Recovery Unscripted Podcast - Episode 18

Featured Guest: Loretta Breuning, Inner Mammal Institute

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For this episode, I’m joined by Dr. Loretta Breuning, noted author and founder of the Inner Mammal Institute. I spoke with her at the Innovations in Recovery conference in San Diego, where she explained what research about animal brain chemistry can tell us about our own emotions and urges. She also shared how we can understand those neurochemicals, retrain our minds and make peace with our inner mammal.

After leaving her career as a graduate school professor to pursue her passion for neuroscience, Breuning established the Inner Mammal Institute, which provides resources that help people build power over their mammalian brain chemistry. “Everyone has power over their mammalian brain chemistry and everyone is choosing in every minute how to use that power,” as Breuning explains during the interview. “And it’s so easy to lean to use that power in new ways if you understand it.”

But understanding our brain chemistry means understanding the evolutionary purposes of the releasing these chemicals, such as dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphin. “The first step to understanding is: These happy brain chemicals did not evolve to make you happy all the time, every minute, to flow for no reason when you’re sitting on the couch,” Breuning says. “They evolved to reward you when you take a step to meet an unmet survival need.”

Part of the reason that it’s so difficult to rewire our brains is that much of the reward system is set up during youth. As Breuning puts it, “Anything that triggered your happy chemicals when you were young built pathways that got myelinated and when you see anything similar today, your brain says, ‘This is it.’” And that usually doesn’t set us up well for adult life. “Needless to say, we all end up with pathways that do not really lead to our long-term well-being. So we all have the urge to rewire ourselves in one way or another, but we all discover that it’s much harder than we think,” Breuning explains. “So I explain on a physical level how the old pathways got built, why it feels wrong and what it takes to build new ones.”

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Podcast Transcript: David Condos with Loretta Breuning

Speaker 1: Bringing you unique perspectives from inside the world of addiction and mental health recovery. This is Recovery Unscripted.

David: Hey guys, welcome to Recovery Unscripted. A podcast powered by Foundations Recovery Network. I’m David Condos, and my guest is Dr. Loretta Breuning. She joined me at the innovations and recovery conference to explain what animal brain chemistry can tell us about our own emotions. She shares how we can retrain our minds to make peace with our inner mammal.

Also, stay tuned to the end of the episode for another edition of our trivia segment this week in recovery history. Today’s question is about mental health month, an annual awareness campaign that focuses public attention on mental health each may. It was first observed on this very week in 1949, 1959 or 1969. Find out after the interview.

All right, I’m here with Dr. Loretta Breuning. Thank you for being with us today.

Loretta: Thanks for having me.

David: Let’s start off by having you tell everyone a little bit about your personal story and what the journey was that led you to where you are now working in psychology and brain chemistry.

Loretta: Well, I was a college professor for 25 years and took early retirement in order to work more in this emerging field of evolutionary psychology, and apply it in ways that struck me as urgently relevant to human motivation. The reason I was so interested in human motivation. Well, first I had a lot of not especially motivated students, and frankly, I raised kids and they were not always especially motivated. I indeed questioned my theory of human motivation, which I now call niceism. Which is the idea that if you’re nice to people, then they’ll just do the right thing all the time? If you live long enough you get to question niceism.

To go back further-further further. Well, I grew up in a rather old school family, where my mother raged a lot. Let’s just say, it was not diseasefied in those days. When she raged she blamed me like I was causing her to rage. You could see again that from my earliest circuits I would have reason to question people’s motivations and to try to make sense of them. I always studied psychology my whole life. I actually remember when I was in my freshman dorm I had pages torn from psychology today on the walls of my dorm room.

David: Yes, and so and when you were teaching was that at college level?

Loretta: I was MBA at Cal state East Bay.

David: What led to the transition that you’re talking about from the teaching world to what you’re doing now?

Loretta: Well I was reading more and more about evolutionary psychology. I would read one little mention of dopamine and related to animals. One little mention of serotonin-related to animals. To me, it was so obvious how they fit together and nobody was talking about that. That was my first book called I Mammal: How to Make Peace with Your Animal Urge for Social Power. Then a few other books followed after that. One of them was Habits Of A Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Dopamine Serotonin Oxytocin and Endorphin. My new book is The Science of Positivity: Stop Negative Thought Patterns by Changing Your Brain Chemistry.

David: In addition to authoring the books that you mentioned, you have the Institute. The inner mammal institute. For someone who’s not familiar, well how would you describe the institute, what’s the mission there?

