Academy. We are frightened, and so we buy into the lie. This leads us to compulsive behaviors and rumination in order to solve the feelings of uncertainty.
For example, Jennie feels a terrifying sense of uncertainty about whether she’s saved, or whether she intended to have that ugly intrusive thought. At the core of all her frantic rumination is fear of the unknown and an inability to be “ok” with not knowing the answer immediately.
Is it possible that the instantly-available answers of the information age have trained our brains to want to know NOW?
Is it possible that the ever-present apps and google searches have trained our brains to expect immediate satisfaction for every question that comes to mind?
I’m sure you can imagine or remember the “old days” when people needed to send a letter and wait for a response, or at the very least make a phone call and leave a message on those antique devices called “answering machines.” It is only in recent years that we have edged into a frantically immediate society.
Do we even know what “delayed gratification” means anymore? When Amazon can get a package to your doorstep in six hours and you can live chat with almost any service provider, could it be that our minds are forgetting how to wait? Maybe I get stuck in my head because my society has taught me that I deserve answers, and I deserve them now.
How Delayed Gratification Heals OCD
If OCD sends us the lie that “uncertainty is intolerable,” we respond by saying, “no, uncertainty is a normal and healthy part of life–even the believer’s life.” We retrain our brains to be ok sitting in the gray area of life’s uncertainties.
No more compulsive prayer to try to manipulate reality in your favor, as if you could prevent your mother’s immanent death by anxiety-filled, obsessive rituals. No more hours of rumination on speculative doctrinal topics that you can’t let go. No more frantically trying to figure out if your intrusive thought came from you, the OCD, or the devil. We’ve got to fall into the arms of an all-knowing, all-powerful God and trust Him with our unknowns.
It’s quite like ERP, in case you were hoping for OCD-lingo. We aren’t hiding from the reality of uncertainties in life. It’s just that when we see them, we hold ourselves back from trying to gain the information that would lead us to a comforting sense of certainty (it’s a mirage, anyways–the questions the OCD brain asks usually have no 100% certain answer).
This idea of trusting our unknowns in God’s hands is a form of delayed gratification.
The immediate urge is to fix, tinker, obsess, and ritualize. We want to act NOW to make our anxious emotions feel better.
The delayed gratification is that when we hold ourselves back from obsessive-compulsive action, the bad feeling will eventually go away–and it will go away at a deeper level, unlike the surface fix we get from our compulsions.
How Media Destroys My Ability to Delay Gratification–And Keeps Me Stuck in My Head
If the skill of delayed gratification helps us heal from OCD, then we need to make sure we can do it!
My big complaint against our media-saturated society is that information is so immediate. Our brains never exercise the skill of waiting for answers.
I can remember the days before smart phones, personal computers, and internet. Remember being “bored” on a summer afternoon? If we wanted access to “information”–say, a new book or CD–we had to drive to the public library, find it on the shelf, check it out, and take it home.
Remember planning birthday parties as a kid? We’d send out the invitations and then wait to receive everyone’s RSVP. It took an entire week, sometimes more.
And woe unto the high school student who needed to write a history essay. That warranted another trip to the library to look through the encyclopedia (and yes, we had to write down our notes on little 3×5 cards). Then we’d go to the computer lab (because not everyone had their own computer), boot up a huge, clunky PC, wait for it to start up, and then type our essay.
When we wanted to go out to eat, we’d open the phone book and look for anything that sounded remotely like a Chinese restaurant. It was just black text on a yellow page–no flashing video ad or online menu. We would have no clue what menu options were available until we drove there and walked in the door.
Movies weren’t on-demand, either–unless a VHS tape counts. We’d have to wait until 8pm to watch our favorite show. No one could snap open a smart phone and watch YouTube videos or instant content. Back then, our attention span was longer than the 8 seconds it takes to watch a TikTok video.
In those days, the stream of information was slower and more limited.
If we wanted to know something (and if it was something that Dad didn’t know), we would have to wait.
We would wait until the next day in school, or wait until a letter came in the mail, or wait until the next trip to the public library.
Our brains learned how to wait for answers.
I fear that as society becomes more and more inundated with information immediacy, we are losing that skill. And I fear that losing this skill could make ERP more difficult to perform.
How to Get Out of My Head: Learning Delayed Gratification with Information Limitation
I don’t think media, technology, or devices are evil.
I certainly won’t be the one to tell you to chuck your TV to the curb. Everyone is different, and everyone has the right to make decisions that will be for their mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being.
But think of this: what if we could turn back the hands of time–just a tiny bit–and regain some of the patient endurance we used to have? Would it help us activate segments of our brain that could respond to our obsessions with patience–at least enough patience to withhold our response until the obsession passes?
(And believe me, it does. This is the one of the main concepts behind the non-response interventions: if we refuse to act on our obsessions long enough, they will decrease in urgency and eventually leave us alone.)
I’d like to suggest we try a little bit of digital minimalism.
No, I don’t have any statistical research that links information overload and information immediacy with OCD. But what I can tell you is that I’ve been a practicing digital minimalist for a number of years, and have experienced the following benefits:
- Deeper relationships with those closest to me, and a decreased feeling of responsibility for superficial relationships
- Less FOMO and social media envy
- Decreased anxiety and restlessness
- Deeper spiritual connection with God
- Increased ability to be “present” in the moment
Let me share a tad bit about my journey with digital minimalism. If you think it might be a good fit for you, try it out and see if it helps build useful brain structures that assist your OCD recovery!
