Everyone has experienced the way our feelings fluctuate day by day, and even hour by hour. Sometimes we’re feeling up and sometimes we’re feeling down.
My guest today says these oscillations are a result of nature’s operating system and that you can learn to better manage these emotional peaks and valleys. Her name is Loretta Breuning and she’s the author of several books on happiness and the human brain, including her latest, Tame Your Anxiety: Rewiring Your Brain for Happiness. We begin our conversation by discussing the similarities between human brains and the brains of other mammals, and how our brains release happiness-producing chemicals like dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin to spur us to seek rewards related to our survival needs. We also talk about the unhappy chemical of cortisol which is released in response to perceived threats, and the factors that have increased our stress and anxiety in the modern world. Loretta then explains that the boost we get whenever the brain’s happy chemicals are activated doesn’t last, and how we need to plan and execute healthy options for proactively stimulating these chemicals, including creating expectations for rewards and finding small, positive ways of increasing our status. We end our conversation with how to manage spikes of cortisol in yourself, as well as help other people manage their emotional troughs.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- The characteristics and chemicals our brains share with other mammals
- The things that separate us from mammals
- Where anxiety comes from
- How do you figure out what your mammal brain wants in the moment?
- Where brain chemicals go wrong, and how to pick the right things to scratch those chemical itches
- Dealing with the short-term nature of these chemicals
- What is boredom, really?
- Surviving the pandemic by finding ways to trigger your happy chemicals
- Why you should feel good about (and even share!) your accomplishments
- Managing cortisol in your life and how to fight back
- Using sleep to your chemical benefit
- Helping other people manage their stress
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- AoM series on status
- Your Life Explained Through Dopamine
- The Key to Maintaining Your Sanity During Quarantine
- The Art of Anticipation
- Inflammation, Saunas, and the New Science of Depression
- How to Stress Proof Your Body and Brain
- Sources of Existential Angst
- The Meaning, Manifestations, and Treatments of Anxiety
- How Exercise Helps Us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage
- How to Hack the Habit Loop
- The Benefits of Pride
- What Every Man Should Know About Sleep
Connect With Loretta
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Everyone has experienced the way our feelings fluctuate day-by-day, even hour-by-hour. Sometimes we’re feeling up, sometimes we’re feeling down. My guest today says that these oscillations are a result of nature’s operating system, and you can learn to better manage these emotional peaks and valleys. Her name is Loretta Breuning, she’s the author of several books on happiness and the human brain, including her latest, Tame Your Anxiety: Rewiring Your Brain for Happiness. We begin our conversation by discussing the similarities between human brains, and the brains of other mammals and how our brains release happiness-producing chemicals like dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin, disperse to seek rewards related to our survival needs.
We also talk about the unhappy chemical of cortisol, which is released in response to perceived threats, and the factors that have increased our stress and anxiety in the modern world. Loretta then explains that the boost we get whenever the brain’s happy chemicals are activated doesn’t last, and how we need to plan and execute healthy options for proactively stimulating these chemicals, including creating expectations for rewards and finding small positive ways of increasing our status. We end our conversation with how to manage spikes of cortisol in yourself as well as help other people manage their emotional troughs. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/happychemicals. Loretta joins you now via clearcast.io.
Alright. Loretta Breuning, welcome to the show.
Loretta Breuning: Hi, thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about your background and career. What began your career in researching and writing about how the brain works in relation to stress and anxiety?
Loretta Breuning: Thank you. Well, as always, it’s short-run things and long-run things. You could say that I grew up in a household with a lot of anxiety and unhappiness. And the reason for it was not obvious, and in fact it was sometimes blamed on me. But I fortunately had some awareness that I could not possibly be causing all of this, so I think I always had some interest in, what is it that drives the emotional responses that people have? So, I spent most of my life in academia, but I was only peripherally involved in psychology. I taught management, and because I was only peripherally following psychology, I think it gave me the freedom to sample different views rather than being forced to promote one particular paradigm in psychology. And then, when I became a parent and I saw the fact that children are not happy all the time as much as you idealized what circumstances you think they will have, and that pushed me to look deeper for the truth.
