Find Your Happy with Loretta Breuning

What does it really take to be happy in real life?

Posted Sep 03, 2019

"You can manage your happy brain chemicals when you know how they work in the state of nature." — Loretta Breuning, PhD

In a recent article, I explored mirror neurons and the role they play in learned behavior and addiction. Now I’d like to look at how you can learn to produce your own happy brain chemicals to help treat addiction, anxiety, or other mental health conditions. Today, I’m chatting to happiness and mammalian brain expert Loretta Breuning. But first, I’d like to give you some background information on Loretta’s professional resume and her philosophy.

Who Is Loretta Breuning?

For those of you who aren’t on top of the latest research into happiness, Loretta Graziano Breuning is the founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, which helps people build their power over their mammalian brain chemistry. As Professor of Management at California State University, and as a mom, she was not convinced by prevailing theories of human motivation. She learned from studying animals that unhappiness is part of our survival system, and happiness is a learned skill.

What Is Loretta’s philosophy?

Loretta believes that happy chemicals (serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, and oxytocin) are not supposed to be switched on all the time, but you can learn to control how and when we release them (and therefore gaining control over our emotions). By the age of seven years old, we have developed habits around our emotions, but you can create NEW habits at any time in your life. How? You form a new pathway and you make sure that you do something every day that reinforces that new pathway. It can take 45 days to build a new habit (so that's a good amount of repetition by will).

Affirmation: I have power over my brain. That power is lost when I blame my responses on external forces. I can celebrate my power instead.


Q. I talk a lot about the nature vs nurture debate when it comes to developing addiction and mental health issues. My verdict? That ACEs (adverse childhood experiences), and environmental influences play at least as much a role in addiction as biology. What are your thoughts on why this is?

A.  I agree that experience is more significant than your genes but the way that trauma is currently being discussed is too broad. By the current definition, everyone would be a basket case and there would be no room for thriving. The truth is, we are all born with billions of neurons but no connections. We gain connections through experience. That means you can also rewire your current pathways.

Q. What are some of the things people can do to wire their mammal brains to enjoy more happy chemicals?

A. In order to rewire yourself with positive expectations, you’ll need to repeat small steps over and over.

Q. Would these principles also work for those struggling with addiction?

A. Say you’re bored at work and you reach for a candy bar. If you keep repeating this behavior you’ll create an unhealthy pathway. Every time you aren’t feeling rewarded at work, instead of blaming your boss, the system, or your co-workers, you can take small steps towards creating a new pathway. For example, you can try visualizing people being pleased with your work (instead of assuming they will be critical). Or you can work in small chunks of time and then reward yourself with something healthy afterward, like sparkling water or a chat with a co-worker.

Q. In one interview you wrote that variety was the most influential habit you have. That you alternate between having coffee one day and alcohol on another, for example. We know that introducing variety can reduce tolerance and "boredom,” but why do you see variety as essential?

A. We habituate to what we expect. If you already expect to have coffee when you wake up, you won’t even notice it. By alternating the days you drink coffee or drinking it on a day where you have a lot of mundane tasks to do, you’ll appreciate it more.

Q. You say on your website that "Learning about the brain chemistry behind mammalian social drama gave me peace." Can you talk a little more about that? I think a lot of people are searching for that feeling.

A. When I feel threatened, my mammal brain is trying to convince me that it’s stronger than me. I can find peace in these situations by reminding myself of the responsibility I have for my feelings. I have the power to disconnect and rebuild the pathway myself. By knowing that animals are competitive by nature and are creating competitive scenarios because it makes them feel good, I don’t take it personally when the people around me are competitive. As humans, we have the choice to keep driving down the road we are on or stop and choose a different road. But we will always be using the same roads until we get the tools to build a new one.

Q. The happy chemicals are serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, and oxytocin. Can you explain with examples, how we can increase each in people struggling with an addiction?

A. Practical tips to increase dopamine:

Introduce variety to your life. Take a new route home. Drink coffee randomly (not every day). When you have to complete a difficult task, plan your (healthy) rewards in advance. For example, I’m going to tackle this task for an hour then take a break to walk around, then after two hours, I am going to listen to a comedy recording while stretching. This gives you a sense of accomplishment. Break obligations into small chunks and then celebrate with healthy rewards afterward, then you won’t feel like you need to alter your mood in an artificial way.

Affirmation: I can stimulate my dopamine by taking steps toward a goal. I will build a pathway that expects the joy of approaching a reward.

