I find in my work as a counsellor that helping people with “overthinking”, with challenging thoughts and obsessive thoughts and behaviours is a very large part of my work. Most of us worry at times that “I’m not good enough” – it seems to be part of being human. Most of us worry about our health or the health of our loved ones at times. But what happens if these thoughts and worries start to consume us? There is no obvious “off-switch” and we can start to feel utterly miserable.
In this blog I am going to look at how Gabor Maté in his superb book In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction suggests we can deal with them. Gabor Mate has long been a hero of mine and I was privileged to attend his recent workshop here in Cork. His strategy uses what he calls “The Four Steps plus One”, as he has adapted them from Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz at UCLA for the treatment of OCD. (Watch a video of Gabor Mate here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07nOScAHnXI)
This blog looks at the first two steps and my next blog will describe the final three.
I find these steps incredibly valuable for OCD and addictive behaviours, and indeed for any compulsive, repetitive and self-deprecating, self-harming thought patterns:
In order to override deeply ingrained old thought patterns, you need to practice the steps daily at least once, but also whenever an addictive impulse or self-undermining belief pulls you so strongly that you are tempted to act it out—or if you are just mentally stuck in such a pattern.
You need to find a quiet place where you can sit and write. Keep a small notebook with you so you can keep a journal and track your progress.
Step 1: Relabel
Label the addictive/self-deprecating thought or urge exactly for what it is (just a thought), and don’t mistake it for reality. When we relabel, we give up the language of need. I say to myself: “I don’t need to purchase anything now or to eat anything now; I’m only having an obsessive thought that I have such a need. I may have a feeling of urgency, but there is actually nothing urgent going on.” Or, “it’s not true that I’ll never make anything of my life, it’s just a thought” etc
Essential to the first step, as to all the steps, is conscious awareness. It is conscious intention and attention, not just rote repetition that will result in beneficial changes to brain patterns, thoughts and behaviours. The point of Relabelling is not to make the addictive urge or compulsive thought disappear—it’s not going to, at least not for a long time, since it was wired into the brain long ago. The point is to observe it with conscious attention without assigning the habitual meaning to it. It is no longer a “need,” only a dysfunctional thought. Rest assured, the urge will come back—and again you relabel it with dogged determination and with mindful awareness.
Step 2: Reattribute
Now place the blame squarely on your brain. “This is my brain sending me a false message.” In Step 2 you state very clearly where that urge originated: in neurological circuits that were programmed into your brain long ago, often when you were a child. It represents a dopamine or endorphin “hunger” on the part of brain systems that, early in your life, lacked the necessary conditions for their full development. It also represents emotional needs that went unsatisfied.
Reattribution is directly linked with compassionate curiosity towards the self. Instead of blaming yourself for having addictive thoughts or desires, you calmly ask why these desires have exercised such a powerful hold over you. “Because they are deeply ingrained in my brain and because they are easily triggered whenever I’m stressed or fatigued or unhappy or bored.” The compulsion says nothing about you as a person; it is not a moral failure or a character weakness, just the effect of circumstances over which you had no control. What you do have some control over is how you respond to the compulsion or negative belief in the present.
My next blog will look at the final three steps.
Need some advice and support?
If you are struggling with challenging thoughts or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.
Book a counselling session today!