Brett McKay: The way you approach this, the way you explore anxiety, and stress and even status amongst humans, is you have to understand that the brain shares characteristics with other mammals. So let’s start there, ’cause I think it’ll guide the rest of our conversation. How does our mammal brain contribute to either our well-being or whether we feel stressed out and anxious?
Loretta Breuning: So, first on a simple level, beneath our cortex we have the same brain as other animals. So people have heard of these limbic structures like the amygdala, the hippocampus, and all those little parts, and it’s really not important pointing to specific parts. The point is that animals make complex decisions without any cortex at all. And what that means is that when you tell yourself your reason for doing things, that’s just like a tiny percentage of what’s going on. Much of what’s going on is managed by chemicals, that’s how animals do it. They don’t have any verbal inner dialogue, but positive chemicals motivate them to approach and negative chemicals motivate them to avoid, and how do they know when to release the positive or negative? It’s with neuro pathways created by whatever turn those chemicals on in their past. So that’s, you could say, a crapshoot in our lives. It’s just the random chance of early experience wires the lens through which we react to the world.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about these basic needs that you say our mammal brain has, and that these different chemicals, neurotransmitters, they’re there to help us to go for those needs. So what are the needs of a mammal brain?
Loretta Breuning: Sure. So, animals try to survive by avoiding threat and seeking rewards. The rewards are obviously food and warmth, whatever that specific animal needs, but avoiding threats has to be pursued at the same time. And we define threats and rewards with neural pathways built from past experience. So if you grow up in an environment where your needs are met and you’re safe from threat, then your brain ranges out further and further, looking for things that could threaten you or could be rewarding.
Brett McKay: Alright, so that exploring, that need for exploration, which it could lead to a threat or it could lead to reward, that’s driven by dopamine, that neurotransmitter in our brain.
Loretta Breuning: Yes, that’s a really good point, exactly. Dopamine is the great feeling of reward, but every one of these happy chemicals has a downside. And what you mentioned, when you go out and seek rewards, but you could be disappointed, you could be threatened. And the other part of the downside of dopamine like all of them, is you just get a short burst and then it’s metabolized. So it’s like when you get what you want, the good feeling is gone, and then you have to get… You have to do more to get more. And the reason for that is that our ancestors had to keep filling their belly, they didn’t know where their next meal would come from. So dopamine motivates you to seek, seek, seek, because that’s how you get the next meal.
Brett McKay: Another one of those happy chemicals you talk about in the book is oxytocin, which fulfills the animal need for feeling like you’re close to… It’s like love, that’s not what we feel like. It’s the neurotransmitter that goes on in our brain when we hug or cuddle with our family member.
Loretta Breuning: Yes, so oxytocin is actually social trust. Touch stimulates it and sex stimulates it, but everyone knows that it’s possible to have sex without trust, let’s say, [chuckle] so it helps to understand it from an animal perspective. When you see two monkeys grooming, touch stimulates a little bit and if you let another animal close enough to you to touch your fur, they could kill you in an instant. So, you have to trust them a little bit, so touch and trust go together. And sex is a lot of oxytocin at once, and then it’s metabolized and then it’s gone. But another way of looking at it, is that when two monkeys groom together, they build their oxytocin pathways so it’s easier to trust the individuals who have groomed you in the past or that you have groomed them in the past. And this is herd behavior also when we extend it to a group, that we trust them, and it’s not because of a sophisticated intellectual reason, but because if a predator comes, you’re safer when you’re surrounded by your herd. So it’s really a selfish survival motivation.
Brett McKay: Alright, so that encourages survival. Another happy neurotransmitter, happy chemical that we experience that also contributes to our survival is serotonin. What’s going on with that?
Loretta Breuning: So this is complicated, but a century of research in zoology has taught us that mammals are very hierarchical, and competitive, and they actually are aware of each other’s status. And individuals promote their genes and get more reproductive opportunity when they raise their status. And more recent research in the late 20th century showed that your serotonin increases when you’re in the one-up position, and like all the other chemicals, it’s very ephemeral, it comes and goes. So, that means that if there’s two of us and one banana, serotonin gives you that sense of confidence that motivates you to assert yourself and get the banana. And in the animal world, animals never assert themselves unless they’re sure they’re gonna win because if they get injured, they could easily die. So, we look for that good feeling of serotonin, but we’re not designed to have it all the time. We’re designed to save it for just the right situations.
