The last ten days have been fascinating as my kickstarter campaign has been public and I am witnessing my own cycles of self-talk through this process. The day I launched this campaign I was full of excitement and possibility. It felt so good to finally be at the point of reaching out for support and hiring a couple professionals to support me in getting this book into the best shape possible. Day 2 rolled around and I was struck with the possibility of such a public failure if this campaign doesn't work. I had a few moments of self-doubt as I wondered what made me think this is something I could get hundreds of people on board with supporting. I got through that because of the kind and wise words of many friends who reminded me that this project is not about me, but about the many people I am inspired to support and share my story with. And, when it comes down to it, I need to practice what I preach. A failure does not mean a final failure unless I let it. Everything is learning. If this campaign doesn't work, then I am back to the drawing board, adjusting my aim, and then back to it. Suddenly I felt the weight of the world roll off my shoulders.
A few more days in and I got into a groove of ensuring I talk about the campaign everyday and send off emails with ideas and enrolling others in supporting the project. I am happy to say that I am 11 days in and 24% of the way to my goal! I have 28 days left to get to my goal, otherwise the money pledged goes back to the generous and supportive people who have opted in to support this project so far. I need momentum to reach my goal. And that means I need an army of people alongside me, excited for the potential of this book, and eager to help me spread the word.
So, today's strategy: As I sat down to do some edits this morning, I decided it is time to share more of what this book looks like. Below I have pasted Chapter 9. There is still some work to be done, but this is where it is for now. Feel free to let me know what you think or if you have suggestions to make it even better - keeping in mind that there are eight chapters leading up to it and two chapters after.
Thanks for your time and consideration. I would be thrilled and forever grateful to have YOU help me share this link and spread my message of vulnerability, strength, and road-map to creating your best life possible. We are all heroes and full of potential. It's time to get out of your own way.
Chapter 9: Transformation
“Your brain responds with the strategies it has learned.” Loretta Breuning
“It is always darkest before the dawn.” This iconic phrase speaks volumes of truths when I look back on my life. Although I felt broken again, this was my chance to rebuild my life, my beliefs, my habits, and my neural pathways, to support the person I truly was deep down. The complete loss of the foundation beneath your feet is a terrible opportunity to waste. I knew it wouldn’t be easy but I also knew that I couldn’t go back to the belief system I had before. My journey as a philosopher had truly begun. I had my big question: “Is radical change truly possible and sustainable? If so, how do I make it happen?”
Relationship with Death
One thing was clear: I needed to change my relationship with death. But how? Although it is terribly painful and difficult at first, I have developed a habit of thinking about death daily. I contemplate my mortality. I express gratitude for another day of health and connections. I stay real with this tumultuous fact of life: death is coming for us all.
In an article written on the BBC travel website, writer Eric Weiner depicts his lessons learned on his recent trip to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. Titled “Bhutan’s Dark Secret to Happiness,” the article paints a picture of the Bhutan culture and their tradition of thinking about death five times a day. Known for its policy on Gross National Happiness, this society emphasizes the importance of sustainable development through non-economic aspects of well-being. To them, they have found a correlation between happiness and contemplating death. Weiner points out that, “as Buddhists say, you shouldn’t fear dying any more than you fear discarding old clothes.”
Other than retraining your brain to contemplate and dance with the uncertainty that arises with death, how else can we start to curb our body’s overactive fight or flight response and tap into the energy of balance? It is exhausting and frustrating to feel stressed, anxious, and fearful throughout your day. We all have so much going on in our lives and at times the responsibilities on our shoulders can feel like a weight too heavy to carry. It is important to find time every day to reconnect with yourself. Slow down and connect with your breath and shine light on the benefits of wherever you are in this moment.
We have goals. We strive to be better, smarter, more successful, more experienced, more attractive, and more respected but that doesn’t have to be a trade-off for joy and contentment in the moment at hand. Challenge yourself to spend ten minutes each day (I find it best to do this in the morning) to take a step back and notice how you feel and what habits you are engaging in that no longer serve who you want to be. A consistent yoga practice with a teacher who reminds you of the jewel of being present will help a lot as well.
The moment you feel stress, anxiety, or fear reaching for the wheel, you can implement the techniques of mindfulness to redirect energy away from the fight or flight response and towards the problem-solving area of your brain by asking yourself quality introspective questions. The quality of your question will determine the quality of your answer and, ultimately, the quality of your mindset. Avoid bringing in judgement and unnecessary victimizing by asking “why does this always happen to me?” or “what’s wrong with me?” or “why does everybody else have it easier than me?” Rather, spark curiosity and a desire to understand by asking “how do I want to show up here?” or “what do I really want out of this?” or “how do I want to feel at the end of today?” or “what reminders do I need here to ensure I lean into this struggle?”
