A few years ago, I broke my foot.
At first, I thought I was doomed…
I wouldn’t be able to get in my long runs, hikes, and bike rides—the things that tame my inner beast by keeping me physically and mentally fit.
No more fat-burning workouts for the Fat-Burning Man.
But instead of giving up and getting fat, I used my broken foot as an opportunity to try new workouts.
I started doing short bursts of handstands, planks, and fingertip pushups. I focused on building the daily habit of mobility and balance through Chi Gong exercises.
I discovered that setting small goals daily is even more fun than monstrous workouts. It completely changed the way I viewed exercise, staying fit, and achieving my goals.
I found new ways to tame the beast.
Do you ever feel like there’s a wild animal lurking somewhere inside you? I sure do.
If you’ve ever been derailed by your inner monkey, this show is for you.
We’re here this week with Loretta Breuning, PhD, founder of the Inner Mammal Institute and author of Meet Your Happy Chemicals: Dopamine, Serotonin, Oxytocin, & Endorphin.
Dr. Breuning began studying the brain chemistry of animals because she was not convinced by prevailing theories of human motivation. To properly understand humans, you need to understand animals first. When you know how serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphin work in our animal ancestors, the “modern” frustrations of life suddenly make sense.
When Dr. Breuning discovered how brain chemicals trigger survival behaviors in animals, she retired from her career as Professor at California State University—East Bay to connect the dots. Now, her books and resources have helped thousands of people worldwide make peace with their inner mammal.
On this show, you’ll learn:
- How to quit bad habits and reprogram negative thought patterns
- Why we’re always thinking about food
- How to rewire your brain using mammalian brain science
- Why a bad hair day feels like a survival threat
- And much more!
LORETTA BREUNING: PEOPLE ARE ANIMALS, TOO
Abel: One of the most transformational books I read years ago was called The Naked Ape, and it was about how we’re wild animals. You take it further by linking mammalian behaviors to brain science. So, how do we make peace with our inner beast?
Our brain chemicals turn on for reasons that don’t always make logical sense—we need to accept that our ups and downs are natural rather than always trying to be in a constant high.
Abel: How are we similar to what we see out there in nature, and what can we do about it?
When you look at a Squirrel Monkey, you can see that they’re looking for food constantly, even though they’re well fed. When you’re standing in front of the refrigerator wondering why you’re there, you’re doing the same thing. It’s hard-wired into our brains.
The key is to be more accepting of our up-and-down emotions while still sustaining responsibility for our actions.
We have a brain structure animals don’t have, which helps us project the consequences of our actions.
Abel: How accurate are those projections?
We expect everything to be projected with 100% accuracy—we don’t like uncertainty. And our expectations are learned from past experience.
“The quirkiness we all have is that our brains are soft until the end of puberty—then you’re stuck. You can add new leaves to the tree, but you can’t build new branches.”
They’re not completely locked in, because then our efforts are for naught. It’s more like you’re strongly pressured into a thought pattern and it takes so much effort to transcend those circuits. When you focus on your head and suppressing an impulse, it takes all of your energy.
Abel: We’re not necessarily looking for food like the monkey. What are humans actually looking for?
Short answer—we have a droop. Every time our happy chemicals spurt, they follow with a droop because they’re designed to be metabolized in a few minutes. When those chemicals droop, we want to get that high feeling back, so we rush toward anything that will do it for us.
What will give us that rush? It’s different for each of us—it’s what we’ve learned from experience.
HOW TO EMBRACE YOUR UPS AND DOWNS
Abel: That behavior pattern isn’t necessarily effective in the real world. If you have some really good chocolate once a month, you get a lot of gratification from it. If you have it every single day expecting that magical feeling, after a while you’re not going to get it.
This is something you have to see in monkeys to really understand the power of disappointment.
In one experiment, researchers gave a group of monkeys an extra special reward (a sip of apple juice) for completing a task. At first when they got it their dopamine surged. After a few days being rewarded with apple juice, their dopamine didn’t surge anymore. A few days later, they switched back to spinach as a reward, and the monkeys went into a rage.
“When you have something good, you take it for granted and it doesn’t make you happy anymore. But when you lose that thing, it makes you feel horrible.”
Once we know that and stop externalizing it, things get easier.
Abel: How do you embrace the downs?
When your happy chemical stops flowing and you dip, you naturally look for evidence of harm. That’s what cortisol is for. Plus, unlike animals, we know we’re going to die—so we never stop looking for evidence of that.
If your life is completely safe and the worst possible thing that can happen is maybe not being invited to that party, that can have the full feelings of being chased by a lion because there are no bigger threats.
“Embracing the down is to own it. Say, “Thank you, brain, for keeping me from harm.” Recognize that the feeling is just a chemical and it will be metabolized shortly.”