Brett McKay: Alright, so we’ve talked about the happy chemicals that all mammals feel. Let’s talk about the unhappy ones. What’s the unhappy chemical?
Loretta Breuning: So I focus on cortisol, which is, as many people have heard, called the stress chemical. In the animal world, it’s that emergency alarm system that tells you that there’s an immediate survival threat and it feels so bad, that you can’t focus on anything other than making it stop. The simple example that we always hear about is if you’re enjoying the delicious green grass, and then you smell a predator, cortisol motivates a gazelle to run from the predator, even though it would rather keep eating. But then, if you did nothing but run from predators all the time, then you’d starve to death. So the mammal brain evolved to weigh one threat against another. At some point, you’re so hungry that you run a little more risk to go out and do what it takes to keep your genes alive.
Brett McKay: So that’s an example of… Okay, a very obvious example where animals are gonna feel stress when a predator’s going after it. But in your book, you talk about that, sometimes being denied certain happy chemicals, either oxytocin or serotonin, you’re denied social trust or status, that can also cause cortisotal spike and for us to feel stressed out and anxious.
Loretta Breuning: Yeah, so this is a subtle thing. First I would never say that we’re denied it, because that’s like blaming the external world. And to me, that is just a constant self-stressor that I think we’re better off without. I think we’re better off to have the empowered feeling that I wanted a happy chemical and I didn’t get it, so now I have to try again to get it. This is, we call, disappointment. So when you anticipate a reward and you don’t get it, cortisol is released because that’s how the mammal brain protects you from wasting your effort on a failed pursuit, so you could think about a lion is making careful decisions about which gazelle to run after. Otherwise, it would starve to death if it just ran after stuff.
So, disappointment is one big source of threatened feelings, but another is, whenever our happy chemicals are on and then they’re gone in a few minutes, and then you have to do something to stimulate them. But if you don’t understand this and if you don’t have a sense of personal agency, then you think that something is wrong with the world and, “Why did I get deprived of happy chemicals and everyone else has them?” The important thing is that you know that you always have to do more to get more, and if one thing doesn’t work, that you can try something else. But underneath that, we’re aware of our own mortality. We know that something will get us some day, so the more you fail to activate your happy chemicals, the more aware you are of that underlying threat overhanging you.
Brett McKay: Well, I think, yeah, part of the problem with humans… So humans, unlike animals, yeah, we’re aware that we will die, so we gotta deal with that existential angst. And also the other problem with being human is we’re oftentimes too smart for our own good. That cortex part of our brain, our verbal part, we can take those disappointments that we experience and use our cortex to make them worse than they actually are. That’s where worry comes from, it’s like, “Well, I didn’t get the job and because I didn’t get the job, I’m gonna be homeless and because I’m homeless.” We can do that with our brain. A rabbit wouldn’t do that, but as humans, we can do that.
Loretta Breuning: Yes, exactly, very good. There’s a couple of things about this. The human cortex can anticipate the future. And that has actually protected us from a lot of harm and that’s why we have higher survival rates than animals. But because we’re constantly anticipating harm, then we can give ourselves a lot of cortisol. And if you think about our ancestors many thousands of years ago, they lived with a lot more threat than we do. So because we’ve eliminated so many threats, we just look further and further for threats and that’s why tiny social disappointments can feel like survival threats because we have this huge threat detector and nothing else to focus it on.
Brett McKay: What are some other aspects? That’s something we’ve been reading about in the news that people, particularly young people, are more… They’re the most anxious generation. A lot of an uptick in anxiety. What’s going on there? You just mentioned that we invent problems that aren’t there, but why are we doing that more now?
