Use Your Mind
to master your brain & obsessions!
You Are Not Your Brain, by brain scientist Jeffrey Schwartz, is about the brain, the mind and how to use your mind to master your brain’s bad obsessions and compulsions. It’s closely related to the RAIN method for mastering cravings.
It provides a 4-Step method which helps you become the person you want to be. As a self-treatment method the 4-Steps works well for the mild to moderate obsessions and compulsions most of us have.
- ReLabel – Spot & name. Practice spotting, identifying, and naming false brain messages as soon as they appear.
- ReFrame – It’s Not important. Start recognizing that false sensations & thoughts are not important because they are false. And, if not fed attention, they eventually go away. E.g., Say to yourself “It’s not me it’s just my brain.”
- ReFocus – Do something productive. Redirect attention towards a productive activity even though you still feel uncomfortable. It’s not what you think or feel that matters; it’s what you do that counts. p.339
- ReValue – Keep practicing the first three steps until they become an automatic part of you. Eventually learn to see the entire process from a wise outsider’s point of view.
This approach is possible because the mind “gives you the capacity to choose where to focus your attention.” And, over time focused attention will actually physically change your brain which only “automatically reacts.”
The brain is a passive survival mechanism that receives inputs and reacts in instinctive or habitual ways to ensure immediate safety, comfort, or relief no matter what the future costs. (p.22 from You Are Not Your Brain). It merely reacts to its environment in habitual, automatic ways.
Its speed and automatic efficiency has done a good job of keeping the human race alive. However, not all the short-term survival habits we have unconsciously learned are beneficial in the long-term. The brain messages (including body sensations, thoughts, urges, feelings) sent are sometimes false and cause serious long-term damage.
That’s where the mind comes in. The mind is active, focusing attention and making decision. It “has the ability to consider many options and can weigh short-term actions against longer-term goals.” p.22. The mind is naturally “lazy” but when it decides to do its job of making choices the mind is able to override the brain.
Thus, you are not your brain. Brain-based messages are not representative of who you really are and you do not have to act on them. These highly deceptive intruders are coming from your brain … not you!
“The whole point of the 4-Steps is to take you from believing so strongly in your deceptive brain messages to seeing their falsehood.” p.ivii. Repeated practice of the 4-Steps will give you the power to take control of your brain and, in fact, to physically change it.
Step 1 – ReLabel (Spot and Name) top
Our short-term oriented survival brains sometimes generate deceptive brain messages, such as wrong thoughts and uncomfortable sensations, that are just not “true” and cause us to react in ways which cause long-term damage. These false messages are what we should be watching for and labeling. Step 1 is to see and call them what they really are … false brain messages. p.89
Brain messages naturally bubble up from the unconscious on their own. Don’t try to suppress them but instead observe carefully. You are looking for the truth. You want to start recognizing “false” messages for what they really are.
Relabeling skills come before everything else because until you can see a falsehood you can’t fix it. Even if you continue acting in harmful ways just doing this first step alone gives important practice at noticing brain messages and properly labeling them as “true” or “false.”
Examples of relabeling: False message. All-or-none thinking. Obsessive thought. Butterflies in stomach. Sadness for no reason. You might relabel tiredness, body aches, and negative thoughts as depression (label) and not part of me (reframe).
Making mental notes is “the process of becoming aware of and focusing your attention toward noticing the appearance of a thought, sensation, urge, response, or event as it arises.” Making notes implies focusing long enough to remember what happened; this allows you to start noticing harmful patterns. p.33
Keep notes and labels short. They do not have to be perfectly accurate, just somewhere in the ballpark. p.169 Use one-word or two-word statements that encapsulate what is going on at the moment. Don’t worry too much about the exact words you use since it is the process of observing that counts. p.168
Step 2 – ReFrame (It’s Not Important) top
Reframe false brain messages (e.g., thoughts, urges, impulses) to emphasize these messages are not important simply due to the fact they are false. If you dismiss them and stop feeding them attention they will eventually go away.
Here are some examples of reframing statements:
* “It’s not me, it’s just my brain!” p.89
* Attribute deceptive brain messages to bad brain wiring or biology with a phrase like “These feelings are not really me, they’re from some sort of old brain wiring problem and are not worth my attention.”
* If anxious for no reason you might say something like “Hey, the brain is causing this anxiety which is making my throat tighten … it’s just a brain thing that is causing the tension … it’s not me.”
* Start seeing deceptive brain messages as false foreign invaders rather than true warnings.
* Sometimes false messages are thinking errors that need reframing. Examples of what to say: “Don’t take it personal (personalization error).” Or, “Why should (should thinking error) I always (black & white thinking error) get everything (all-or-none thinking error) I want?”
* Here’s a list of some common thinking errors that filter out helpful information: should-ought-must thinking, false expectations, faulty comparisons, all-or-none thinking, black and white thinking, worst case thinking, discounting the positive, believing everything you think or feel, mind reading, prejudice, minimizing, and personalizing.
