Neurophysiology 101

The cingulate is an arc-shaped structure that sits right on top of the corpus callosum (the part of your brain that allows one side to talk to the other).  It is considered part of the limbic system (the seat of emotions in your brain), and it is associated with “cognitive flexibility” – that is to say, the ability to adapt to unexpected change, let go of an idea and move on to another one, or compromise with others.  The cingulate is also associated with feelings of safety and security.

Cingulate Overactivity:

Problems in the cingulate gyrus often lead to:

  • Inability to let go of a thought.  This is especially dangerous when the thought is one of worry or negative predictions of the future – the more you dwell on a thought, the more power it gains over you, and the more anxiety it produces.
  • Rigid and inflexible behavior.  This refers to the tendency to do things the way you’ve always done them in the past, and to dislike change more than the average person.
  • Fear of change, and strong preference for familiarity.
  • Difficulty thinking “outside the box” and coming up with novel solutions to problems.
  • Tendency toward OCD spectrum disorders, due to fixation upon a particular thought.  Often the anxiety produced by obsessive thinking drives the compulsion.
  • Poor “delay of gratification” – when an idea occurs to them, they must take action on it right this second.

Treatment Approaches:

Take your thoughts captive.  People with overactivity in the cingulate gyrus tend towards anxiety, and so many of the self-help techniques that work for minimizing anxiety are also appropriate for them as well. Here are some suggestions, although I would say on this list, the first (taking your thoughts captive) is the most important.  Like any habit, obsessive compulsive tendencies get stronger every time you give in to them, and they weaken every time you deny them power over you.

Purposely distract yourself.  If you are stuck on a thought (for instance, “I will never be able to fix this problem!”), stop and go chat with a friend.  Hum a song.  Go for a jog.  Meditate.  Watch a movie.  Anything to disrupt the cycle and get yourself “un-stuck.”  (I’d especially recommend this technique if the thought you’re stuck on involves anger towards another person.  It’s always advisable to distract yourself and wait to deal with that person until you are calm!  You’ll be very glad you did.  Proverbs 15:1 says, “A harsh word stirs up anger, but a gentle answer turns away wrath.”)

What if the person who is “stuck” is your partner, family member or spouse?  If someone you love tends to get locked on an idea, recognize that you are not likely to change their minds or perspective by direct confrontation (even if you think yours is the better or more logical argument).  The harder you try, the more they will resist you!  Instead, try doing something else to help get you both off the merry-go-round.  Your partner, spouse, or loved ons is far more likely to consider your position when he or she no longer feels pressured to do so.

Additionally, when bringing up a new idea for her to consider, try to phrase the idea as a suggestion rather than a command or statement, and ask for her input.  If she thinks the idea is hers, she’s a lot more likely to go along with it.

Supplementation and Treatment

Diet.  Often these cases go beyond the brain to the gut (since some 80% of the serotonin in your body is actually produced in your gut).  Some of these patients have either a very poor diet, an overgrowth of the wrong kind of gut flora, or both.  So the first step will be cleaning up the diet, and giving gut-healing nutrients if necessary.

Exercise is also an excellent and very effective method for indirectly increasing serotonin and thus decreasing cingulate overactivity.  And everyone should be doing it anyway!

Serotonin support often helps people get un-stuck.  As mentioned in last week’s article on depression, L-tryptophan is usually my go-to for stabilizing serotonin before moving on to 5-HTP (which is a committed pathway to serotonin) or St John’s Wort, which does carry some side effects.

Another great over the counter supplement for OCD tendencies is Inositol, a cofactor in the B vitamin family.  Dose for inositol should be around 2-4 grams, dosed one to three times daily as needed.

For more information, I highly recommend Dr. Daniel Amen’s excellent book, “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life!”

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