Loretta Breuning: So, there’s so many reasons. One of them is, because as I said, when you’re actually safe, it’s not until you’re safe from hunger that you could worry about all this minutia. And my mother actually grew up with hunger. It’s really quite recent that humans are safe from hunger. So that’s the first thing. The next thing is that you pick up on your parent sense of threat. In the past, not too long ago, parents had 10 kids and it was not unusual to lose a few. I don’t know if you know the expression that kids are like pancakes, you don’t expect the first few to come out okay, [chuckle] or something like that. So today, people have fewer children, so they think everything must go perfectly and children pick up on their parent’s sense of threat. Then, children pick up on their teacher’s sense of threat and the media’s sense of threat. And to an extent, they are intentionally trying to alarm us both because of their political persuasions and to get support, to recruit social support, because that’s how mammals build social solidarity by focusing on common enemies.
Brett McKay: And I imagine for that status disappointment, social media doesn’t help.
Loretta Breuning: Yes, it’s true. And yet everyone has focused on this and the same patterns existed before social media. Every generation uses whatever is the latest technology to explain their anxiety with their verbal brain. When trains were first invented, people thought they were stressed because trains speeded up life. This was in the early 1800s. And then when the telegraph made it possible for news to travel thousands of miles overnight, they thought, “Oh, now, we’re so stressed because news is traveling so fast.”
Brett McKay: Yeah, so yeah, same. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Loretta Breuning: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Alright. So we got a understanding of how our mammal brain works, how we have these needs, and if we don’t have those needs, we have a disappointment. Then cortisol is released, and that can cause us to feel anxious and stressed out. So you offer a solution, an idea, some tools you can use to manage that. The first part of this tool is asking, “What does my mammal brain want?” How do you figure out what your mammal brain wants whether you need social trust, serotonin, you need safety, how do you figure that out?
Loretta Breuning: Sure, so we really want all of them. So, dopamine, you could call it excitement, it’s the expectation of a reward. And when you have something going on and you’re expecting, “Oh, this is really gonna be good,” then that feels great. It gives you the sense that your needs will be met. The minute you don’t have that, even if it’s because you achieved your goal, then you lose that good feeling of dopamine, that good sense of excitement, even though you’re perfectly fine. That’s why people look for excitement, and look to the future and sometimes do harmful things for excitement. Now, oxytocin is the sense of acceptance and belonging, and we all look for that. But it’s interesting that it’s soon metabolized and it’s gone. The simple example is, when you’re with a group and you have a nice sense of solidarity and safety. And then maybe after a while you’re with this group, and they get on your nerves and you wish you could just go home and be alone.
But then when you’re home and alone, then your inner mammal starts saying, “Wow. I’m alone. I could get eaten.” Of course, you don’t think that in words. So that’s why we have ups and downs and all of these. But big one is status. When you’re in the one-up position for a moment, you get that nice feeling. We could call it pride, confidence, ego, winner. I have in my books, a list of 30 different synonyms because we think about it so much. And yet we’re told that we shouldn’t care about it, and we learn to pretend that we don’t care about it and say, “Oh, I don’t care about that.” And whenever… And yet, we seek it, when we get it, it’s gone in a few minutes, because that’s how it’s designed to work and that’s why we look for status again. So we’re all looking for all of them all the time, but there’s two things. Some of them we feel like, “Oh, I’m good at that one.” And so we tend to go for the one we’re good at, but we could possibly benefit more by going for the one that we’re not as good at.
Brett McKay: And when you’re trying to figure this stuff out of how to scratch those itches, as you said, with all these things you could pick up, you can do things that are unhealthy. Like dopamine, you could pick up, take up gambling or drugs. Oxytocin, you can get involved in relationships that aren’t healthy. Serotonin, there’s lots of, I mean… YouTube’s a perfect example, you can do a lot of terrible things to get social status. So how do you ensure you pick things to scratch those needs that are healthy in the long run?
