A neuroplasticity researcher spent six years working with a psychiatrist to refine a program that explains how the brain works and why we often feel besieged by negative and deceptive brain messages. They have chronicled their findings in a new book. Here is an excerpt from "You Are Not Your Brain: The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your Life" by Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Dr. Rebecca Gladding.
There are only a few true necessities in life, but for many of us, it doesn’t feel that way. A lifetime of habits, ingrained by repetition, can seemingly make us slaves to a not always beneficial master — our own brain. Nothing is more confusing or painful than when your brain takes over your thoughts, attacks your self-worth, questions your abilities, overpowers you with cravings, or attempts to dictate your actions. Have you ever felt that something is compelling you to “go” places, mentally or emotionally, where you don’t want to be? Do you find yourself acting in uncharacteristic ways or doing things you don’t really want to be doing?
The reason is simple: Deceptive brain messages have intruded into your psyche and taken over your life. Left to its own devices, your brain can cause you to believe things that are not true and to act in any number of self-destructive ways, such as:
- Overthinking problems and fretting over things that are out of your control
- Getting stuck or panicked by unfounded fear and worries
- Blaming and chastising yourself for things that are not your fault
- Engaging in unhealthy behaviors to escape life’s daily stresses
- Reverting to past patterns when you are trying to make a change
The more often you act in these unhealthy ways, the more you teach your brain that what is simply a habit (a learned behavior) is essential to your survival. Your brain does not distinguish whether the action is beneficial or destructive; it just responds to how you behave and then generates strong impulses, thoughts, desires, cravings, and urges that compel you to perpetuate your habit, whatever it may be. Unfortunately, more often than not, these behaviors are not ones that improve your life.
Clearly, the brain can exert a powerful grip on one’s life — but only if you let it. The good news is that you can overcome the brain’s control and rewire your brain to work for you by learning to debunk the myths it has been so successfully selling you and by choosing to act in healthy, adaptive ways. That’s the mission of this book and the cornerstone of our approach: to share our innovative, empowering method of learning how to identify and demystify deceptive brain messages, so that you develop healthy, adaptive brain circuits that enable you to live a fulfilling life free from these unwanted, unhelpful, and false intruders.
It will be your life, the life you have chosen, with the brain you have sculpted — not the old path of troubling actions and behaviors imposed upon you by deceptive brain messages.
How can you achieve this? With our Four Step method, which teaches simple skills you can use and practice every day and apply to any unsatisfactory part of your life. The result will be a lasting change in perspective, courtesy of a source that has been seriously stifled by the deceptive brain messages: your intelligent, caring inner guide. This friend will help you counteract deceptive brain messages and act in concert with your own goals, values, and interests. You will finally see who you really are — not who your brain has been telling you that you are — and put your true self in the driver’s seat for the rest of your life.
Sound difficult to accomplish? You won’t think so after you read the stories of others who have successfully employed our Four Step method to turn their lives around. You Are Not Your Brain touches on intimate personal journeys of several people whose lives were once plagued by deceptive brain messages and who managed to break the cycle — like Sarah, who struggled with depression and self-doubt; Ed, who was paralyzed by fears of rejection; Steve, who used alcohol to relieve stress; Liz, who worried about her future; Kara, who felt she was unlovable unless she was physically perfect; John, who repetitively checked e-mail as a way to assuage his fear that his girlfriend was leaving him; or Abby, who constantly worried that something bad would happen to someone she loved.
While your situation may not be as dramatic or intense, some form of deceptive brain messages impacts almost everyone at some point in life. Even if our lives usually run smoothly, when we are stressed or feeling down these false thoughts and unhealthy actions find a way to sneak in and cause havoc. They can shake our confidence, make us find ways to escape reality, use drugs or alcohol, overeat, spend money we don’t have, avoid people we care about, become angry, develop excessive expectations of ourselves, not say what we really think or feel, limit our range of experiences, worry excessively ... you name it. Even in the most benign situations, giving in to deceptive brain messages causes us to lose time that would have been better spent elsewhere. At its worst, we end up acting impulsively — in ways that are not representative of who we really are — and falling into grief and regret.
Most encouragingly, however, this powerful approach will help you identify and deal with the majority of your problems, not just one symptom, because we focus on the underlying, unifying cause of your distress: deceptive brain messages. In short, You Are Not Your Brain will empower you to approach life’s ups and downs in a skillful way, using just four easily learned steps. You will find that repeated practice with the Four Steps will transform your life — and your brain — giving you the power to become the person you want to be.
How this book is unique
A critical component to getting better — in the long term — is to understand that these highly deceptive intruders are coming from the brain (not you!) and that these false messages are not indicative of who you are or of the life you could lead. Other popular therapies have failed to focus on this crucial distinction between who you are and the symptoms you are experiencing. Although some methods may teach how to change the meaning of your thoughts (as in cognitive-behavioral therapy) or how to become aware of your thoughts (mindfulness), they do not emphatically tell you that these brain-based messages are not representative of who you really are and that you do not have to act on them.
In contrast, this book combines the best of cognitive-behavioral therapy and mindfulness while simultaneously helping you bolster your belief that you deserve to be free of these unwanted intruders. In so doing, you learn that to truly change your life and your brain, you must reevaluate the deceptive brain messages and engage your mind to focus your attention on new, healthy actions and behaviors.
So, not only do we teach you how to notice your deceptive brain messages and how to change your relationship to the deceptive brain messages, we also empower you by showing you that you have within yourself an intelligent, loving guide (your Wise Advocate) that knows that your brain has been the problem, not you or your mind.
The Four Steps change your brain wiring in healthy, adaptive ways
The goal of the Four Steps is to teach you how to sharply focus your attention so that you rewire your brain in healthy, positive ways. How do we know this happens? We’ve already done the research at UCLA and proven it in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Drawing on our strong belief that the mind can change the brain, we asked people with OCD to participate in a research study where they either took medication or learned our Four Step approach to dealing with the intrusive, negative messages they were bombarded with on a daily basis. Our team scanned people’s brains before treatment and 10 to 12 weeks after they had been following our method or taking medications.
Much to our delight, we found that the people who used our Four Step method had the same positive changes in their brains as the people who took medications to treat their OCD. These incredible brain changes occurred because of our mind’s ability to change our brains (i.e., how we focus our attention).
Encouragingly, recent research in Germany replicated our findings. Those researchers found that OCD patients’ symptoms decreased significantly when they simply listened to an audio CD that explained our treatment method. That bears repeating because it is key to the path you are about to embark on: No other interventions were given to these participants — just an audio CD, their commitment, and their effort to make progress by following the Four Steps.
The Four Steps
Step 1: Relabel — Identify your deceptive brain messages and the uncomfortable sensations; call them what they really are.
Step 2: Reframe — Change your perception of the importance of the deceptive brain messages; say why these thoughts, urges, and impulses keep bothering you: They are false brain messages (It’s not ME, it’s just my BRAIN!).
Step 3: Refocus — Direct your attention toward an activity or mental process that is wholesome and productive — even while the false and deceptive urges, thoughts, impulses, and sensations are still present and bothering you.
Step 4: Revalue — Clearly see the thoughts, urges, and impulses for what they are, simply sensations caused by deceptive brain messages that are not true and that have little to no value (they are something to dismiss, not focus on).
With our Four Step method, you will learn how to focus your attention in beneficial ways — just like these people did — so that you can retrain your brain while simultaneously bolstering and empowering your true self.
Excerpted with permission from "You Are Not Your Brain: The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your Life" by Drs. Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding. Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding. Published by Avery.