In this episode we’ll be talking about mental health, and some of the simple ways you can “rewire your brain” to cope with stress. We have New York Times Bestselling author Dr. Laurel Mellin joining us to talk about her new book, “The Stress Overload Solution: Emotional Brain Training”. You can learn more about Dr. Mellin and her work at BrainBasedHealth.org.
Welcome to Recovery Radio by Landmark Recovery with your host, Zach Crouch. In this program we’ll discuss the root causes and treatments of alcohol and substance addiction, speak with experts in related fields, and help navigate the road to recovery.
Now, here’s the host of Recovery Radio, Zach Crouch.
Zach: In this episode we’ll be talking about mental health and some of the simple ways you can rewire your brain to cope with stress. We have New York Times bestselling author Dr. Laurel Mellin joining us to talk about her new book, The Stress Overload Solution: Emotional Brain Training.
Welcome to the show, Dr. Mellin. We are so grateful to have you on with us as a guest today.
Dr. Mellin: What a pleasure, Zach. I’m so happy to be here with you.
Zach: You obviously are a doctor. Tell us a little bit about your education and background. Where did you go to school and your training?
Dr. Mellin: Actually I went to UC Berkeley and then later to North Central University and became a Health Psychologist. I first was a Nutritionist and I’m at UCSF, University of California San Francisco trying to go to the root cause of these addictive drives and stress. I started off working with food addiction. I realized I had to go deeper into the brain and then I became a Health Psychologist. I’ve been involved in emotional brain training for more than 30 years because the science is just amazing.
Dr. Mellin: It’s only just recently become much more scalable and turnkey.
Zach: One of the things that I see people do in this space, in mental health is they find something that they are passionate about, really passionate about and before you know it they’re blogging, before you know it they’ve got a podcast and before you know it they’ve got a book. What prompted you to write this book?
Dr. Mellin: The reason I wrote this book and developed emotional brain training is because I felt powerless. I was a clinician but I’m also a regular old human being that gets stressed. I was finding that you can’t fake your way out of these drives.
Dr. Mellin: I would see my patients they would try these techniques. What happens is if we’ve learned since that the cognitive and these thinking brain-oriented techniques are so great, but then all of a sudden because they don’t go to the bottom of the brain where the stress wires are, if you’re in stress it just doesn’t work at all.
I was blaming myself. For me it was stress eating, but for my patients it was anything from being addicted to work, to technology, to drinking, to whatever that was. I said, “We have a new paradigm now. We’ve got to get to the bottom of the emotional brain.”
Dr. Mellin: It really became a passion for me because I could see how I would really get into my own circle, my own loop of doubting myself or “Why did I do that” or self-analyzing. I thought, “That’s a total waste of time.”
Zach: You beat yourself up, right?
Dr. Mellin: Yes. That’s why. Just because I’m not here for the worried well; I’m here because I know I’ve suffered trauma and I’ve suffered these different things.
Dr. Mellin: What I want to do is find a way to really get to the root cause so that we can get some freedom.
Zach: Awesome. I love it. Before we jumped on the call today you mentioned one thing about how mindfulness meditation it’s such a phenomenon in our culture now because so many people are doing it and getting benefits from it.
One of the things that you mentioned was that it doesn’t get, I think to your vernacular doesn’t get at the root cause of this stuff especially when you’re in the middle of a stress response as you would say. Can you walk our listeners a little bit through what you meant by that, what you mean?
Dr. Mellin: Absolutely. Essentially you have two kinds of circuits in your brain. One is a balancing circuit that is…essentially these circuits control unconsciously our responses including our thoughts, our emotions, and our drives. If you’re in low stress, it’s calledactually a homeostatic circuit or a stress-resilient circuit these things are really fantastic. They just take care of us. We really have this feeling like we’re doing the right thing. We’re probably free. We’ll never go off into an addictive response again.
What happens is when stress hits us it goes right down to our trauma circuits, our early attachment where we didn’t get the nurturing and the safety we needed and we had more trauma. When we have more trauma we also have to escape from that trauma.
The brain encodes these survival circuits. It’s a completely different physiologic circuit. What that does is it has no shut-off valve. It will do whatever you take, it takes to get that same response again to get free of that trauma, to get free of that feeling of you’re not loved, you’re not safe.
Either of the biologic circuits, EBT works for those circuits. The sad part is it took us until the last five years now that people are doing so much more mindfulness. It’s great if you have a set point where you’re always using those self-correcting circuits in low stress, but that’s not the reality for most people anymore.
Dr. Mellin: We’re finding more reports of people saying, “I really feel like I should always be in empathetic. I should always be compassionate. I should always be kind.” That’s just not how the brain works.
Zach: When you don’t do that you begin to regress and beat yourself up, as we talked about when you’re not those things.
Dr. Mellin: Right. There’s just something else that’s really, really amazing. The only time you can really rewire those trauma circuits and those addictive circuits is when you are in them they do not rewire when you’re feeling great.
Dr. Mellin: When you’re feeling great you build really good, “I am healthy. I am self-resilient” circuits. The problem is the brain is survival-based. When in fact you go through stress, let’s say you fall in love with someone, that’s going to activate circuits.