Loretta Breuning: Yeah. I’d say that you could think of 10 examples in 10 seconds [chuckle] of bad ways to get happy chemicals. What’s so helpful is to understand that we’re wired by past experience, so whatever triggered your dopamine when you were young is the way you expect to get it today. Whatever triggered your serotonin when you were young is the way you expect to get it today. We all of course get a little more sophisticated than the worse things we did when we were young, but we sort of are playing in the same ball park. And… Excuse me, it’s hard to see this in yourself, but when you talk to other people about it, it’s mind-blowing. Like if you used to have a friend and you think, “Geez, they seem stuck in this thought loop,” and you find out about their early years, and you think, “Wow. It’s mind-blowing how they’re just repeating their childhood.” And I find myself doing it, and I see my husband doing it, so it takes a certain degree of self-acceptance to say, “We really are wired by past experience.” And that’s why we can strive to add more leaves to our neural trees, but we shouldn’t hate the branches on our own trees because then we’re hating ourselves.
Brett McKay: And then another issue with these things that you said, all these neurotransmitters, they metabolize very quickly. You do something and you feel good, but then it goes away really fast, and so you have to do something again, so how do you battle that? Seems like it’s like a… Constantly it’s like a boat that’s got a hole in it and you’re just constantly pouring water out.
Loretta Breuning: Yeah, it’s often called the treadmill feeling. Well, first, it’s so helpful to know that everyone else has the same experience. I found that so liberating. Now, as you know, there are many people who try to direct your frustration into politics and you’re taught to blame society for this treadmill feeling. And when you do that, it’s very disempowering because then you feel victimized and helpless, and then you think the only thing you could do is get angry at society and join with other people to fight society, and that’s why they’re telling you that, because they want you to join with them and fight with them. But you have more options when you understand the mechanism, but your options are limited to the realm of reality. What I suggest, I talk about it as, if you are binging on junk food, then you learn to stock your pantry with healthy food, so it’s ready in a bad moment. It’s the same way if you feel that you’re binging on unhealthy ways to get happy chemicals, that you plan in advance of healthy ways to stimulate them and practice healthy alternatives, so that in a bad moment, you know positive ways to stimulate it.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. So, instead of like… You’d say, if you’re feeling that itch of bored, have a list of things that you could go do that don’t involve potentially dangerous or unhealthy activities.
Loretta Breuning: Yes, and this is a great example because what is boredom? It’s very helpful to understand what, in Alcoholics Anonymous, they would call the trigger. It’s the moment that sends you to that old harmful stimulator. Boredom is lack of dopamine. But boredom means, “I wish I was expecting a reward but I’m not expecting a reward, so I want some excitement. What would be a way to expect a reward?” If you know that that’s what you’re doing, then you’re like, “How can I give myself the expectation of reward in ways other than the way that comes most easily to mind?” ‘Cause the way that comes most easily to mind is just a big neural pathway that’s big because it was used a lot, it’s not big because it’s good for you. So, what are alternatives? And I always explain that if you have a short-run goal, a long-run goal, and a middle-term goal, then you could always be approaching a goal, and that’s the healthy way to stimulate dopamine. ‘Cause as your brain… You only need to get one step closer for your brain to say, “Wow, it’s coming, it’s coming,” and that stimulates dopamine. And if you have a few goals, then you can shift between them and so then, you can always feel like you’re getting ahead and making progress.
Brett McKay: That’s why planning for a vacation is often more fun than the actual vacation.
Loretta Breuning: Yes, exactly, and that’s my addiction. And [chuckle] in these times we have today, so many of our favorite dopamine stimulators are off limits, including the very idea of planning for anything, period. [chuckle] So that… Yeah.
Brett McKay: Right. It’s not me… Just you gotta use your creativity and scale down, so instead of planning a week-long vacation, you could plan your weekend. Instead of just going to your weekend without any plans, have just a short plan that you can look forward to. I’m gonna get to do this this weekend and that can scratch that dopamine edge.
Loretta Breuning: Yes, exactly, exactly. You have to plan a project for yourself and a lot of people are planning cooking projects and learning a new skill that you’ve always wanted to learn. And it’s important to then break that big goal down into smaller steps, because otherwise, it gets frustrating and you have to give up. But if you break it into smaller steps, then you can constantly be enjoying that rewarding feeling.
