Making Plans and Achieving Goals

Book Review: You Are Not Your Brain by Jeffrey M Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding


Who doesn’t have at least some bad habits or compulsive thoughts?  This book is all about how to deal with those bad habits and unhelpful thoughts.  It starts off by making a statement that is actually quite controversial in the world of neuroscience and that is that the brain and the mind are two separate things.  This idea of brain and mind is of much debate because we know so little about the brain and how it works.  If one side could prove the other wrong, they would.

The idea is that the brain is somewhat like the heart.  It is constantly working behind the scenes to keep us alive and well.  We never have to think about how extremely complex a task like walking up stairs is because our brain has developed super efficient neural pathways to handle such tasks.

The mind, on the other hand, is kind of the higher level thinking, planning, goal setting part of the body.  When we are trying to decide between right and wrong, we are using our mind.  When we are trying to set a goal to lose weight, we are using the mind.

So we clearly need both the brain and the mind to exist in this world.  The problem comes from unconsciously allowing the formation of bad habits.  See, the brain doesn’t know the difference between “good” habits and “bad” habits.  It simply sees something you are doing on a regular basis that is typically providing some sort of primal type reward so it starts forming the neural pathways so the tasks becomes easier.  Perhaps when you were a kid, your parents gave you ice cream every night as a treat.  So your brain developed the habit/thought/urge/desire that you eat ice cream at the end of the day to reward yourself.  So when 8:00 rolls around your brain starts to crave that reward that it has been programmed to receive and if you don’t involve your mind at this point you will just go straight to the freezer for the frozen treat.  This repetition is what forms all habits like smoking, drinking, eating junk, pornography, drugs, compulsive thoughts, etc.

This is where the book “You Are Not Your Brain” comes in.  They recommend a 4 step solution with its roots based in cognitive behavioral therapy to deal with these situations.  It is all about becoming more mindful of your thoughts and questioning things.  You can’t help what thoughts pop into your brain as you have been programming your brain for many years on how to respond to certain stimuli.  You can’t just make the thought never appear again.  So you are trying to use your mind to figure out what false message the brain is giving you by using the four steps.  The four steps are Relabel, Reframe, Refocus and Revalue.

With Step 1, Relabel, you are just trying to identify the deceptive brain message like “oh some ice cream would be a great way to finish off the night”.  In Step 2, Reframe, you want to examine the deceptive brain message by using your mind.  Think about your goals, values and purpose in life and decide from this higher state if this message is true.  I found it helpful to envision talking to a friend about this.  If someone called you, who you knew was having health problems and trying to lose weight, what would you tell them about this ice cream situation?

Step 3, Refocus, is the key to the program.  Therefore, it is also the hardest step because you are going to break the cycle and go against your habits and deceptive thoughts and that is going to feel very uncomfortable.  With Refocus, you are going to choose to do something helpful or productive.  Typically, it is good to have a pre-made list of different activities you can do.  So instead of eating that ice cream, you might choose to read, eat vegetables, go for a walk, call a friend or anything that isn’t harmful to you and isn’t eating the ice cream.  The key with this step is that you are not trying to suppress the urge to eat ice cream.  You are going to willingly accept that the urge is there and that there isn’t anything you can do about that.  The mind can choose the actions but can’t stop or suppress the thoughts from the brain.  So while you are focused on reading, the false message will eventually fade.  No urge lasts forever.

Step 4, Revalue, is kind of your summary of events.  It is about clearly seeing that the thoughts, urges and desires are nothing more than sensations caused by the deceptive brain messages.  These messages are not true and deserve little to no attention from you.  Revalue allows you to see past the brain message and see your true self.  From there, you can see that you are a wonderful person and have the power to choose how to act.

Overal,l I really enjoyed the book and the author’s take on breaking habits and compulsive thoughts.  My biggest take-away is that you should not try to fight the urge.  You should accept that it is going to be there and then choose to Refocus your attention on something productive.  I think, too often, we focus on trying to make the urge go away but by doing that we are actually focusing on the one thing that we shouldn’t.  “You Are Not Your Brain” provides a proven method and will definitely help you if you put forth the effort.  Breaking bad habits is very tough but can be done.  The books offers lots of tips and tables to help you along the way.

My only complaint about the book is that you can tell that it was originally written with the target audience of people with OCD.  The majority of the examples have to deal with people constantly checking email, worrying about people dying and thinking other people hate you.  I would have liked to have seen some more examples of people trying to break more traditional bad habits like overeating, gambling, alcohol, drugs and smoking.  They did have some, of course, but I think it would have been more helpful had they had more.

If you have read it, let me know your thoughts.  Did you have a particularly bad habit or OCD thought that you were able to overcome?




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