The 4 Rs and You. R you ready?

By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC

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Have you ever substituted an ingredient in a recipe? You know, you start cooking and you realize you don’t have the necessary ingredients, so you make substitutions. Some substitutions work better than others (like chocolate chips if you don’t have raisins for oatmeal cookies). Your coping skills are the same way.

In therapy, there are a lot of different skills that we use to help people manage, and change, their mental health. Just like last week’s post, Become a Bad Ass by using Behavioral Activation! went over a crucial skill, this week is no different. This week, we are tackling my favorite skill, the 4 Rs!

Are your negative thoughts keeping you trapped in your cycle of depression and anxiety? You are not alone!

What are the 4Rs?

The 4 Rs are something that have been a staple of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) for many years. First introduced by Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz in 2011, the 4 Rs were designed from a neuroscience backing (a guy after my own brain nerdiness!) to help people cope and challenge distressing thoughts. This amazing acronym has been used to help with symptoms of anxiety, depression, and intrusive thoughts ever since.

Dr. Schwartz is quite the author! This book is in my private collection and on loan with clients all the time.

The 4 Rs were designed to be a sort of “self-treatment,” using skills and information from cognitive behavioral therapy that a person could apply without the assistance of a therapist being there. When we break down the 4Rs, it is pretty clear how they help:

  1. Decrease anxiety by lowering activity in that darn amygdala
  2. Increase activity in both your prefrontal cortex and your hippocampus
  3. Improve your overall distress tolerance for stressful situations


As we start talking about this powerful acronym, let’s start with the first R: Relabel. Relabeling Takes us to the point where we can recognize any of the distressful thoughts that are happening. In the case of anxiety, were looking at things that increase our anxiety symptoms. Depression, we are looking at things that increase our feeling of hopelessness, worthlessness, and being alone.

Relabeling occurs AFTER we have identified the issue at heart. This means we know what is going on, not just the superficial feeling on the surface.

It is in this moment that we start calling the thought what it is: the actual symptom. Let’s go over an example, shall we?

Let’s say you’re having one of those days where nothing goes right. Your friends are leaving your messages unread, you have no motivation to be at work, and the world just seems to be falling apart. Rather than going down the road of saying “no one cares about me,” “I’m a loser,” or “I should have just stayed in bed,” we are going to label what is actually happening. In the place of the negative thoughts, we are going to simply say “I am experiencing symptoms of depression.”

Curious about OCD? Then this book is for you! It goes over the neuroscience surrounding OCD

This is going to help your brain in a few different ways. First, you are moving from your overactive darn amygdala (you know, where you feel powerless and overwhelmed by all the negative information it is seeing) to your proactive prefrontal cortex. By creating this shift, you are activating the problem-solving skills your prefrontal cortex is known for. I should note here: just relabeling your thoughts for what they are will not make them go away. They will still be there. What we are doing is creating a shift so you can better cope with the thoughts.


Honestly, this is one of my favorite parts of the 4Rs. Reattribution is the act of us using the skills we have to combat the source of our thoughts. This means we are challenging the anxiety, the depression, the OCD, not the feelings or thoughts themselves.

In this case, the depression, we are acknowledging that we have a medical condition that impacts how our brain is wired. Say that again, out loud: “I have a medical condition that impacts how my brain is wired.” I could be biased, but I think it feels so amazing to say that.

Another part of the reattribution stage is recognizing that we have a choice to make. We can choose to give in to the thoughts and continue down the rabbit-hole of mental health. Or we can choose to engage in a different behavior. This different behavior could be using a new and healthy coping skill, focus on something in your control, or even doing something you love. By doing this, we are placing the prefrontal cortex large and in charge. We are also preparing our brain to release the feel-good neurotransmitters, which decreases your darn amygdala’s activity (and creating new memories).

Tracking your mood and triggers play a huge role in the success of the 4Rs. This is one I recommend to my clients all the time


The third R of the 4Rs is the most important R of them all. Refocusing is where you are actually doing what you choose to do in the reattribution step. It’s true, this step in the 4 Rs is tough, but is necessary.