Brett McKay: And then with oxytocin, I think, again, planning… Filling your pantry with good food or just having to plan whenever you’re feeling down, I guess one way you can scratch that itch is just have a friend you could call and just talk to. That could be something you could do to scratch that itch.
Loretta Breuning: Yes, exactly, but it is complicated. I have to admit that when I talk to other people and they’re on a bummer, [chuckle] I don’t find it very uplifting. On some level, the fact is that we’re very much wired by past experience and we have specific ideas about how we wanna get our oxytocin needs met. It helps to understand our old patterns and then make it a goal to expand those old patterns in a specific way.
Brett McKay: Alright. So yeah, coming with new strategy to get your oxytocin needs met certainly applies to our current moment where people can’t see each other in person, but you know people have had virtual book clubs, virtual Bible studies, I’ve even heard people having a virtual cocktail hours. So just look for ways to get social with a purpose beyond just grousing. And then with serotonin, how do you do that? Say, you decided, “Well, my mammal brain… I’m not feeling good about myself, I’m not feeling proud,” or that successful feeling. What can you do there? Again, it’s sort of stocking your pantry with healthy things that, well, you can turn to whenever you need it.
Loretta Breuning: Yeah, this is a big challenge. First, like I said with all the others, it’s so helpful to know that it’s natural and everyone else has the same experience. Our brain evolved to constantly compare us to others. Before monkey reaches for a banana, it compares itself to the monkeys around it and if it’s smaller, cortisol is released and that motivates it to pull back and avoid getting bitten. And cortisol feels bad, missing out on the banana fields bad, but it’s better than getting hurt, so then the monkey looks around for, “When am I in the one-up position?” So it’s just very helpful to know that our brain is overreacting to these very tiny differences. So, when you have enough food, enough bananas, and then you’re safe and warm, then you long for that one-up position because you have everything else, and you can’t be in the one-up position every minute. Even big celebrities are not in the one-up position every minute, and they drive themselves nuts over losing whatever status they have. So, finding small ways to enjoy status is useful. And of course, people can do that in small, nasty ways. So finding small, nice ways to do that is even more challenging. And so when you have plenty of free time, what better… It’s a good time to say, “How can I find a one-up feeling in healthy ways in small steps?”
Brett McKay: What’s one way that you’ve seen people use?
Loretta Breuning: So, as you know, the most common way is to help others. And this is good, this is healthy, but I do want to constrain it a little bit, since this has become the only publicly acceptable solution. And as a result, it has led to this current shared paradigm that selflessness is all good and self is all bad. And I think that’s taking it too far and it’s harmful, so what I always suggest is taking pride in your own skills and your own actions is good. Instead of just being grateful for things that fell in your lap by accident, you can be grateful for things that you did. A simple small example would be to create something that you’re proud of in small steps and then tell other people about it. And I know this is what social media is notorious for, but it actually has a healthy function. Instead of hating other people for their creations, you can take pride in your own creation and then share it, but you know what? If you get 10 likes or 20 likes, what happens is, your brain then takes that as the baseline and then the next time, if you get less than 10 likes, then you feel like it’s a failure. So it’s building the habit of taking pride in your creations and sharing them but without obsessing over the short-run reaction that you get.
Brett McKay: It sounds like, too, of one thing we can all do to help each other out is when someone does share something, give them the thumbs up ’cause that feels good, kind of scratch their back.
Loretta Breuning: Yes, exactly. And that’s oxytocin. And that’s great and it’s healthy, but again, when this is the only healthy behavior, then what happens is people think, “If I spend my whole life scratching other people’s backs, then they will scratch my back.” But then, if other people don’t scratch your back to the extent that you expect, then people get bitter, and hostile and disappointed. It’s important to be aware of that thought loop and to have other tools in your toolkit.
Brett McKay: And as we’ve been talking about these different, million happy chemicals, it seems like philosophy and religions, a lot of those are designed to help us, I guess, manage these emotions, whether it’s status, emotions, social trust, dopamine, they’re like… Our human cortex has applied that there to help us manage it better and think about it in healthy ways.
