The Butterfly Effect: Setting OCD Thoughts Free

The Butterfly Effect: Setting OCD Thoughts Free

The butterfly effect is the theory that any small event, such as the the flutter of a butterfly’s wing, affects the outcome of the universe. This scientific theory that can be applied to my mind and the way in which it thinks. Every thought is a butterfly, except instead of the tingly feeling in the tummy, it’s also dozens of moths swarming in my mind.

I have obsessive compulsive disorder, commonly known as OCD. OCD, like many other mental illnesses, is often improperly used as adjectives. OCD specifically has been stereotyped as a clean freak, germaphobe. Although OCD can manifest into this and lead to these types of behaviors, it is much more than that. It also is a very different and personal experience for each person who has OCD. It usually first starts with recurrent, unwanted and uncontrollable thoughts. These are the moths. Everybody experiences random, strange thoughts, but what makes it OCD is when they feel stuck inside the mind, like a terrible itch that won’t go away.

Anxiety is caused by these infesting thoughts, and compulsions are played out in attempt to reduce this anxiety, whether it be a repetitive physical action or ritual thoughts. The obsessions are not just limited to thoughts and can be unwanted images or impulses. Unfortunately, these compulsions do not require much relief, if any, which is why the condition can be lifelong.

The Mayo Clinic states that OCD can be caused by biology, genetics, and/or environmental factors. Imaging studies have shown differences in the frontal cortex and subcortical structures of the brain in patients with OCD, according to National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). The brain also does not respond normally to serotonin. Because of this, it is a co-occurring disorder, meaning it is often accompanied by another illness or disorder.

The World Health Organization ranked OCD as one of the top ten most disabling illnesses of any kind, “ in terms of lost earnings and diminished quality of life.”

About 1 of every 40 adults suffers from OCD. People can begin to feel initial symptoms of the disorder during their college years. “Stress doesn’t cause OCD, but college stress can trigger OCD in students who are predisposed to it.” College comes with new responsibilities, standards, culture, norms, and other academic pressures. For many, however, they may not be aware that they have this condition. Schools strive for perfection, and students can feel like a failure if they fall anything short of it. We are taught to have this mentality, but for people with OCD it becomes debilitating, we just cannot realize it through our own mind  — OCD can often go untreated or undiagnosed.

I was diagnosed when I was in seventh grade, but only because my mom is a counselor and is aware of the patterns of different mental illnesses. For a kid I was anything but carefree. While my friends would be careless, I had my every step planned out. They never had to worry about the butterflies. To them, butterflies were beautiful. We would catch them in our nets but I could not seem to let them go, no matter how hard I tried.

I would obsess over the butterflies. Just as the theory goes, my mind wonders how my one decision would change the outcome of my life. For major life decisions, this kind of planning is a bright idea. However, I analyzed my every move, thinking over and over again before I could make a decision, ultimately making it hard to function. My life was so black and white, all right or wrong, trying to eliminate any wrongs. But if there was a wrong, I would spin into a downward cycle. The more you think about a thought, the longer it lingers. It adds fuel to the fire.

Image by Milinda Courey.

One form of therapy for OCD is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Some of the strategies used are “recognizing the connection between automatic thoughts, emotions and behavior

replacing dysfunctional beliefs with more rational and adaptive ideas, and learning new tools for dealing with stressful situations,” according to Rush University Medical Center. It is a balance between psychotherapy and behavioral therapy, which helps patients reframe their thinking. The main point is to find the source of the negative thinking and reframe it into something more positive. CBT coping skills include deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, weighing the pros and cons of a specific decision, and setting goals for oneself.  

My OCD still sneaks up on me, and as I go through different life changes it manifests in new ways. Sometimes I do not even recognize it until I share my thoughts with someone whom I trust and also understands OCD. It makes me question my present reality, the hopes of my future, and my whole past becomes a guilt trip. Suddenly, I embody everything I never wanted to be, while simultaneously feeling every fear in my stomach. This will pass, I say, but I cannot believe those words. Knowing when it does, soon enough they it will come again.

But like butterflies, my thoughts can fly, in and out of my mind. Some stay longer than I want them to. Many I never invited in. Some days it gets so bad, that I float away with them, not allowing me to function and makes going through my day feel nearly impossible. Although my OCD may never fully disappear, reminding myself that I do not have to take responsibility for what I think helps me. Keeping CBT in my practice, as well as my prozac, and my close friends and family, helps me get through the days that feel unlivable. Although the butterflies will continue to fly, learning that I do not have to control them sets me free.


Header image by Alexsandr Vector