Going Upstream— Is It Worth It?
The o’opu, a freshwater fish native to Hawaii, hatches in fresh water and literally goes with the flow, swimming downstream to reproduce. Its eggs are swept into the ocean, where they develop into young fish. Like salmon, these young fish instinctively return home. They measure less than three inches in size, but their determination to reach their birthplace and start another generation is huge.
These fish don’t just swim upstream to get back home. They literally climb waterfalls by using suction disks.1 “How is this possible?” you might ask. Well, before they reenter fresh water to begin their journey home, their bodies are transformed. They develop mouth and pelvic suckers that help them climb.
It is a hard journey, but it’s critical to their survival. Their instinct is so strong it drives them to do whatever it takes to get home—even adapting and changing physically. Nature has provided them with the tools needed to achieve their goal.
We humans have also been provided with an amazing tool to help us on our journey. If those little fish can climb waterfalls, how much more can we do with our amazing minds?
The Plasticity of the Brain
Our actions, emotions, and thoughts all contribute to our brain’s ability to adapt. Whenever we learn something new, our brain changes and continues to change throughout our lives.
When you learn to play the guitar, the first time you have a lesson, thousands of neurons are firing simultaneously. Chemicals in the brain are released, and a short-term memory is created. If you practice only once a month, the neurons that fired during that initial lesson won’t have a chance to wire, and the learning that took place only stays in the short-term memory.
But if you practice every day for a long period of time, the learning is long-lasting. Whenever you practice consistently, structural and functional changes take place within the brain, and these changes make it possible to further develop a new skill. This concept of the brain changing and adapting based on your behavior is called neuroplasticity.2 It means that your brain is flexible, not fixed, in its structure. It literally changes its physical makeup based on what you’re doing.
When you repeat certain behaviors and your response is consistent, whether helpful or unhelpful, this amazing phenomenon called neuroplasticity takes place as your neurons wire together and reinforce that particular behavior.
Should you feel like you are swimming upstream, remember the o’opu fish. Scientists report that its journey is equivalent to humans climbing Mount Everest three times within a very short period.3 Can you imagine? If a small fish can have instinctive self-determination, think of what we can do with the aid of our minds.
Yes, our mind can help us accomplish great things, but it can also get us into trouble when it is overzealous about protecting us.
The good news is that because you know, and are, more than your mind, you can teach it!
A willingness to swim upstream takes time and patience to develop, and sometimes it seems like it will take forever. Living with OCD might feel like you are swimming upstream.
On those days, remember what you value most in your life. Is it worth doing your daily practices (ACT unhooking and willingness skills) so you can keep doing what you want your life to be about? When hard days are present, live your values (e.g., learning, loving, exploring, being dependable, etc.). Don’t give up and give yourself a chance to learn how to see your emotions (anxiety, doubt, guilt) with a different mindset.
You can live the life you’ve always wanted to live. You are on a journey, and you don’t have to waste a moment fighting OCD, anxiety and doubt.
Research indicates that the best way to change our brains is to change our behavior.4 In order to change what we do, we have to pay attention to what we’re doing.
- Keep a log of what happens before, during, and after an OCD-triggering situation, as well as your response to it.
- When you experience an OCD-triggering situation:
- First, simply become aware of what’s going on in your mind. Pay attention to any thoughts, feelings, sensations, and urges you are experiencing.
- Are you becoming entangled with your thoughts, feelings, sensations, or urges? Will your response be helpful or unhelpful in the long run?
- Next, write down these thoughts, feelings, sensations, and urges.
- Finally, consider: What is reinforcing your OCD mind?
There is no question: life is rough, and when you experience guilt, doubt, anxiety and other emotions related to the OCD, it can make the journey extra challenging. You can learn how to swim smoothly upstream even in treacherous waters!
Keep going. You can do this!
- U.S. National Parks of the Pacific Islands, Hawaiian Stream Fish Climb Water- falls, July 20, 2016, video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6qSda1nRZSk; see also Waterfall-Climbing Fish Performs Evolutionary Feat, Science 360, video, accessed Septem- ber 10, 2019, https://science360.gov/obj/video/12ad0dd3-195e-4ebf-a347-487c1d259179/ waterfall-climbing-fish-performs-evolutionary-feat.
- Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, New York: Penguin Books, 2007.
- U.S. National Parks of the Pacific Islands, Hawaiian Stream Fish Climb Waterfalls.
- Lara Boyd, “After Watching This, Your Brain Will Not Be the Same,” November 2015, video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LNHBMFCzznE.