Zach: It sure will.
Dr. Mellin: You’re moving to a new town or you try to cope without using your primary addiction. That’s very stressful.
Dr. Mellin: You go into stress and those stress-circuits at the bottom of the brain, these survival circuits are so much more powerful because of evolutionary biology they have to be.
Dr. Mellin: The sweet nice circuits that they not only wipe out that work we’ve done to be healthy but they actually come out with a vengeance and then we start in this downward spiral, this toxic spiral that’s “What’s wrong with me? Why do I go off and return to my addiction again?” You did it because you can’t stop the addiction until you rewire those survival circuits to the bottom of the brain.
Dr. Mellin: What EBT’s designed to do is help comprehensive programs like yours have another layer of support so people don’t judge themselves.
Dr. Mellin: Actually when they’re getting activated they say, “Oh, the circuit is making me addicted.” It’s actually open to change the way it’s not open to change around feeling great and “I’m going to do everything I can to get my sponsor to use EBT tools and make a community connection, to go to my doctor, and stay present in my emotions and change the messages then.” That’s what helps us to have change that’s lasting.
Zach: I love it. When you’re talking about those deep parts of our brain that are just impossible to turn off until we begin to rewire the brain and how it works really, I was thinking of the image of a bird going up to its chicks with the mouths open, the babies’ mouths are open screaming for food. It’s like that in a sense. They’re not going to stop screaming until you feed them.
Dr. Mellin: Exactly.
Zach: I wonder just how…have you worked with other treatment programs? What’s been the success so far of working, if you have at least with this particular approach?
Dr. Mellin: We have two parts of it. Number one, it’s the only method that’s shown lasting post-treatment change for food addiction. In other words, that people go for that. They learn to be the little baby birds that they’re actually using that moment of opening their beak and wanting the food to turn that around to a secure attachment. “I do not get my existence from whatever that substance is. I get my existence from connecting to the deepest part of me that was from an insecure attachment to a secure attachment.”
We actually stopped EBT and didn’t promote it. We have a lot of people come to it for a number of years because we knew that we had…it’s very humbling, frankly. I’m a Health Psychologist. I work at a university with people that are doing major work in neuroplasticity, emotion plasticity, stress, and addiction, but still it’s very humbling to think that in my own work we did discover how to rewire the emotional brain.
I decided that I wasn’t going to start putting out books and promoting it to addiction centers and to health facilities until it was so clean and so simple that I felt that I would never have to change it again.
Dr. Mellin: Fortunately I did that right when the brochures were coming out. It was just as I wrote The Stress Overload Solution. This is why on our website we have an app now so it takes the guesswork out of it. We’re just starting that phase.
I was delighted when you made a request for me to come on your program because I looked at how comprehensive your services are. I really felt admiration for how thorough you’ve been especially for evidence-based programs. We’re just starting that now.
Zach: That’s great. I appreciate that. We have been on this journey now with Landmark Recovery for going on four-plus years. We wanted to provide something here in the Louisville area at least. We’ve expanded to Carmel, Indiana. We’re also open in Oklahoma City with plans to open in other cities.
With a couple of things in mind we wanted to be able to provide a program that was going to be innovative and yet also based in sound, scientifically-proven methods of treatment. The seeking safety curriculum which is a trauma-based program that treats both the traumas as well as the addiction that’s present.
That has to happen as far as we’re concerned because as we were talking earlier if you don’t address some of those underlying issues around attachment, around trauma then naturally when the stress does hit again you’re going to go to your tried-and-true method even though it’s painfully obvious it doesn’t work anymore to others and probably yourself but you need something to be able to counteract that, those strong emotional pieces.
Dr. Mellin: Exactly. Just to give you a sense of that, there are five different levels of stress in the brain and your addiction circuits are in the fourth and fifth levels down at the bottom of the brain.
Zach: They’re in the brain stem, right?
Dr. Mellin: Yes, they are. The issue is again cognitive, behavioral, and mindfulness all work at one or two, at the top part of the brain but not three, four or five. We’ve made EBT, and again I’m just saying that this is developed at the university, we’re trying just to get these tools out to people because we’re not so much seeing chronic diseases as much anymore as stress-induced diseases — the addictions, the anxieties, the depression. There are all these circuits at the bottom of the brain.
We’ve made it so that on our website which is ebt.org you can just go in and get the app and that’s all you get. You can combine it with any other program that you have or you can get into tele-groups and other ways of learning it that has remote support, remote tele-group support.
The idea is it can be combined with anything because it’s not just a method. It’s a paradigm shift where we’re saying the new paradigm is you got to go to the bottom of the brain and you want to have a therapist or EBT-provider or physician, someone who’s helping you but you also want peer-to-peer support and you also want to be independent.
Dr. Mellin: You want to be able to have that tool so that when you get triggered you can pick up that brain-based health app and shut off the trigger. I have a high set point now and I’ve gotten past my addictive behaviors because I walk my talk.