Loretta: The inner mammal institute provides resources that help people build their power over their mammalian brain chemistry. We are using that power in every moment. They’re constantly turning on and off to motivate you to take steps toward your survival needs depending on how your individual brain defines what meets your survival needs. Everyone has power over their mammalian brain chemistry and everyone is choosing and every minute how to use that power. It’s so easy to learn to use that power in new ways if you understand it.

David: Yes and so it seems the bigger challenge is understanding it and gaining awareness about it.

Loretta: The important thing especially for the animal lover so I don’t get hate mail. Animals are not loving all the time so we really want to think of animals that way and maybe in the domesticated animal context that might be true. In the millions of years that evolved our brains, animals were focused on survival and that meant happy chemicals when you see a way to meet an unmet need and go for it. There was a lot of unpleasantness that humans who have lived alongside animals have always known about.

David: How does one retrain their brain and take control and understand what’s going on at the chemical level?

Loretta: The first step to understanding is these happy brain chemicals did not evolve to make you happy all the time every minute to flow for no reason when you’re sitting on the couch. They evolved to reward you when you take a step toward meeting an unmet survival need. Your brain defines survival in a quirky way.

First, it cares about the survival of your genes which is obviously some reproductive aspects. The other is it builds neural pathways in youth. Anything that triggered your happy chemicals when you were young, built pathways that got mylenated. When you see anything similar today your brain says, “This is it, this is going to feel good. This is the way to go.” Needless to say, we all end up with pathways that do not really lead to our long-term well-being because of just some random collection of early experiences. We all have the urge to rewire ourselves in one way or another, but we all discover that it’s much harder than we think. I explain on a physical level how the old pathways got built. Why it feels wrong and what it takes to build new ones.

David: To go off of that, what are some things that it does take?

Loretta: The simplest answer is repetition. That’s not the answer or anyone wants to hear but consistent repetition. What I always say is, choose the new behavior repeat it every day for 45 days. After 45 days, the new neural pathway will be big enough for your electricity to flow. Before that, if you imagine that your brain is a jungle of neurons and you’re trying to walk a new path through the jungle and it’s so hard that you have to slash and work and work for every step. The human equivalent of that is when you take a step that’s not on one of your already paved neural pathways, it feels you’re doing something wrong because your old pathways tell you this is the way to get rewards. You feel unsafe.

The simple bottom line is that the electricity in your brain flows like water in a storm. It finds the path of least resistance. It’s just making the choice. I’m going to let go of other things for this moment and put 100% of my power into carving this new path, and eventually, I will flow more easily on that new path. At first, it will feel threatened.

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David: Another thing that we talked about before we started recording was self-soothing. Why would you say that self-soothing is important? What are some self-soothing skills that are healthy?

Loretta: Self-soothing is important because we’re all born in a state of agitation. A newborn cries because they have felt needs that they can’t meet. In the beginning, crying is just cortisol. In the beginning, you learn, I cry my needs get met and I calm down. Then you learn that when you hear someone’s footsteps your needs are going to get met. Now I can stop crying as soon as I hear those footsteps.

Here’s a really amazing part, the way we learn to meet our needs gets myelinated when we’re under age eight and during puberty. What I always say is if it seems like life is like high school it’s because everyone has myelinated their neural network during high school.

David: That’s what you’re saying with that digging the trenches for the pathways, right?

Loretta: Yes exactly. Whatever turned on your happy chemicals during high school and during puberty and under age eight, gets myelinated. Your electricity flows effortlessly, and so that’s where you automatically expect to feel good. Needless to say, every one of us ends up with some expectations that are not good for us in the long. We all have to learn new self-soothing habits because whatever we learned before eventually stops working.

David: It might be good to back up for anyone who isn’t familiar. Could you just explain some of these chemicals like dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and what they do in nature and how that manifests itself in us?

Loretta: Sure. Dopamine. That’s the excited feeling that a reward is at hand. Let’s say I’m going to bake a loaf of bread. I smell it fermenting, I smell it in the oven, I get all excited excited excited. I take it out of the oven. I shove it in my mouth and in two minutes I’ve had really as many calories as any human being should ingest in one point. The dopamine is in the steps toward the reward. Once you get the reward you stop getting the dopamine. I better stop myself from eating that bread after a slice or two and focus on a new goal. What I always tell people is have a short run goal, a long run goal and a medium term goal because not all goals are often blocked. I can only shift from one goal to the other. It reinforces that circuit that says, “I can’t get something done.”

