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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
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The Brain Lock of Obsessional Thinking

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 22nd 2011

The Brain Lock of Obsessional ThinkingHere is an E. Mail question recently posted under "Reader Questions:"

"I broke up with my ex already two years ago. He...found another woman just one week after we broke up...This woman has been posting their love photos on the Facebook since my break up with him. He was so in love with me, is what I thought, and just two weeks later he was so in love with another her!!

I keep going to Facebook and checking, looking at their photos everyday. I know it's very unhealthy, but, I can't help myself. Every time I do this I feel great pain. As a result, I can't completely throw him out of my brings me back to all the memories. What should I do? This woman is now his fiancee. She posts things such as, "Oh, he just bought me flowers," "Oh, we are going on a cruise around the world," "Oh, we're engaged, and, "Oh, we bought the new house we will live in,"...etc. 

Obviously I can’t block myself from the Facebook, and I try not to go to Facebook, but, when I have nothing to do, I go on Facebook again. It makes me feel sick.

What should I do? I am in a great relationship now and love my boyfriend to death. I don’t understand why I keep doing this?"

This problem is both common and very painful. In situations like this, people get caught up in obsessing, especially those who have a predisposition to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. It is tempting to give this woman an easy answer: "Well, just stop going to Facebook." However, when we deal with obsessional thinking it is not so easy because she is unable to stop and she is well aware of it.

The answer to her question, "why do I keep doing this(obsessing)," is two-fold: 

One way is to examine the psychodynamic behind her repetitive thoughts and behaviors. From that point of view, she is defending against a huge amount of anxiety as a result of loss and humiliation. She also experiences great anger at her ex boyfriend but feels helpless to do anything about it. This causes her to feel depressed as well as anxious. Humiliation is one of the worst feelings anyone has to cope with. The obsessional thinking then serves as a defense mechanism in an attempt to protect her ego. The trouble is that it does not work.

So, from a psychodynamic perspective, the repeated thoughts and behaviors, while self destructive and unsuccessful, are attempts to gain control over the situation, her anxiety and her awful feelings of humiliation. She is caught in vicious cycle from which she cannot extricate her self.

A second way is to take a look at things from a neurological point of view. OCD is now known to be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. That is what makes it so hard to break the cycle. Its an imbalance a similar imbalance that's behind depression and chronic anxiety.

Most likely, OCD is caused by what we refer to as Bio-Psycho-Social factors. That means that brain chemistry, psychological defense patters or automatic ways of thinking and the social environment in which we live all combine to bring this and other mental health issues.


Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz, MD, wrote a self help book about obsessive-compulsive behavior called, Brain Lock. In the book, he explains its causes and provides cognitive behavioral exercises to break out of the "brain lock" that keeps us stuck in OCD. His point is that, by using cognitive behavioral techniques, a person is actually changing his or her brain chemistry.

What are your experiences with this type of thing? Your comments and questions are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD


Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

The Feeling Solution - Harriet Geller - Apr 22nd 2011

I am writing a blog on this site about deep-feeling therapies, so you can guess what my response to this might be. I would encourage this woman to take the very difficult path into her feelings of pain and humiliation. From my point of view, the woman is already "stuck in her head," as we say. Giving her an alternative brain exercise, methadone for her heroin addiction, so to speak, will not help her to deal with these feelings when they are triggered again, and they will be. Only learning to feel them and accept them as a natural, and manageable, part of her life will heal her for the future.

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