Have a behavioral addiction, like compulsive gambling, sex addiction or internet addiction? Learn an easy to follow 4-step program that may help you regain control.
You can teach your brain to stop sending messages of craving and need - it’s going to take time and effort, but according to Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz and his 4 Step Program, through conscious awareness you can teach your mind to retrain your brain!
The 4 Steps was originally developed at UCLA as a treatment for OCD but it is now also used to treat a variety of impulsive, obsessive and compulsive disorders, such as sex addiction, internet addiction, compulsive gambling, compulsive eating and many others.
Combining mindfulness techniques of conscious awareness and cognitive behavior techniques of thought and behavioral change, the 4 Steps program is effective in helping you to realize 2 goals:
- Overcoming immediate urges to engage in a destructive behavior
- Retraining your brain through conscious awareness so that urges weaken and occur less frequently over time
The philosophy behind the program is that your mind and your brain are not the same. Your brain influences your thoughts (your mind) and through this it can influence behaviors (such as drinking, or gambling etc.).
However, the same process can occur in reverse – your mind can also influence and change your brain and in doing so can help keep you from behaviors you feel to be negative. Through directed, intentional and conscious thinking (mindfulness) you can retrain your brain to stop sending harmful messages to your mind.
- When your brain sends an urge message and you give into it – you strengthen the brain pattern
- When your brain sends an urge message and you fight it – you also strengthen that brain pattern
- But when your brain sends an urge message and you acknowledge it, recognize its true source and re-label it as a false and harmful message – you weaken the brain pattern
Over time, as you practice the 4 Steps and as you deal intentionally with urges, you break the power of these false messages from your brain.
Here’s how it works:
The 4 Steps to Breaking Free from Behavioral Addiction
Step One: "Relabel"
The first step in the 4 step program is to relabel negative cravings or urges and to do this in a very deliberate and conscious way.
Without conscious awareness, cravings from the brain to the mind are often interpreted as a ‘need’ – for example, “I need to gamble right now” or “I need a chocolate bar right now”.
Of course, a craving for chocolate is not really a true ‘need’ and no one has ever died from delaying a session of gambling! However, because we pay only superficial attention to the craving and instead focus great attention on our interpretation of the craving – our perceived need to go do something – we lose perspective on the true nature of what’s occurring and we give far more power to cravings and urges then they rightfully deserve.
- When you turn your conscious attention onto the reality of the craving, however, you remove much of its power.
- When you feel an urge or a craving to engage in some sort of negative act, instead of wasting energy fighting to suppress the craving, turn your attention like a spotlight onto the craving itself.
You want to look at the craving from the perspective of an impartial outsider observing something at a distance and tell yourself that what you’re experiencing is not a true need but rather a negative craving that will lead to unhappiness. Don’t try to deny or suppress the craving, feel it – but literally talk to yourself, and deliberately and assertively relabel what you are feeling:
“This is not a true need I’m feeling and I don’t have to act on it. This is just a craving and the need I feel right now is not real and it will pass in a few minutes, though it may come back again.”1
Remember that your relabeling these cravings will not make them go away (right away)*. These cravings come from a biological source (the brain) that is beyond your immediate control – what you can control, however, is how you come to interpret and respond to these cravings.2
*With repetition, controlling your response to cravings will reduce their intensity and frequency.
Step Two: "Reattribute"
Dr. Schwartz wrote a book on the use of the Four Steps entitled, ‘You Are Not Your Brain’, and the title of the book effectively captures the philosophy of the program and especially the importance of the second step.
That you are not your brain means that though your brain may send messages, you do not have to act on them.
When you experience a craving, as you relabel it and recognize it as an artificial need, you need to also reattribute the source of the craving. You again literally tell yourself that:
- This craving is coming from my brain
- Some of my neurochemistry and brain function is impaired due to my addiction (or OCD or compulsive disorder) and this is why I feel a craving. My brain is sending me false messages
- I can ride this craving like a wave and it will fade away, but another one will come up sooner or later, and when it does, I will relabel it and reattribute it yet again. I do not have to listen to the false messages sent by a brain that is not working as it should.
- If I give in to this craving it will make the craving go away for a short time but it will make the cravings I feel in the future even stronger. If I pay attention, relabel and reattribute and choose not to give in to the maladaptive messages my brain sends I will start to change my brain’s neurochemistry and I will weaken the intensity of future cravings.
Cravings are lies. In the reattribution phase you concentrate on telling yourself the truth about what’s really going on.
Step Three: "Refocus"
The third step is a very practical action in any battle against craving.
Cravings can be strong but fortunately, if you don’t give in, they tend to go away.
So knowing that, once you’ve relabeled and reattributed the craving, all you have to do is buy yourself a little time by refocusing your attention elsewhere for a few minutes.
Say to yourself:
- "I am experiencing a craving to do something that I don’t want to do. Although it feels like I have to give in to this craving I know this is simply a false message from a brain that isn’t working quite right due to my addiction (or compulsion). To make it easier for me to choose another action I am going to refocus my attention by going for a walk for 15 minutes."
In the refocusing step, you engage in an activity that diverts your attention elsewhere for a specific length of time, say 15 or 20 minutes. The activity should be something that you enjoy doing and which diverts your attention away from your cravings – exercise of any kind is always a very good option.3
Step Four: "Revalue"
In this last step you take a moment to remind yourself why you have chosen not to engage in whatever negative activity you struggle with.
Without deliberate attention and awareness toward truth, moments of craving cause us to focus selectively on the rewarding aspects of the behavior we crave and to think very little about the many negative consequences that in reality accompany the action.
- When craving a visit to the casino, you might dream about the excitement of the game and the way playing helps you to relax and forget your worries. During a moment of craving you probably do not spend much time thinking about the financial problems gambling has brought nor about the humiliation of losing your savings.
So after you have refocused your attention away from the craving and after the immediate urge wave has crested and subsided in intensity - take a moment to revalue the source of your craving. Think honestly about what your gambling or sex addiction - or whatever - has done to your life and think about what would likely happen if you gave in to your cravings. Remember specific examples from your last binge or episode and think about the people in your life you have hurt in the past through your actions.
Practicing the 4 Steps
You are not your addiction. You do not have to listen to what your addiction tells you to do. You cannot change how your addiction makes you feel but you can control how you respond to the urges and cravings you experience – and in the end, it’s what you do that matters.
The four steps can work as a self help program for anyone battling against behavioral addiction and they may also work well as an adjunct cravings management program for people with drug or alcohol addictions.
The four steps do not work, however, unless they are practiced on a daily basis and unless they are practiced in a very conscious and deliberate way – you need to wrest control away from a brain that’s on destructive autopilot and you can’t do that unless your mind starts paying attention to the twist and turns in the road!
- 1. In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, Dr. Gabor Mate, p 337.
- 2. The Four Steps, Step One – Relabel; Dr Jeffrey Schwartz
Page last updated Jan 25, 2016