Much of the fear we fall victim to can be categorized as "future fear." When we are in actual immediate danger, we react and our body does the job of getting us out of danger's way, without much thought or deliberation. The sensation of fear that is generally spoken about is the fear of potential danger in the future. Fear of death. Fear that we won't get what we want. Fear that something is lurking around the next corner. Fear that we aren't strong enough or capable enough to handle what life throws at us. Fear that life won't turn out the way we want it to.
When we talk about fear, the real question to ask is: “how do we overcome the fear of the future and go on living life in present?”
Our fear of the future is a result of our over-protective system that sees uncertainty and assumes the worst will happen. The goal is to understand that the feeling of fear is simply energy flowing down a neural pathway, a finger pointing at what needs to be healed in your life, or a made-up prediction of what's to come that gives us a sensation of uneasiness.
For example: why do you fear making the wrong choice? You may have a limiting belief telling you that bad things happen when you make the wrong choice. This may have been true once, at one time, in one situation, but as a blanketed "rule of thumb" it does not allow for the complexity of the human condition or the importance of learning by making mistakes.
As I engaged in this conversation of life and death, I learned to approach my health differently. Working out was no longer about looking good, it was about keeping my brain and body in shape to handle life’s curve balls. Although I had not had a near-death experience, this intense contemplation of death felt like an opportunity to reshape my modus operandi. Death turned into a beautiful aspect of life that allowed me to relearn how I wanted to show up and how I wanted to feel moment to moment. I don’t want to be blindsided by death's grip. I don’t want to be on my death bed and wonder why I didn’t live more fully and enjoy life while I had the chance. I don’t want to lose a loved one and then realize I never fully expressed my love or admiration for who they were. I think about death every day as a reminder that life is happening right now and I want to drink up every ounce of experience and beauty within this magical thing called life. And I know that movement, sweat, and challenges are actually what build resilience and keep my Elephant and Rider working harmoniously.
Motion is Lotion
While working to create these new habits and build new relationships with these complex concepts of our psyche, you have got to keep your body moving! There is something about a good sweat session that seems to make life’s struggles a little more digestible. I can be in a rotten mood with a heavy heart due to various struggles in my day or life. But when I get moving, connect with my breath, and get some sweat rolling down my back, suddenly I realize I have been taking life a little too seriously. With each bead of sweat I can feel my worries melting off my shoulders.
Too much stress can begin to erode the connections you have worked hard to create and, over time, certain parts of your brain can actually begin to shrink. Luckily, we now know regeneration is a skill we can harness as we recover from life’s traumas and exercise is one sure-fire way to promote that process. Exercise can cause our neurons to actually grow and create new connections that enhance our brain’s functionality exponentially.
The act of getting your heart rate up and engaging with your breath in a mindful and intentional manner brings your bodily system back to equilibrium. It also releases a few growth hormones in your brain to aid in mood balancing, memory, learning, coping with future stress, and an overall sense of happiness and control.
Whether you make time in the morning as part of your routine or get a sweat in at lunch or after work, it is important to make this a priority. Don’t think of this just as time to work on your body but rather as a pivotal ingredient in keeping your mind healthy, stable, and open.
As my yoga teacher Nora Maskey says: “motion is lotion.” Exercise creates the biological changes and conditions necessary for growth but what you do with that potential is up to you.
“To keep our brains at peak performance, our bodies need to work hard.”
Birth of dope(a)me
With my ever-increasing collection of knowledge and passion for the mind-body connection, I was able to begin the process of coaching myself out of depressive states. I was making huge strides but I still felt like something was missing. In a fun-filled weekend in the summer of 2011, I finally had the paradigm shift moment I so badly craved. I branded my business — dope(a)me — from this experience as it was a vital piece to this ever-expanding puzzle.