Abel: Why are we so out of whack? Why do we go into survival mode when we get a bad haircut, for example?
Your brain is quirky for two reasons:
- It’s wired from youthful experience.
- Your brain cares more about the perpetuation of your genes than it does about your body.
We are descended from “animals” that took the risk for a mating opportunity and then died, not from the ones who didn’t take the risk and did not pass down their genes.
Abel: If perpetuating our genes are our highest concern, then what are some other things that can fire off those feelings and behaviors?
Let’s say, in a certain context, you had children as soon as you entered puberty, then they had children as soon as they were in puberty. You’d have grandchildren at a very young age, and you could die early but have a visceral sense of yourself carrying on in your descendants.
Today, it’s harder. Your children may not have children until you’re in your late 70’s. So if you count on your children to give you a feeling of a legacy, that’s not going to work… And everybody wants a legacy.
That situation leads us to the ups and downs because on one hand it feels great to make your unique individual essence—maybe you write a book or produce a podcast. You do something that will make your legacy last. But this is also a survival thread.
HOW NOT TO SUCCUMB TO ALARMISM
Abel: Like when someone deletes my Podcast RSS feed (that actually happened)… let’s talk about alarmism. I even see it in the health industry. What are the implications there?
Yes, it’s the health industry trying to sell solutions, but it’s also news and entertainment which are overwhelmed with negative messages. I talk about this at length in my book.
The media puts out all these negative messages and we feed into them because if you’re an animal and you smell a lion, you can’t relax until you see the lion. The media is saying, “Here it is! Here it is!”
The best defense against the negativity is to say, “I’m so lucky I have a choice.” I have the freedom to choose and when every choice looks negative, I can say, “It’s not because I’m in a bad world, it’s because we’re all mammals.”
Abel: What are some things you can do in your day to day life when you see negativity creeping into your habits?
When you’re waiting for your plane and you find yourself sitting next to one of those CNN monitors, you’ll hear ten cases of death and dismemberment in five minutes. Just move away from it. You don’t need to be near the negativity.
HOW TO LIVE WITH THE DOPAMINE DROOP
Every one of us has aspirations, but we will inevitably get disappointed because the minute we get what we want, we want something more. Our brains are designed this way.
One trick is to have small goals to achieve, instead of huge ones. For example, say that in the next three hours I’m going to accomplish XYZ. Then feel good about them when you get them done!
Abel: That’s something I’ve been doing ever since I broke my foot last year. It was hard to work out, so instead of getting down on myself I did around 2 – 5 minutes of pushups or something to build toward a small skill…
This all has to do with dopamine: When you approach a reward, your dopamine surges and then drops. So, you’re like, “Okay, I’ve got this. Now I need more.” It’s all necessary for advancing our survival. If our ancestors found a pond of fish and advanced their survival, they’d need a bigger pond of fish fairly soon to further advance their survival.
It also has to do with serotonin: Animals are constantly comparing themselves to those around them, and if they find themselves in a stronger position, they feel safe to go toward a mating opportunity or food. If they’re in a weaker position, they are not safe to assert themselves because they’ll get bitten and clawed.
When it’s safe to assert yourself, you get a surge of serotonin. In the human world, you’re not surging all the time because then you’d just be a jerk.
“You assert when you can, because it feels great. But we expect to have that one-up feeling all the time—and when we don’t, it’s labeled depression.”
So, how do we get it? We make some construct: If I do XYZ then I have the moral high ground, or some other status symbol. Then the minute I can’t do XYZ, I feel like the monkey who thinks the other monkeys are stealing my food and I’m going to die.
More stuff, more career success, more accolades… Then comes a feeling that in order to stay on top you need to do more.
You should never waste your energy trying to be the top dog.
On the one hand, you want to take a step ahead, but it won’t make you permanently happy. If there’s a rat-race, it’s because you’ve created it—so don’t take it so seriously. This is hard to do because our brain chemicals give us this urgency. So, calming that feeling means blocking the feelings that don’t serve you.
HEALTHY HABITS: TAMING THE INNER BEAST
Abel: Meditation, running and music always seem to turn down the noise for me. As mammals, is there any science that shows why that works?
I think the greatest tool is to know that you can always create a new circuit. If you think running and music can calm those feelings, and something happens so you can’t run and play music, you can create a new circuit.
The electricity in your brain flows like water in a storm—it finds the path of least resistance. But if you do something every day for five years, you can create a new pathway. It won’t be the same, but it can start to feel natural.
Abel: For example, when we moved to the Smoky Mountains it was tick season. So, when our dog comes home from a romp in the woods, we started having her sit and then lay down and roll over so we could check for ticks. At first she didn’t want to, she’d be so exhausted. Every step took longer than we thought it should have, but now I say one word and she just does the whole thing. It’s automatic.