Serotonin, Now this is the one where I depart the most from the current academic slash medical perspective. In the-

Loretta: -’80 and ’90s and ’70s, there was a lot of monkey research done that showed what humans have always known who have lived with animals, is that animals are very hierarchical and competitive. Within the hierarchy, animals compete for food and mating opportunity. They always defer to the stronger individual to avoid getting bitten. The way it gets worked out is the stronger individual makes a dominance gesture, and the weaker individual chooses between either deferring or challenging. Most of the time, they don’t challenge because they’re going to get badly injured and that can kill them. The weaker individual defers the strongest individual releases serotonin.

Serotonin is released when you perceive yourself in the dominant position. Everyone compares themselves to others all the time. I’m not at all into this idea that there’s the alpha type because no one wants to see it in themselves everyone wants to see it in others. Everyone does it automatically compares to others and looks for a way that they could come out on top.

David: Feel that validation.

Loretta: Yes and so to find nice peaceful ways of doing it is the challenge of being human and we all do it.

Now moving on oxytocin. Oxytocin is what makes us mammals. Reptiles don’t trust their fellow reptile. They are isolated all the time except during the act of sex, and they release a chemical equivalent of oxytocin in that moment. Mammals are born into a surge of oxytocin, and then Long story short we transfer our attachment from our mother to our herd and a mammal releases oxytocin when they’re with the herd. Now many people want us to think of that as altruism. In fact, animals push their way to the center of the herd where predator threat is the lowest and more of their babies survive when they do that.

David: Feeling safe?

Loretta: Exactly. It’s a feeling of safety in numbers. That’s what we look for but needless to say once we have it then we hate it because it’s like oh my gosh I feel all this social pressure to go along with the herd, and I don’t want it. We have that frustration of back and forth. Instead of being frustrated all the time, I say to myself, “I’m a mammal I am always making that decision. I am always focusing on the unmet need. I could also celebrate myself for having met the last need. I can have positive expectations about my ability to meet the next meet.”

Finally, endorphin. Each of these chemicals has an internal way of triggering it and an external way of triggering it. That’s easy to abuse. Endorphin is opium as many people know and all of the opioids. Most people have heard of it in the context of runner’s high. It’s absolutely essential to know that in the state of nature it’s only released when you’re in pain. Endorphin masks pain so then an animal can run from a predator. That’s what promotes survival, so all of these promote survival. In the state of nature, your endorphin is only triggered for 15 minutes because after that pain is essential, pain tells you not to run on a broken leg. We need pain for self-care. We are not meant to go around triggering pain to get the endorphin, may feel good in the short run but it’s bad in the long run.

Positive ways of stimulating endorphins. It’s interesting to know that laughing stimulates it. Only a real belly laugh because it triggers and releases muscles in your innards that you’re not used to. I tell everyone, make time in your life for laughing and needless to say stretching and moving are important. Instead of exercising to the point of pain. A better way to think about it, is I’m never going to sit for more than an hour because every time I get up I get a little bit of endorphin and getting lots of little bits is better than trying to get one high. It’s just an example, whatever you like you can find ways to adapt that to your happy chemicals.

David: You mentioned some of the animal examples that you have there that are correlation with the human brain chemistry that you’re talking about. Could you give us one or two of your favorite examples?

Loretta: Yes I’ll give you my favorite, favorite one. Actually, both examples are a little bit on the unhappy side which really helps us understand our negative side which my new book I say, “Negativity is natural but positivity is possible.” Here’s this mindblowing study by Wolfgang Schultz who did a lot of the dopamine work. There’s experimenter’s that would give a monkey a spinach leaf in exchange for doing a task. The monkeys are trained every day they do the task, and they get the spinach leaf. One day for no reason they reward them with apple juice instead of spinach and sugar is like a huge reward and their dopamine spikes. In the state of nature, it’s really hard to get that much-concentrated calories. That’s what your dopamine is responding like, “Wow! this really meets my needs.” Every day as the experiment continued, they got the apple juice and after four days their dopamine stopped spiking even though they still got the reward which is so mind-blowing because that’s exactly how our lives are.

It’s like you’re so excited when you get a new reward. Then after a few days, you take it for granted because it’s not meeting an unmet need. Which explains why people are frustrated despite having very good lives. Now the funny end of this of the experiment is that the scientists switch them back to spinach and the monkeys flew into a rage and threw the spinach back at the experimenters. Which is exactly the idea that when I have something, it doesn’t make me happy. Then when I lose it I’m mad as hell.