Practical tips to increase oxytocin:

Learn to find trust in your interactions with others. That doesn’t mean you have to trust every person you meet, but do try to focus on what you have in common with others instead of honing in on what may go wrong.

If you were touch deprived, you were oxytocin deprived. Being with a group of people with whom you are comfortable, can stimulate oxytocin. Being with your “herd”,  letting your guard down feels good. This good feeling motivates you to stick with the herd. When you leave the herd, oxytocin falls. When people are facing recovery, they feel like they might lose their herd. That is why any good recovery programs should have a social element -  where your new “herd” won’t persuade you to drink. This is essential for a successful recovery.

Affirmation: I can stimulate my oxytocin by trusting and receiving trust. I will build a pathway that expects to give and receive trust.

Practical tips to increase serotonin:

Serotonin gets released when we feel respected and when we find a way to meet our needs. Serotonin can be released when we put ourselves out there with a new project, for example. Many times people who are struggling with addiction don’t realize their own power. They assume that others are putting them down. Sometimes this causes them to feel special because they are getting attention. It’s important to build that feeling of being special without becoming identified with the role of an addict.

Take one step forward towards your goal and take pride in the completion of that step. Continually activate pride in your own actions. 

Affirmation: I can stimulate my serotonin by taking pride in my skills. I will build a pathway that feels confident in my survival skills.

Practical tips to increase endorphins:

Taking opioids releases the same chemical. This is the only happy chemical we are not designed to try and stimulate. They are only released when you’re in pain. Endorphins mask pain with a euphoric feeling. If you inflict pain on yourself your brain habituates it so you have to inflict more pain on yourself. It's not designed to flow all the time.

Laugh! Laughing stimulates deep muscles that we don’t use a lot. Plan on making laughter a priority in your life. Hot peppers also stimulate endorphins a little as well as sitting in a hot tub. Hunger is a kind of a pain in nature -that’s why some people get addicted to starving. “Runners high” can also be classified as an endorphin stimulator. Although I don’t recommend using hunger or a runner's high to activate endorphins because your tolerance will increase, which could be dangerous. 

Q. I was driven to drinking and drugs because I struggled with social anxiety (as I'm sure many others have as well). You have a new book out about anxiety. What would you suggest for someone struggling with social anxiety in particular?

A. The first step is realizing that everyone is having this experience. It may look like everyone is confident and comfortable,  but that’s probably not the case We all have brains that make social comparisons with those around us. And if you are in the “one-up” position, you probably will fear losing it.

This feeling is worse in teenagers because of something called reproductive opportunity. Mammals are picky about whom they mate with and care about the survival of their genes, which gives young people a sense of urgency. If you don’t compete successfully, your genes will be wiped off the face of the earth.

What to do about it? Self- acceptance. This is something my mammal brain is creating. Redirect that electricity into a more positive pathway such as spending time with an individual whom you know appreciates you.

Ask yourself: do I really want to go to this party, or am I going for unhealthy reasons (fear of being without the herd)? Remind yourself of your power to choose HOW to feel special.

Q. You say "The best feeling of all, to the mammal brain, is relief from cortisol. Anything that relieves a threatened feeling is a lifesaver to your inner mammal because avoiding harm promotes survival more than any one reward. This is how people built attachments to threat relievers that hurt them in the long run. Fortunately, we have the power to re-wire ourselves with a variety of more sustainable ways to relieve that internal sense of alarm." Can you list some of those ways?

A. My book, Tame Your Anxiety, contains a long list of healthy sustainable anxiety relievers that work. Fill your pantry with anxiety relievers. You have to be prepared in advance for healthy anxiety relievers. They are very individual. Maybe walking in the park doesn’t work for you. Or yoga makes you feel frustrated with your body. People should develop a list that works for them. Be prepared so you can access them at a convenient time /space. Activities that work your mind and body together are especially helpful because they engage your brain enough to distract you from other things. Some examples include; drawing. cooking, playing guitar or watching foreign language videos while exercising. This clears your circuits.

Q. Thank you so much for your time, Loretta. Do you have any closing thoughts?

A. Every happy chemical has a downside. This is the frustration that comes with the gift of life. They are not designed to flow every minute. And it’s not possible to get happy chemicals all the time. 

You can read more of Loretta’s work in her Psychology Today blog series “Your Neurochemical Self.

To find ways to build new habits and rework your neural pathways to recover from addiction, join the IGNTD Recovery community today.