Dr. Helen

You Are Not Your Brain

I recently picked up a book by psychiatrists Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding called You Are Not Your Brain: The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your Life.

It was at a used bookstore for $3.00 so I figured it was worth at least skimming through. From the description:

A leading neuroplasticity researcher and the coauthor of the groundbreaking books Brain Lock and The Mind and the Brain, Jeffrey M. Schwartz has spent his career studying the human brain. He pioneered the first mindfulness-based treatment program for people suffering from OCD, teaching patients how to achieve long-term relief from their compulsions.

Schwartz works with psychiatrist Rebecca Gladding to refine a program that successfully explains how the brain works and why we often feel besieged by overactive brain circuits (i.e. bad habits, social anxieties, etc.) the key to making life changes that you want—to make your brain work for you—is to consciously choose to “starve” these circuits of focused attention, thereby decreasing their influence and strength.

You Are Not Your Brain carefully outlines their program, showing readers how to identify negative impulses, channel them through the power of focused attention, and ultimately lead more fulfilling and empowered lives.

“Oh, great,” I thought, “another book about how to think positively.” It will probably go on the shelf next to the other books that I have tried to wade through with a positive message that I don’t absorb. But I have to say, that so far, I have been wrong about the message of the book. It is really helpful. The book gives a number of explanations about how we learn deceptive messages, and how we teach our brain to continue to reinforce bad behaviors which activates nerve cells that form a brain circuit:

Once the circuit is established, the brain areas involved in the circuit automatically respond in the same way every time a similar situation arises. This causes the circuit to become stronger–and it is how habits, such as riding a bike, learning to drink when stressed, or relearning how to walk after a stroke, are created and maintained.

Here’s how I used the book to break a bad habit. I have a craving for diet coke which I know is not exactly health food. But my brain sends me messages that it craves this drink, especially when I am tired, stressed, or need a lift. So when I get the urge for a diet soda, I make the decision to do something else more constructive such as walk or drink some water. After a while, my brain quit requesting the diet coke and now the message from my brain–that I must drink a diet coke to get by, is less and easier to deal with. I still drink one or two a week but I don’t have the connection of needing one in response to be tired etc.

So the book is quite good at getting the reader to stop and think about why they have the habits and thoughts that they do and how to reduce the negative habits or thoughts that one gets on a daily basis and replace them with something more helpful. Yes, your brain tells you to do or say certain things but learning to control how one responds is key to leading a more successful and healthy life.