David: I have a one-year-old son, so I can imagine the apple juice spinach exchange happening there.

Loretta: Yes. Well, I’m really happy for you because I didn’t learn any of this until my kids were grown and it breaks my heart. The other one that really explains our daily life is, let’s say I’m an animal in nature and I’m trying to fill my belly. In the state of nature, there’s no refrigerator. It takes constant effort to get enough calories. If you wait until you’re starving then you don’t even have the energy. An animal is constantly making a decision about where is the best way to invest its energy to get its reward. Which is like when you’re on the job, and you’re thinking well if I put my energy into that I can hope for that reward maybe pleasing my spouse versus getting a promotion. As you try to decide where to invest your energy then you don’t always get the reward, and then you get upset, and you feel threatened.

In a state of nature, as I’m eating I might smell a lion, and my survival depends on running instead of continuing my meal. The brain always prioritizes threat above getting a reward, because you could always survive missing one meal better than you could survive a survival threat. Now back to like if I think I am going to do this work and get a promotion and then I don’t. Then my survival threat feelings are triggered. Even if I have a rather safe and comfortable life, I can have the perception of being threatened all the time. It doesn’t have to be a real threat even a drop in your happy chemicals feels like a threat.

To think of an example, let’s say I’m a lion and I eat a big meal. Then for the next few days, my hunting is unsuccessful. If a lion waits till it’s absolutely starving it won’t have the energy for the hunt. The lion has to get upset in advance in order to focus on rewards. We’re getting upset in advance as soon as our happy chemicals declines. It’s like, “Oh-oh, I need more now, I better get more now.” I know this is very cognitive and in a moment when you’re distressed it’s harder to do, but when you have a calmer moment first to know that your perception of threat is just a physical chemical and your body will excrete it in about 20 minutes. If you distract yourself for 20 minutes to two hours, then you will avoid triggering more. What do people always do with kids is like distraction, shake another rattle in front of their heads. I think it’s also very helpful in the detoxing environment. You give your cortisol time to be excreted and then you have more of the state of peace and then you could start with a new expectation of a healthy positive step toward another reward.

David: All right, we’ll wrap up with this final question. You’ve devoted a lot of time and effort over the past decade to help people understand their brain chemistry and retrain their brain. Why is that important to you?

Loretta: Well, frankly I have a therapist to help me come up with an answer to this that I’m comfortable with. Like I was always hearing about helping people, but in my life, I saw a lot of enabling where people were so wanting to help others that they rewarded bad behavior. I could see myself getting sucked into that and then when I retired it’s like, “I need a direction finder that’s not based on, did I help you?” I need something that I have control over that I feel good about and it’s the Rosann method, by the way, a little plug for that. It’s a therapy that you get body work at the same time is not the coolest thing. What I decided that was for me was getting to say my truth-

Loretta: –because so much of life, you have to be nice and not really say what you think. For me anytime I get to say what I really think is so rewarding and doing this work I’m getting to say what I think.

David: All right. Well, thank you for joining us, Loretta.

Loretta: Thank you so much for having me.

David: Thanks again to Dr. Breuning for being with us today and thank you for sticking around to the end of this episode. As you heard in the intro I’m excited to bring you another addition of our trivia segment called This Week in Recovery History. Each time we have a question that features a different pivotal event from this weekend history that is help to shape our current world related to addiction and mental health recovery. Today’s question highlighted mental health month which has been encouraging awareness about mental and emotional health since 1949. It was founded by the National Association for Mental health in an effort to increase the public’s understanding of mental illnesses. In 2013, the month even received an official designation by proclamation of President Obama in response to what he called a serious public health concern.

Each May, the founding association now simply called Mental Health America reaches millions of people across the US through the media, local events, and mental health screenings. The organization also creates a unique theme for each year and distributes free toolkit of materials focused on education around that theme. This year’s theme is risky business. It focuses on behaviors that may increase the risk of exasperating your mental health issue or could be signs of an undiagnosed illness. To find more info about mental health month events in your area or to download this year’s toolkit visit mentalhealthamerica.net/may. That’s mental health month created this week in the year 1949. Stay tuned for more trivia from recovery history in future episodes.

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This has been the Recovery Unscripted podcast. Today we’ve heard from Dr. Loretta Breuning, author and founder of the Inner Mammal Institute. To read more of the resources they provide visit innermammalinstitute.org and thank you for listening. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast please share it online or just tell a friend about it. We’d love to have your help spreading the word. See you next time.