I was in Vancouver visiting friends. The sun was shining and I was in the mood for a new experience and adventure. My friend had some MDMA and I was excited to let loose. For those of you who do not know, MDMA acts as a serotonin-norepinephrine-dopamine releasing agent and reuptake inhibitor. This means that not only does it release these happy chemicals that produce a feeling of euphoria, extreme empathy, connection, and motivation, but it also blocks the reuptake so your system is swimming in these high-vibes. This drug is not for everyone and my intention here is to not glamorize or encourage experimentation because my anecdotal experience does not ensure yours would be the same. I was warned that I would most likely have a rough “down period” as the drugs left my system, leaving me depleted until my body could recover from the experience. “Reality just isn’t as sweet after you have experienced life on ‘dizzles’ (one of many slang terms for MDMA),” I was told. For me, life became sweeter.
An hour after I ingested the magic pill, I found myself walking through downtown Vancouver on my own, smiling at everyone I passed by and dialling up one friend after another to tell them how much I loved them. I felt superb, free, detached from stress or worry, excited about whatever my future held, and so in tune with the present moment. This experience compounded into a revelation — I have felt like this before. When I eat a mindful, balanced and nourishing diet, get the sleep that I need, sweat, push outside my comfort zone, engage with inspiring and empowering people, create and actively support people around me…I feel a natural high.
I was sick and tired of feeling like I was missing the key ingredients to a happy life. I had been searching for passion and purpose yet I had neglected the wisdom and power that I already had within me. My MDMA experience made me realize that I am full and complete already and that, when I shift my perspective and mindset, I experience a different reality. This is the way I wanted to live my life. I had known moments with this feeling before but I wanted sustainable happiness and fewer (if any) depressive episodes. I did not want to depend on drugs, outside validation, or place my future happiness in the hands of a goal or accomplishment that would only bring me fleeting rewards. I wanted that internal, deep-rooted sense of happiness and freedom. I was ready and committed to turn my life around and live in a way that would produce this feeling of euphoria and contentment.
That pivotal moment sparked a curiosity to understand these happy chemicals and what it takes to create a natural high on a daily basis in a real, healthy, and sustainable way. I explored, researched, conversed with experts, and practiced with tools and ideas that I found or created. I realized that knowing about this mind-body connection could open my mind to a new way of thinking. I began to see my emotions as by-products of my thoughts and actions. I was no longer a victim of circumstance. I found my treasure. I began to lean into my fears and struggles as opportunities to grow and understand myself even more. I created a system that supported me in retraining my brain into healthier and more fun habits of thought and action which, consequentially, increased my overall happiness.
Knowing about these happy chemicals, how to create them, how to keep them in balance, and how to recognize when time and attention needed to be spent to elevate them, has been life changing for me and my clients. When we actively and mindfully engage in activities that boost our happy chemicals on a daily basis, consciously let go of stale habits, thoughts and actions that are deflating, and create a mindset that focuses on growth and progress versus perfection and comparisons, we can increase our happiness baseline.
“The feeling we call ‘happiness’ comes from four special brain chemicals: dopamine, endorphin, oxytocin, and serotonin. These ‘happy chemicals’ spurt when your brain sees something good for your survival. Then they turn off, so they’re ready to spurt again when something good crosses your path.”
Meet Your Happy Chemicals by Loretta Breuning
What are these magical happy chemicals? Where do they come from? What do you need to know about them? To be the change you want to see in yourself and in the world, you need the motivation, the tools, the path and the support. Once you are clear on your core values, your goals and the daily and incremental steps needed to align yourself with who you truly want to be, getting those happy chemicals pumping daily will make the journey so much smoother and a lot more fun.
Here are the basics you need to know about your happy chemicals:
From an evolutionary perspective, as hunters and gatherers, life was strenuous and required the exertion of a lot of energy to find the basics for living. Dopamine is the happy chemical that spurts when you find something you have learned promotes your survival, and in turn, creates momentum in productivity, motivation for action, and an overall feeling of pleasure. Our deeply rooted programming rewards us with this pleasurable chemical which gives us energy to complete our task and feel a sense of accomplishment.
It is the feeling of a second-wind when you hear your spin motivator announce the last track of the playlist. The feeling of pride when you pull that banana bread out of the oven. The feeling of satisfaction when you guess what your partner will say next and you are right. It is the feeling of motivation when you check items off your to-do list. Dopamine feels good! You feel jazzed on life and brave in your actions. Nothing beats the motivating feeling of dopamine.
But as we know, too much of a good thing is no longer a good thing. Dopamine is a tricky chemical because, although it releases good feelings, it feels so good that we can easily fall into the trap of more, more, more. This is the chemical of addiction. We fall in love with that first high and spend the rest of our life in search of that same feeling. The problem is, our body craves novelty and you will not find that same good feeling by doing the same thing over and over.