Getting Out of My Own Head: My Journey with Digital Minimalism
Before I tell you my experience with technology, media, and devices, please keep in mind that this is by no means prescriptive for everyone. I’m not talking about “sinful” versus “non-sinful,” I’m just talking about a path I started and ended up really liking. If you don’t feel like you would like it and benefit from it, feel free to move on from this blog post. But I just have to share because I feel like this has greatly improved my quality of life and has supported my recovery process over the years!
It started with television.
I was tired of sifting through trash on TV. Certainly, there’s nothing morally wrong with television per se, a device that emits motion pictures and sound into your living room. TV can send an evangelist into your living room or a raunchy sex scene. It’s just a device, and can be used for good or bad purposes.
But I was tired of the sifting.
At that point in my Christian walk, I wanted to feed myself with wholesome entertainment. I was a babe in the faith and I didn’t want to get derailed. Ideally, I wanted to avoid movies that contained profanity, sex scenes, witchcraft, and the glorification of crime. It shouldn’t be that hard, right? But it was.
While there are some people who see nothing wrong with fictional storylines involving drugs, sex, and murder, I wasn’t comfortable with that. I filtered, filtered, and filtered some more. And finally, I just gave up filtering (note: this was in 2008 and 2009, before the widespread use of things like profanity filters and movies on-demand).
So, when I left home to go to college, I didn’t buy a TV. I didn’t really miss it, and I’ve not purchased one since (you can do the math to see how many years I’ve lived TV-free–though I do stream a couple hours of good-quality programming to my computer each week).
About a year and a half ago, I also left social media. I still have active accounts (mostly as “address books”) but I don’t mindlessly scroll the feeds and envy everyone who seems to be having a better life than me. This contributed in a major way to helping me live in the present.
Six months after leaving social media, I felt so great about it that I wondered if more digital minimalism might be better. Could I ditch my iPhone, too?
I started leaving my phone in the bedroom unless I actually needed it to make a call. I left it on airplane mode for six or eight hour blocks of time. I wanted to treat my phone like the mailbox–a box of information that was waiting at the end of the driveway for me to open when I chose. I didn’t want my phone to be like an annoying political canvasser constantly ringing my doorbell with notifications.
Currently, I’m trying to ditch the smart phone for good, by planning to set up a landline in our new house and nab this amazing Light Phone for digital minimalists. And I’m expanding my home library (by library, I mean real books made out of paper) so that I won’t need to run to the internet for every little question.
I have an iMac that I use for my work, and I think that’s a totally valid use of technology. But what I’m finding is that the more unnecessary noise I cut out of my life–particularly the kind that keeps my fingers hovering over instant information–the happier and calmer I am.
How Can Digital Minimalism Help Me Perform ERP Better?
I don’t want to be stuck in my head, feeling the need to answer every obsession with the immediacy the information age has taught me to expect. I want to let my questions linger and fester in the gray area of unknowns until they either disappear or I regain feelings of safety and calmness.
When I was a child, questions like “why does the lizard’s tail keep moving when it gets cut off” could always wait until Dad got home from work.
I didn’t demand an immediate answer. I waited, and sometimes I forgot my questions entirely.
Nowadays, though, if I have a question, I instantly reach for the nearest device with a wifi connection. “When will Brood X leave Maryland? What will the weather be like tomorrow? When is my Amazon package arriving?”
I’ve trained my brain to expect being mentally satiated in no more than 30 seconds.
Digital minimalism is a lifestyle of varying degrees based on the idea of “information limitation” and slow living. People become digital minimalists for many reasons–moral concerns with media content, health concerns with EMF’s and the effects of blue light, disillusionment with the fast-paced onslaught of information, environmental concerns with devices that are produced with unsustainably mined materials, or ethical concerns with devices built in substandard employment conditions. There are even some people who become digital minimalists for privacy reasons.
I don’t think you need to worry about all these “causes.” People with scrupulosity tend to be easily guilt-tripped by all the millions of “causes” out there. (Let me not get stuck in my head again trying to figure out all those possible “whys!”)
What I would merely suggest is that reducing information immediacy can help up build up the ability to delay mental gratification. And this can help us to perform the difficult exposure and response prevention activities that our therapists ask us to do.
How Can I Get a Taste of Digital Minimalism?
There are a number of programs and books that are supposed to help you do a “digital detox.” I’ve not attended any of these programs, but I’ve heard good things about them. You may wish to try a two-week digital detox.
And then, start out easy. Plan one day per week when you’d like to be unplugged. If you have questions come to mind during that time that require an internet connection to solve, just write it down. Hold that thought. The ability to hold a question and not answer it for a day is the skill we are trying to develop. Press into the unknown of that moment and know that it will not hurt you.
Let me reiterate that the concept of device and information reduction is not a sin versus non-sin topic. This is merely about building brain skills that will help us heal from OCD. It’s an exercise in EQ, if you will. Nothing more.
But I think it can be an incredibly helpful exercise. Based on my very joyful experience with digital minimalism (indeed, I feel happier with every additional cut that I make) I want to share my positive results with you, in the event that you find it likewise helpful. Some of you will jive with the philosophy of digital minimalism, and some of you will not. That is fine.
The key takeaway here is to develop a mindset that embraces delayed gratification. However you go about doing that will probably be very personal to you. But this mindset is going to be a solid nail in the wall for building the new, post-OCD brain.
I hope this post was helpful for you in some way. So, if you’ll excuse me, now that I’m no longer stuck in my head, I need to go shopping for my new landline phone…
Best wishes on the journey,