By refocusing, you are actively choosing your new option (versus focusing on the feeling or thought creating the negative thoughts) and PARTICIPATING in that choice. By doing this, even for 15 minutes, you are:

  1. Increasing the release of dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin, naturally decreasing depression levels
  2. Moving to increase activity in your prefrontal cortex and insula as you are most likely engaging your body in some sort of activity
  3. Creating new pathways and memories for your hippocampus to know what to do if these thoughts pop up again

Refocusing can be the hardest step of the 4Rs because it requires consistent and persistent practice. The first couple of times you practice, you may only be able to practice it for a few minutes before the distressing thoughts come back in. When that happens, it is important to recognize the thought still exists. Say what?! It is true.

After you participate in a different activity, and the negative thought is still there, take time to recognize:

credit to Carissa Weber at
  • How strong the thought is
  • What changes have happened since the thought first started
  • What changes your coping skill made to the thought

It is this action, the refocusing your energy on something in your control, that helps rewire your brain to have your prefrontal cortex in control. Remember, it takes 66 days to create a new habit, a new pathway in your brain. It will be tough, but do not give up!! There is light at the end of the tunnel!


The last R in the 4Rs, revalue is a very crucial step. It is in this step that you decrease how much real estate your negative thoughts take up in your brain.

You’ve done a lot of hard work with relabeling, reattributing, and refocusing, now that hard work starts to pay off. As your prefrontal cortex focuses on your new choice, your hippocampus starts to recognize the weight that your negative thought carries. This is because your brain, specifically your pineal gland, has decreased the production of cortisol. With less cortisol, it allows your brain to release glutamate.

we ll get through it lettering text on black background
Photo by Anna Tarazevich on

Glutamate is the neurotransmitter responsible for forming memories. As your prefrontal cortex is giving energy to your new choice, the glutamate remembers this. It remembers the energy and feel-good neurotransmitter release versus the cortisol-releasing negative thought. Naturally, this means your hippocampus is going to remember how to feel good and comfortable, not uncomfortable.

After you complete your new choice, you can do several things to help your brain revalue your negative thoughts. How do you do that? By answering the following questions of course!

  • How has my heart rate changed since starting the 4Rs?
  • How long was I able to keep the negative thought away?
  • Do I notice anything different about how I am physically feeling after using the 4Rs?
  • What activity did I choose to be my new choice?
  • How does it feel to be in control of my negative thoughts?
  • Can I practice this for 66 days?
  • What step of the 4Rs was the most useful to me?

Do you use the 4Rs?

The reason why I love this skill so much is that it can work with any sort of thought you are not enjoying having. Beating yourself up? The 4Rs are there! Struggling with cognitive distortions? The 4Rs have your back!!

I want to thank you for taking time to learn and letting me be part of that learning. The 4Rs is a skill I use, personally, when the self-doubt and thoughts of worthlessness creep in. I hope you find it as useful as I do!

To recap this post:

– The 4Rs is an acronym used to help cope with negative thoughts

– Relabeling helps you label your thoughts as a symptoms of your mental health

– Reattribution gives you the chance to choose a different activity/thought to focus on

-Refocusing is the act of creating new pathways in your brain

– revaluing decreases the intensity of discomfort the negative thoughts bring

– Practice makes progress!


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11 responses to “The 4 Rs and You. R you ready?”

  1. Widalys Santiago Avatar
    Widalys Santiago

    I liked your comparison between the necessary ingredients for a recipe and the coping skills. Thanks, good read!

    1. Thank you for reading!!!

  2. Great read! Very informative. Refocusing is something I do daily!

    1. A lot of people think refocusing is a distraction, not a tool that rewires your brain!

  3. Relabeling is BIG in my life. I am always trying to ease my anxiety by relabeling my thoughts.

    1. That is amazing! It takes practice, but it does work!

    2. Great post! Very helpful!

  4. Wow, this was so interesting! I’ve never heard of this technique, but you described it so well, and I am looking forward to trying this out! Having coping skills that work for us personally is so empowering and supportive of our mental health 🙂

    1. I’m so happy that you learned something new! It is one of my favorite go-to can I teach people and use myself

  5. This has given me a lot to think about! Thanks for sharing this!

    1. You are so welcome!!

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