A good practice to be in is to be consistent in noticing your own patterns and habits. When you get attached or addicted to a sensation, it no longer is serving you, rather, you are serving it.
Although we want to be mindful to not get addicted to our pursuit of more dopamine, there are some ways to produce this naturally and mindfully in your daily routine. Dopamine is released when you work up a sweat, set goals and take incremental steps to get there, create a to-do list and check things off as you go, practice yoga or mindful movement with intentional and focused breathing, eat a healthy and well-rounded diet including foods rich in tyrosine (i.e. bananas, avocado, almonds, green tea, chocolate, eggs, yogurt, etc.), and create a constant reason to seek as you collect experiences, resources, or knowledge. This chemical of motivation aids in sleep, memory, efficient action, mood, and overall cognitive ability and flexibility.
John Ratey tells us, in his brilliant book SPARK, that “[dopamine] works like transmission fluid: if there’s not enough…attention can’t easily be shifted or can only be shifted all the way into high gear.”
This makes it extremely important to find ways to elevate your dopamine levels daily and fuel the reserve tank that allows for balanced action as opposed to extreme swings from total exertion to complete lack of motivation.
Our ancestors learned quickly that we are stronger and more capable when we work together as a tribe. We adapted to strive for acknowledgement and to crave the feeling of importance, as it signaled higher chances of safety. Serotonin is the happy chemical that spurts when you do something that furthers your (real or perceived) integral role within a group. It enhances our desire for social dominance, respect, and status. It is also the reason we are in a constant state of one-upmanship and comparison. When serotonin is low, we naturally see the lives and accomplishments of others with a golden hue. We inherited a brain that seeks status and we lose serotonin and get the buzz of cortisol when we find ourselves in a low-status position, which can occur several times throughout your day.
Serotonin feels like safety, respect and confidence. It aids in emotional balancing, bowel regulation, and cognitive flexibility. John Ratey refers to serotonin as “the policeman of the brain because it helps keep brain activity under control. It influences mood, impulsivity, anger, and aggressiveness (2008).” Serotonin is a powerful antidote to fear and anxiety as it targets the brainstem and amygdala directly, the areas of the brain where our programmed and habitual reactions come from.
When you are in a low serotonin state it can feel like something is wrong with the world. Your subconscious mind does not care about being rational: it views a low-status position as a survival threat. Putting others down or being a cynic about life in general is a common reaction — and safeguard — to this feeling of low-status (Breuning…). You get a boost of serotonin when you knit-pick at others to momentarily make yourself feel like the better person. It can also feel good to be a cynic about life, because every time something “bad” happens, this confirms that you were “right.” A met expectation, regardless of whether it is anabolic or catabolic, feels good.
What do we do with this information? Once you can recognize these reactions and impulses as your subconscious doing its very best to promote your survival, it becomes easier to love yourself for trying and then choosing a new way to respond. If your mind is seeking status, take some time to write out a gratitude journal or acknowledge yourself for what is going well in your life. Take time daily to acknowledge what you are proud of, allowing yourself to see the advantages and beauty in where you are now. Note that your status will naturally go up and down throughout your day, and develop the ability to notice when you feel low-status so you can practice doing something healthy about it, rather than show-boating or simply posting a selfie on your social media. This is a conversation to get into with friends, family and partners. In any healthy relationship, there is a dance and ebb and flow between high and low status. We all need to feel that high-status position occasionally and can find it more often when you are in a partnership that honours that need.
You also get some of this happy chemical by engaging in mindful movement and aerobic exercise, getting sunshine and fresh air, working on a hobby or something you feel skilled at, letting go of comparisons, and opening yourself to new opportunities.
With too much serotonin we experience lack of impulse control, depression, and seasonal affective disorder (Ratey 2008). Think of our bodies like machines. With too much or too little of the oil needed to function, problems arise.
Through this practice, we need to continue reminding ourselves to seek balance. We are not meant to feel the high-vibes of happy chemicals all day, every day. Can you breathe in contentment even when you are aware that you are currently in a low-status position? Can you breathe in gratitude even when you are not thrilled with the way your day is going? Can you breathe in trust and courage even when you feel the uncertainty and unpredictability of life all around you? Ultimately, serotonin courses through your system when you tap into your unique purpose, allowing your light to shine in this world. Carve your own path and remind yourself daily of what makes your life a gift: serotonin will come along for the ride.