Loretta Breuning: Exactly, precisely. And the interesting thing is that in most of human history, you didn’t have a chance to choose your philosophy or religion, so you just absorbed it from the social cues around you. And today you have that choice, but some people use that choice badly in the sense that, when you’re young, it’s easy to reject the character-building thought habits of the adults around you. And then, your mind gets build abound rejecting, and opposing and critiquing. And that becomes your one-up strategy, and then that becomes your religion and you’re as stuck in that as the stuckness of the adults you grew up with.
Brett McKay: So we’ve been talking about how to manage anxiety in the long run, so we can come up with activities that we know will fulfill those needs that our mammal brain wants. But what do you do whenever you’re experiencing just a cortisol spike? You’re stressed out, you’re feeling anxious. How can you manage cortisol in a healthy way, so you can move on with your life and get going?
Loretta Breuning: So here’s the thing, cortisol has a half-life of 20 minutes, which means at once you have this surge of bad feeling for a reason that we often even don’t know like, “I don’t even know why that happened. Why did I get so upset about that?” Because my verbal brain is saying, “No big deal.” So once that happens, half of that bad feeling chemical will be gone in 20 minutes as long as I don’t trigger more. But normally, you do trigger more because cortisol tells your higher faculties, your cortex, to look for evidence of threat. Like, when a gazelle smells a predator then it looks for, “Where is the predator?” So it knows where to run. If you are looking for evidence of threat, you’re gonna find it. And that’s gonna trigger more cortisol, and then you’re gonna find more evidence and you’re in a bad loop.
So a simple way of saying that is once your bad feeling goes on, almost anything you try to do after that feels bad. And so then you get into a spiral. In that 20 minutes or 40 minutes, if you wait 40 minutes, then you can get rid of 75% of the bad feeling. In that time, do something you like, because that will help to protect you from stimulating more cortisol. And when I say do something you like, a lot of people think, “Oh, well, the way to feel good is eat vegetables and exercise.” But don’t do it when you’re feeling bad because that’s just gonna give you that, “Oh, I’m not exercising good enough and my diet isn’t good enough.” You need to give yourself some positive reward time. However, if you’re a person who goes in the other direction, like you start doing something fun for 20 minutes and then you can’t stop, then you need to set a timer and say, “I’m gonna engage in healthy rewards for 20-40 minutes, and then I’m gonna go back to facing up to whatever it was that triggered me.” And that’s what a gazelle is saying, “Where is the lion? Where is the escape path?” And then focusing only on the escape path. So it’s focusing on the solution, on the steps in front of you, rather than the threat, which is ultimately what makes us feel good.
Brett McKay: Alright, so an examples of activities you can do to distract yourself when you’re having that cortisol spike could be take a walk. I know it’s exercise, but just go outside, be outside for a little bit. You can meditate. What are some other things that are healthy?
Loretta Breuning: A famous example is playing the guitar. Whether you’re playing guitar or taking a walk in the park. There’s two different ways to do it. One, is that your body is on automatic and your brain is brooding and dwelling on the negative. [chuckle] And another is that if you are playing the guitar and singing, or if you’re walking in the park and listening to an audiobook, your brain is so busy that you cannot think about whatever it is the bothers you. And that’s what allows the electricity in your brain that was in those negative circuits to just, for those negative circuits to relax, for the cortisol to be excreted. And that clears the slate, it clears the decks, so that it’s possible to have a positive thought. I’m not saying you should learn to play the guitar, [chuckle] I’m saying you should find something that busies both your mind, and your hands, and feet, body, so that you clear the decks, wipe the slate.
Brett McKay: Right. So it could be art, knitting. I don’t know…
Loretta Breuning: Yes.
Brett McKay: Knit. Okay, yeah.
Loretta Breuning: Yes. Or TripAdvisor. [laughter]
Brett McKay: Or TripAdvisor, yeah. Start planning, yeah, you can plan. I’m gonna use that time to plan my weekend out.
Loretta Breuning: That’s mine. That’s why.
