Oct 31

“You Are Not Your Brain”: OCD, Overthinking

The idea that we can deliberately and systematically change our brains with our minds was once thought ridiculous.  But now, largely due to Jeffrey Schwartz and his UCLA research on neuro-plasticity and OCD, this once revolutionary idea is well accepted. Rebecca Gladding and Jeffrey Schwartz adapt Schwartz’s extraordinarily successful program for a mainstream audience giving simple, self-directed tools to help achieve greater happiness, emotional balance, and overall well-being. Susan Kaiser Greenland, regarding You Are Not Your Brain

The full title of this 2011 book by psychiatrists Jeffrey Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding is You Are Not Your Brain: The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your Life .

What’s recommended in You Are Not Your Brain has already worked for patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) treated by Schwartz; moreover, related research has been replicated in Germany.

Some pertinent book quotes:

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.

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

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. 

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…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.

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).


Gladding, the co-author of You Are Not Your Brain, emphasizes the following important fact in a Psychology Today post:

The key to the Four Steps is practice. You literally need to keep using the Four Steps over and over. By becoming more aware of what is happening and learning how to Refocus your attention in healthier and productive ways whenever a deceptive brain message strikes, you teach your brain new, beneficial responses. With time, you will learn how to place your attention where you want it to go, not where your brain is beckoning you to follow.