This is the “love chemical.” We have survived and prospered because we reproduce. This chemical promotes survival with the desire for heartfelt social bonds, loving relationships, and positive interactions. From an evolutionary perspective, those who could create trusting and loving relationships had a better chance of survival as well as the opportunity to create and sustain offspring. Although we have a strong impulse for independence and a personalized experience of reality, we also recognize the need for social support and connection. We are powerful on our own but we are limitless when we come together.
Oxytocin is released when you receive or deliver tender love and care. It feels like safety, trust, love, and connection. It is an amnestic hormone which means it has the ability to wipe out previous neural pathways that lead to past lovers, as well as the ability to store faint memories of the pain of childbirth. When you reach out to give and receive support, this actually protects your cardiovascular system from the harmful effects of stress, anxiety, and fear. It works as a natural anti-inflammatory, and helps signal a state of relaxation and calm, even during stressful life events.
There are also oxytocin receptors in your heart which help heal and regenerate cells from damage. Which means that even in the face of fear or the grips of stress, if we can focus on love and get some oxytocin flowing, we will recover quicker both emotionally and physically (Rankin 2015).
The iconic saying is true: “love is the answer.” But of course, too much of this chemical can lead to undesirable outcomes as well. Because of its emphasis on bonds and connection, it can lead to “othering” as we are wary to connect with someone we just met or trust someone we consider to not be in our “tribe.” Be mindful of the tendency of creating an “us” versus “them” mentality for no other reason than the sense of safety and belonging we get from this othering. I have found that when I focus on inclusivity as a core value, I am not sucked into the exclusive impulse this “othering” can create.
You can create oxytocin naturally — although you should still be mindful of the urge to swim in this all day, every day — by listening to soothing music, focusing on love and compassion in your responses, engaging in meditative breath, laughing, having sex, getting a twenty second hug, connecting with friends and family, or working up a sweat while laughing and connecting with those around you.
These chemicals are all interconnected and somewhat complicated. If you engage in an activity expecting to get a happy chemical boost, your strategic formula might not get the same result you might have gotten in the past. It is best to understand how to create a lifestyle that keeps these chemicals flowing but it is equally important to pay attention to what unique quantities your bodily system requires for balance.
Chemicals are released by our subconscious and target different areas of our body, not just our mind. As we have discussed, while we engage in self-talk in our conscious mind, this powerful chemical communication is governed by our habitual and pleasure-seeking subconscious system. While we can cognitively know that we do not want to eat five donuts, have a one night stand, or let our partner or boss walk all over us, our subconscious wants to feel good and will keep fighting to get you to feel pleasure now. It takes time, patience and a whole lot of love to retrain our subconscious mind to see pleasure in growth, good vibes in standing up for ourselves, and comfort in self-love and healthy food choices. It simply is a matter of perception, a shift in your expectations of your own actions, and a change in your mental model of how you view your will power and discipline.
Again, we did not evolve to feel good all the time. It is important to note that you need to have the basic building blocks of a healthy and balanced life in order to get the full range of benefits from these chemicals. As I often state while teaching yoga, we first need stability, then mobility, then look to add strength. Without the steady foundation of nourishing food, nourishing thoughts, nourishing relationships, hydration, sleep, sweat, and the practice of learning, we cannot generate a stable lifestyle and healthy mindset.
Know that everyone is different. What works for me is not what will necessarily work for you. As you get used to an activity that once produced a huge spurt of juicy happy chemicals, the effects begin to diminish as your mind and body craves novelty to keep these chemicals flowing. Stay open and curious to what you are feeling and allow each day to be an adventure.
We now know that our brain is flexible and resilient. Our brain is adaptable and capable of much more than we realize. Use it or lose it. The more you use it and the more you understand it, the stronger and more flexible it will be.
As you develop a new routine of actively engaging in activities that produce happy chemicals, remember that creating new habits takes time and patience.
“Building new circuits in adulthood is like trying to slash a new trail through dense rainforest. Every step takes huge effort, and the new trail disappears into the undergrowth if you don’t use it again soon. Such trailblazing feels inefficient and downright unsafe when a nice superhighway [i.e. habit] is nearby. That’s why people tend to stick with the pathways they have.”
Meet Your Happy Chemicals by Loretta Breuning, PHD
Reflect, Learn, Grow:
1. What do you really want out of life?
2. How do you need to show up each day to create momentum towards what you really want?
3. What does your ideal morning routine look like to tap into your ideal state of mind?
4. What are key reminders for you to ensure you are actively engaging in activities and thoughts that produce happy chemicals?