Step 3 – ReFocus (Do Something Productive) top
Use your mind to refocus attention on something productive — even while the false urges, impulses, and sensations are still bothering you. p.90, p.230
It’s not what you think or feel that matters. It’s what you do that counts. You are not trying to make the feelings go away. Focusing on bad feelings just further entrenches them. Deprive the bad brain circuits of their essential fuel–your attention. p.240
Focus on something interesting and useful to you. Here are some ideas of what to focus on:
* Exercise. Especially sports you like is a good focus for most people.
* Gratitude Lists. Quickly mentally list 3 things you are grateful for. p.272. This is also a good thing to do when you go to sleep and wake up just to improve your attitude.
* Your Work. This is a productive focal point, particularly when you are at work. 🙂
* Breathing. Do breathing exercises to calm yourself before refocusing.
* Meditation. Every time you make a mental note (relabel) of when your attention wanders and then bring your focus back (refocus) you are practicing refocusing. p.242 Even just 5 minutes of meditation makes a difference for me.
15 minute Rule
If you can’t resist your craving or obsession, try to wait fifteen minutes between when a deceptive brain message or uncomfortable sensation strikes and when you act. Then try another 15 minutes if possible. Then mindfully engage in whatever activity your deceptive brain message is demanding. p.247
An option to the 15 minute rule is to gradually cut back on the activity. Learn to temporarily live with the discomfort that arises without over-identifying with or excessively focusing your attention on it. p.321
Don’t beat yourself up should your obsession wins the early battles. That only gives it the attention which makes it stronger. Just step back, know you can eventually beat it, and make specific plans detailing how you will come back stronger the next time. Mental preparation, to help you better know what to expect and exactly what to do next time, will help you improve.
Step 4 – ReValue (Keep Practicing) top
Clearly see the thoughts, feelings, urges, and impulses for what they are … sensations caused by deceptive brain messages that are not true and that have little to no value. They are something to dismiss, not to focus on.
Revalue from the perspective of your Wise Advocate. p.276. The more you practice using the 4-Steps the easier they become.
After you make significant practice & progress on the first three steps (ReLabel, ReFrame, ReFocus) shift to emphasizing Step 4: Revalue. You want to move beyond a mere cognitive understanding of your deceptive brain messages and get to the point of directly experiencing the bothersome sensations as nothing but a deceptive brain messages. When you are able to do this, you no longer will need to go slowly through Steps 1 & 2; rather, you will directly feel the deceptive brain message as nothing more than a deceptive brain message and immediately refocus your attention in a healthy way. This is Step 4. p.278
More Concepts to Consider
True or False Brain Messages
False messages happen because your brain is a short-term survival mechanism. True messages come from your true self. For example, if you lost a parent then “true” feelings of sorrow are natural and to be expected and worked through. Your Wise Advocate understands and supports true messages
The Wise Advocate is that aspect of your attentive mind which can see the bigger picture, i.e., what it would look to a wise outsider.
Your Wise Advocate is a good counselor and a friend within yourself. It knows what you are thinking and can tell you when brain messages are not true and where they came from. p.6, p.222. The more you use it, the stronger your Wise Advocate becomes. p.225.
Refocus with Progressive Mindfulness
In the Progressive Mindfulness exercise you build your abilities by:
(a) purposefully facing situations that cause deceptive brain messages such as urges, thoughts, or uncomfortable sensations to arise,
(b) then refocusing your attention on constructive healthy activities.
This exercise is done progressively, purposefully adding more and more stress as your skill to dissipate such mental stress increases. It results in your brain actually rewiring itself in beneficial ways while strengthening your Wise Advocate within. The concept is not unlike systematically exercising physical muscles to develop their ability to handle future physical stress.
Refocus with Progressive Mindfulness is a way to systematically learn how to withstand false brain messages and to resist acting on unhelpful impulses when they arise. By practicing Relabeling you can learn to quickly, easily identify cravings for what they are–a desire to feel better right now. Reframing helps you understand that strong impulses coming from your brain do not have to be acted upon if they are actually false messages. Finally, you practice Refocusing your attention on constructive healthy activities even while still feeling uncomfortable sensations. p.256, 277, 313.
You Are Not Your Brain is a good book to read, especially if you realize you are unconsciously doing things which are not to your long-term benefit. Don’t just drift or your brain will automatically take over. Become the boss of your brain … not its unhappy & unconscious servant.
Related Notes & Terms top
- You Are Not Your Brain by Jeffrey Schwartz MD is the source of the quotes and page numbers in this article. The emphasis is on conquering obsessions and compulsions.
- How to Conquer Cravings using the RAIN approach is discussed in The Craving Mind by Judson Brewer. This is a similar but slightly different approach than than in You Are Not Your Brain. The emphasis is on conquering cravings.
- Albert Ellis, the inventor of cognitive behavior therapy, wrote an entertaining book about classical thinking errors called How to Stubbornly Refuse To Make Yourself Miserable About Anything–yes, Anything.
- Deceptive Brain Message Definition: Any false or inaccurate thought or any unhelpful or distracting impulse, urge, or desire that takes you away from you true goals and intentions in life (i.e., your true self). p.3
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