That’s a perfect example. And yes, it takes LONGER than you think it should. Initially, you think it’s never going to happen and then suddenly it’s effortless and automatic. You have to remember that you learned the initial habit or activity in the same accidental way, but all this time you thought it was superior and necessary.
Abel: But it’s hard to build behaviors and habits that you know you enjoy? What’s the deal with that?
We are born helpless and vulnerable—more than any other creature. A human baby can’t even lift its head. It takes humans longer to meet our survival needs than any other creature and during all that time you’re building core circuits.
You’re vulnerable, and the biggest circuit you build is from what calms that vulnerability. But nobody grows up with perfect support—if you did, you wouldn’t be able to tie your shoes or cut your own meat. You have to lose that support and it’s painful, so you learn behaviors to cope.
Let’s say a person gets sick and that’s when they get the attention they need to calm the vulnerability. Their inner mammal says, “Oh, when I get sick then I get what my vulnerable self needs.”
Just know that your quirk got there from accidental circumstances, and that you are safe.
Abel: Can you explain something from your book that I’m calling The Unhappy Dog Poop Phenomenon?
That’s when we should be happy because things are improving dramatically, but once we get there, we’re not happy.
This is the work of oxytocin. What makes mammals unique is attachment. Mammals are cuddly and tolerate the presence of others, but they’re totally picky about who—they only feel safe about others when their oxytocin is flowing.
If I smelled you when I was near my mother, then I recognize you as safe. When I grow up, I know you’re actually stealing my food and might bite me, but I don’t want to be killed by a predator so I’m going to tolerate your treatment because I want to be safe.
Why do we feel bad when we should feel good?
Let’s say we move to a pasture with really good grass, but you’re still biting me over the good grass. However, I might die if I leave the herd. So, I choose to be around you because my oxytocin is flowing making my brain say I’m safer with you.
We do this in relationships and at work—we bond over the negative. Maybe it’s not as bad for men, but for women, if you don’t agree/empathize then you’re considered out of the herd. You’re not a good teammate.
So, this gets us to the Unhappy Dog Poop. When I went to France, dog poop littered the streets. But I was so indoctrinated to think that France was perfect that I had to justify their dog poop problem. My neural pathways were formed by my herd (in the U.S., dog poop on the street was bad, but France was perfect), and if I contradicted that then I’d be kicked out of the herd.
Here’s the problem: When people stop allowing their dogs to poop on the street (like now in the U.S.), instead of focusing on the cleaner streets, we focus on that one jerk that lets his dog poop on someone’s lawn. I call this the 80/20 rule.
For example, in Africa, if 80% of people would bribe a policeman then that’s just how it works. If now only 20% of the people are doing it, then everyone says, “What is the world coming to?” But going from 80% to 20% is progress… well, that progress is at the expense of constant vigilance. That vigilance helps make things work, but at the same time leads to frustration.
If you take that vigilance with a grain of salt, then you’re considered an oddball.
“It’s not easy being a human.”
Abel: You have to remind yourself every day that progress is made. When I get bummed out, I counter this by grabbing my notebook and writing down the things that I accomplished that day or week. It always makes me feel better instead of spinning my wheels.
There’s one more little thing. Don’t feel like you can’t take a break unless you’ve “earned it.” You’ll never do enough to “earn it.” You have to take a break every day and it has to be fun. Don’t watch a movie that’s a downer—do something actually fun.
Abel: It’s like when I’m working on a book. I have to decide to be happy when I wake up in the morning and work on it for an hour. It’s the same thing with a workout—you get that little piece and always remind yourself to be happy that you built it into your habits. What can we do to replace the bad habit and to help make these new habits stick?
For example, if you’re used to holding a cigarette think of something to do with your hands rather than the cigarette—something that interferes with smoking. Don’t think about NOT smoking, but think about that new thing.
Remember, you can’t build a whole new branch, you can only build a new leaf on the branch. So, graft onto something that already makes you happy.
Even bad habits are difficult at the beginning. You only have the bad habit if your brain sees it as a reward. Maybe it distracted you from an awful feeling.
If you fail at a math test and then go to a party, the party erased the feeling of the math test. Then, every time you fail at something, you go to a party. That circuit is big because anything that happens during puberty is big.
WHERE TO FIND LORETTA BREUNING
Check out Dr. Loretta Breuning’s website www.innermammalinstitute.com-, her blog Your Neurochemical Self, and her newest book: Meet Your Happy Chemicals: Dopamine, Serotonin, Oxytocin, & Endorphin. You can also follow her on Twitter @innermammal and Facebook.
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Check out this the review from Twitter:
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What did you think of this show with Dr. Breuning? Leave a comment below and let me know.