The Four Steps: Step 2 - Reattribute

By Dr Jeffrey Schwartz

Watch our video introductory overview of the Four Steps treatment method for OCD. (Length - 34:47).

The key to our self-directed behavioural therapy approach to treating OCD can be summed up in one sentence: "It's not me--it's my OCD." That is our battle cry. It is a reminder that OCD thoughts and urges are not meaningful, that they are false messages from the brain. Self-directed behaviour therapy lets you gain a deeper understanding of this truth.

You are working toward a deep understanding of why the urge to check that lock or why the thought that "my hands are dirty" can be so powerful and overwhelming. If you know the thought makes no sense, why do you respond to it? Understanding why the thought is so strong and why it won't go away is the key to increasing your willpower and enabling you to fight off the urge to wash or check.

The goal is to learn to Reattribute the intensity of the thought or urge to its real cause, to recognize that the feeling and the discomfort are due to a biochemical imbalance in the brain. It is OCD--a medical condition. Acknowledging it as such is the first step toward developing a deeper understanding that these symptoms are not what they seem to be. You learn not to take them at face value.

Deep inside the brain lies a structure called the caudate nucleus. Scientists worldwide have studied this structure and believe that, in people with OCD, the caudate nucleus may be malfunctioning.Deep inside the brain lies a structure called the caudate nucleus. Scientists worldwide have studied this structure and believe that, in people with OCD, the caudate nucleus may be malfunctioning. Think of the caudate nucleus as a processing center or filtering station for the very complicated messages generated by the front part of the brain, which is probably the part used in thinking, planning, and understanding. Together with its sister structure, the putamen, which lies next to it, the caudate nucleus functions like an automatic transmission in a car. The caudate nucleus and the putamen, which together are called the striatum, take in messages from very complicated parts of the brain--those that control body movement, physical feelings, and the thinking and planning that involve those movements and feelings. They function in unison like an automatic transmission, assuring the smooth transition from one behaviour to another. Typically, when anyone decides to make a movement, intruding movements and misdirected feelings are filtered out automatically so that the desired movement can be performed rapidly and efficiently. There is a quick, smooth shifting of gears.

During a normal day, we make many rapid shifts of behaviour, smoothly and easily and usually without thinking about them. It is the functioning of the caudate nucleus and the putamen that makes this possible. In OCD, the problem seems to be that the smooth, efficient filtering and the shifting of thoughts and behaviour are disrupted by a glitch in the caudate nucleus.

As a result of this malfunction, the front of the brain becomes overactive and uses excessive energy. It's like having your car stuck in a ditch. You spin and spin and spin your wheels, but without traction you can't get out of that ditch. With OCD, too much energy is being used in a frontal part of the brain called the orbital cortex. It's as if the orbital cortex, which has an error-detection circuit, becomes stuck in gear. This is probably why OCD causes people to get a "something is wrong" feeling that won't go away. You have to do the work to get it out of gear--to shift the gears. You have a manual, rather than an automatic, transmission. In fact, the person with OCD has a sticky manual transmission; he or she must shift the gears. This takes great effort because the brain tends to get "stuck in gear." But, whereas an automobile transmission is made of metal and can't fix itself people with OCD can teach themselves how to shift gears through self-directed behaviour therapy. In doing so, they can actually fix this broken gearshift in the brain. We now know that you can change your own brain biochemistry.

The key to the Reattribute step is to realise that the awful intrusiveness and ferocious intensity of OCD thoughts are due to a medical condition. Underlying problems in brain biochemistry are causing these thoughts and urges to be so intrusive. That is why they won't go away. By doing this Four-Step Method of self-directed behaviour therapy, you can change the brain's biochemistry. This takes weeks or even months of hard work. In the meantime, understanding the role the brain plays in OCD thoughts and urges will help you to avoid one of the most demoralising and destructive things people with OCD almost invariably do: the frustrating attempt to "get rid of" the thoughts and urges. There is nothing you can do to make them go away immediately. But remember: You don't have to act on them. Don't take them at face value. Don't listen to them. You know what they are. They are false messages from the brain that are due to a medical condition called OCD. Use this knowledge to avoid acting on them. The most effective thing you can do something that will help you change your brain for the better in the long run--is to learn to put these thoughts and feelings aside and go on to the next behaviour This is what we mean by shifting gears: Do another behaviour Trying to make them go away will only pile stress on stress--and stress just makes OCD thoughts and urges worse.

Using the Reattribute step will also help you to avoid performing rituals in a vain attempt to "get the right feeling" (for example, a sense of "evenness" or a sense of completion). Knowing that the urge to get that "right feeling" is caused by a biochemical imbalance in the brain, you can learn to ignore the urge and move on. Remember, "It's not me--it's my OCD." By refusing to listen to the urge or to act on it, you will actually change your brain and make the feeling lessen. If you take the urge at face value and act on it, you may get momentary relief but within a very short time the urge will just get more intense. This is perhaps the most important lesson that people with OCD must learn. It will help you avoid being the "sucker" and taking the false bait of OCD every time.

The Relabel and Reattribute steps are usually performed together to bring about a deeper understanding of what is really happening when an OCD thought or urge causes you such intense pain. You Relabel it, call it what it is--an obsession or a compulsion. Use mindful awareness to get beyond a superficial understanding of OCD and to gain the more profound understanding that the thoughts and urges are nothing more than fallout from a medical condition.

Step 1: Relabel

Step 2: Reattribute

Step 3: Refocus

Step 4: Revalue

The goal is to perform these steps daily. (The first three steps are especially important at the beginning of treatment.) Self-treatment is an essential part of this technique for learning to manage your responses to OCD on a day-to-day basis.

Source: Brain Lock by Dr Jeffrey Schwartz

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The Next Chapter: Step 3: Refocus

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