Monday, July 28, 2014

Meet Your Happy Chemicals Introduction

This is a summary I made of the introductory chapter to the book Meet Your Happy Chemicals by Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD. Founder of the Inner Mammal Institute I wrote it because I feel like this information is incredibly helpful to help me parent more peacefully and understand my triggers, but also prevent me from giving in to my negative vicious cycles. I've always had a hard time with candy because it's one of the cycles I have created. This knowledge has helped me get over my cravings for it more easily than anything I've ever read. I have lost over 20 pounds in two months (which also has a lot to do with breastfeeding) because of this knowledge. I take no credit for the following, it's just a summary with mostly direct words from the book. I put it here on my blog so I could have a link to spread. If you want to purchase it yourself here is the link (I really don't get anything out of this, this isn't an advertisement. I have no affiliation with the author, I just appreciate the message):

The feeling we call happiness comes from four brain chemicals: dopamine, endorphin, oxytocin, and serotonin. Dopamine produces the joy of finding what you seek, "I got it!", Endorphin produces the oblivion that masks pain, often called euphoria. Oxytocin produces the feeling of being safe with others, developing trust, and bonding. Serotonin produces the feeling of being respected by others, pride. These chemicals work without words. It's easy to believe that your verbal inner voice is your whole thought process, and ignore your neurochemical self.

Happy chemicals are controlled by a collection of brain structures that all mammals have in common: the hippocampus, amygdala, pituitary, hypothalamus, and other parts collectively known as the limbic system. In humans, the limbic system is surrounded by a huge cortex and the two work together to keep us alive. Your cortex looks for patterns in the present that match patterns you stored in the past. Your body doesn't always act on the messages it receives from the limbic system because your cortex overrides it. So it tries again. The cortex can override it temporarily, but the limbic system is at the core of who you are.

The mammal brain motivates you to go toward things that trigger happy chemicals and avoid things that trigger unhappy ones. You can restrain yourself from acting on a neurochemcial impulse, but your brain keeps generating more. You're always using neurochemicals to decide what is good for you and what to avoid. Your cortex helps by directing attention and sifting information, but your limbic brain sparks the action. None of these actions come from verbal logic so we struggle to make sense of them.

Happy chemicals are not there to be on all the time. They're there to promote survival. It relies most on early experiences even though children can understand survival realistically. It cares as much for the survival of your genes through reproduction as it does your own body. But if you know how the system works it becomes easier to get more happy chemicals and to avoid unhappy ones. If you want to be happy, you have to get it from the limbic system.

The limbic system can't process language. All talking is in the cortex. So it never tells you why it is spurting happy/unhappy chemicals. Other animals accept their impulses without expecting a verbal rationale. So understanding what motivates them and how they act on them helps us to understand ourselves.

Your feelings are unique because you built neural pathways from your unique life experience. When something made you feel good as a child, the happy chemicals built connections. When something felt bad your unhappy chemicals seared that information too. Over time, some of your neural pathways turned into superhighways because you activated them a lot. The brain builds on the pathways it already has. We store experiences and don't delete them. This helps us go toward things that helped us in the past and avoid things that endangered us. The bigger the surge of happy chemicals the easier the circuit is made.

You built circuits effortlessly when you were young. Building new circuits in adulthood is like trying to slash a new trail through a dense rain forest. Every step requires a huge effort and the new trail disappears into the undergrowth if you don't use it again soon. Such trail-blazing feels inefficient and downright unsafe when a nice superhighway is nearby. That's why people tend to stick with the pathways they have. You can build new trails. It's harder than you expect, but easier when you understand your equipment.

When unhappy chemicals flow, you don't usually respond by thanking them for promoting your survival. Instead, you think of ways to trigger happy ones. But their purpose is to get your attention fast. Bad feelings are produced by cortisol. Your response to cortisol depends on what it is paired with (low blood sugar, social exclusion, the threat of a predator, etc). When it flows it links to the neurons active in your brain at that moment. This wires you to recognize danger cues in the future.

When you have a cortisol alert, your brain looks for a way to make it stop. Sometimes the solution is obvious like pulling your hand off a hot stove, but they're not always obvious. That "do something" feeling promotes survival, but it also causes trouble. It motivates us to do anything that stops the cortisol. Can eating a donut fix a career or romantic setback? From your brain's perspective it can. Consciously you know the donut does not solve the problem, but when something changes unhappy chemicals to happy ones your brain learns from that experiences.

Each brain has a network of connections built from experiences that felt good in the past. These connections represent simple things like donuts and complex things like social trust and practical skills. By the time you are old enough to choose your own course of action, you already have a brain full of circuits that turn your neurochemicals on and off.

Viscous cycles occur when there is shame attached to your happy trigger: You're unhappy -->  you eat a donut --> you feel better --> then you feel guilty because you know donuts are unhealthy --> you're unhappy again --> you eat a donut --> you see where this is going. But you can stop a viscous cycle in one instant. Just resist that "do something" feeling and live with the cortisol. It's not easy because cortisol screams for your attention. After 45 days of doing this consistently the bad feeling eases and a new habit forms. A viscous cycle is easy to see in someone else. That's why people are often tempted to take charge of other people's happiness. Even while doing nothing about a vicious cycle of their own. But each person much manage their own limbic system. No one else can reach into your brain and trigger your happy chemicals for you.