Brett McKay: That’s what you do. You know what the big cortisol cleanser for me is? That typically, I’ve noticed I get really down at nighttime, I get really in a funk. And I started doing the brooding, and ruminating and thinking worse case scenarios, and that’s when I have to stop myself, “I just need to go to sleep. Just go to bed.” And you wake up in the morning, you feel great.
Loretta Breuning: Yes.
Brett McKay: World’s beautiful again, everything’s happy. I’m probably just letting that cortisol just get out of my system by going to sleep.
Loretta Breuning: Yes. And if you can sleep while that’s happening, that’s a fabulous skill that you should really pat yourself on the back for. So then you say, “Well, why, if I’m exhausted, would I stay awake?” Part of it is that constant feeling of, “I haven’t done enough, I haven’t done enough, I haven’t done enough.” But another reason is, if you’ve ever been around toddlers, two or three years old, and sometimes they have to cry themselves to sleep because self-soothing is a complex skill and when you resist… Also, you see teenagers resisting sleep. It’s because during… The essence of sleep is that you have to let down your guard. And your inner mammal is saying, “I can’t let down my guard or I’ll get eaten. I can’t let down my guard.” That’s why it’s a sophisticated skill that we need to cultivate. And one way that I cultivate it is by taking pleasure in facing difficult challenges each morning. If I’m at the middle of my workday and something really difficult comes up that I say, “I’m gonna do that first thing in the morning.” Every morning, I tackle a difficult challenge so that I don’t have… I don’t worry about these things overnight. And if I have five difficult challenges, I know that five days from now it’ll be done.
Brett McKay: So we’ve been talking about ways to manage your own anxiety. What do you do when someone around you is just wound up tight? These are typical response… The typical way we approach that is we verbalize like, “Hey, it’s not that bad. Hey, don’t feel so bad, everything’s fine.” But that typically doesn’t work, it oftentimes just makes people angry, or more anxious.
Loretta Breuning: Yes, this is a very difficult dilemma. And again, we’re wired by our past experience. Some people want to hear that and others don’t, but what if you say… What if a person wants to hear, “Yeah, it’s awful,” but they don’t necessarily benefit from that, either. People love to hear, “Oh, it’s not your fault, they’re a jerk,” but you don’t really benefit from that. What people want is somebody that understands and other people don’t necessarily understand this whole cliche now, “Well, you haven’t been in my shoes so you can’t understand.” But then if you go around hating everyone who doesn’t understand, then you just fill yourself with a lot of hate. What I really try to understand is that we’re all born in a state of distress because when you’re born, you’re hungry, but you can’t feed yourself so you scream, and screaming brings help, but you can’t really control the help.
So we’re all born in a state of total vulnerability, and this is the foundation of your brain. It’s the first circuit that you build. That’s why that threatened feeling comes so easily. And what people need is awareness of their resources, awareness of their skills that even though they feel in this moment, like they can’t meet their needs that they actually have skills and they have met their needs in the past. So if you could help a person recognize the strength that they have, the skills that they have and often words won’t do it, but it’s actions. Any tiny step that you can get a person to take, then they will start feeling positive. And then in a way, you forget. It’s like you forget the lion because you’re focused on the escape path.
Brett McKay: Right. So maybe you have someone just take… Go do something with them instead of sitting there trying to talk to them…
Loretta Breuning: Exactly.
Brett McKay: And reason with them. That makes sense. Well Loretta, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Loretta Breuning: Thank you. Inner Mammal Institute is my website with lots of information, innermammalinstitute.org, and I have lots of books and resources for people who don’t like to read, and I have funny videos for young people, and people of all ages, and lots of infographics, and podcasts and everything else.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Loretta Breuning, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Loretta Breuning: Sure. Thank you so much.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Loretta Breuning. She is the author of several books, including her latest, Tame Your Anxiety: Rewiring Your Brain For Happiness. It’s available on amazon.com, also check out our show notes at aom.is/happychemicals, where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast. Check out or website at artofmanliness.com for our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you could do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code MANLINESS at checkout. That code MANLINESS will get you a free month trial and once you sign up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS. You can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Stitcher. It helps out alot, and if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or a family member who you would think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding all of you to listen to AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.