The idea is that if you wake up in the middle of the night and an old memory from some traumatic event in childhood or since that time, particularly relational and you’re going to be down at brain stage five and you’re going to use the damage control tool and begin to shut it off and then you’re going to use the tool.
Zach: Food, sex, drugs, whatever it was.
Dr. Mellin: Yes. The idea is you got to have…because stress it can happen anytime anywhere and you got to have multiple layers of support to shut off those emotional circuits.
Zach: Tell us. There are a couple of things I want to unpack here. You mentioned raising the brain set point. Can you tell the listeners what you’re referring to here?
Dr. Mellin: Great. Remember I was mentioning that there are five different levels of stress in the brain?
Dr. Mellin: When you brain’s at one when you’re feeling good the neo cortex is in charge; two, it goes down a little bit; then it’s about your limbic brain or your mammalian brain, it’s three; at four you’re really at the bottom of the brain; and five you’re at the brain stem, reptilian brain. These are called physiologic brain states and it’s normal for all people to be in all five of them in any given day.
Dr. Mellin: They can flicker back and forth.
Zach: At the end of the day if you’re in between all of them, I’d imagine you’d be pretty exhausted.
Dr. Mellin: Well, if you get stuck in them and the problem is that the ones at the bottom of the brain, these kinds of circuits I told you about that they just get stuck on these really trauma circuits and these addiction circuits they are a different animal and they tend to get stuck on. If they get stuck on from adverse childhood then later trauma and even from addiction itself, the set point of the brain or the habit of the brain will go down to four or five.
Dr. Mellin: That’s most common. In the United States our set point, the mean set point was about a two or three about 20 years ago. It’s now four. It’s not just people who’ve recognized and are getting recovery help for addiction but for all people who were just chronically stressed.
Zach: Anytime you go out to the supermarket, wherever you’re seeing people walking around you are just overloaded with stress.
Dr. Mellin: Exactly. Unfortunately the circuits at the bottom of the brain are like cannibalistic. What they do is they are bullies and they want to stay stuck there and you can’t get out of it unless you have emotional tools that are one-on-one therapy because it’s really getting stuck. What happens is the brain has it like if someone’s going into wanting sustainable recovery this is what they need to do. They need to recognize that they’re set point is at four or five. It’s not their fault.
There hasn’t been a neuroscience up until recently in the emotional brain training tools to get out of it except for one-on-one therapy and comprehensive programs but they need to know that for them to really have sustainable recovery they need to do the work to revise those circuits until they raise their set point; otherwise if they just focus on changing the behavior, whatever that is they will change that one circuit but the set point will still want to go down to four or five.
Dr. Mellin: If it goes down to four or five, what’s going to happen is they’re going to reinstate their addiction circuits. What EBT is set up to do is to rely on recovery programs to do the initial work, maybe set up the EBT practice with them and then stay with them so they have community and peer-to-peer support to raise the set point until they’re wired at one. When they’re wired at one instead of four or five, move the set point up, they’re at much less risk of reinstating the addiction circuit because they’re hanging out at a different…
Zach: I could say that they’re on fire at that point. They’re beginning or they’re living out the purpose-driven life that a lot of these folks who come in to recovery are really thirsty for. They want to get off drugs in the first place but I think ultimately people who had been through any sort of addiction they’ve been to the depths. I think they have a unique perspective because they can also, in their minds I think, “Man, this can be so much better but I just can’t get to that point.”
Dr. Mellin: Exactly.
Zach: If they’re at one like you’re talking about then they’re doing great.
Dr. Mellin: They’re hooked on purpose. The tool in the app, the app starts with processing your emotions so you get back to a connected state with those nice supportive circuits holding you in a better state. You move forward with a specific tool called “take action tool.” It helps you go forward for purpose.
Essentially what the brain wants is to be at purpose. You’re training your brain to be of purpose. When you have all seven of those higher-order purposes which are sanctuary, which is peace and power from within, authenticity, vibrancy, integrity, intimacy, spirituality, and freedom, you are so unstoppable. I want to say one more thing.
Dr. Mellin: It’s really important to me. No one would ever want to have an addiction. I know that my addiction circuit for food has caused me a lot of agony, but I’ll tell you something. What happens as we all know, when people come out of recovery they’re the nicest, kindest, most purpose-driven people you’ve ever seen.
Dr. Mellin: You can’t become that way unless you’ve recovered from trauma because you simply can’t instill that kind of level of empathy and compassion unless you’ve been through it yourself.
Zach: I think you have the vocabulary to be able to speak to other people in a way that gives, I would say witness; that might be too spiritual a term, but certainly I think you’ve witnessed the people’s experience because most people who I think have done their work are really in Henri Nouwen’s vernacular “wounded healers.” They’re the people that walk around naturally. They don’t really have to try as much to vibe, so to speak with these people who’ve been through really terrible experiences.
Dr. Mellin: Terrible experiences that you can’t replicate, but if you lived the charmed life and never have trauma, again you would never want to wish that on yourself because addiction causes so much suffering, but the only light at the end of the tunnel is as you rewire the circuits that cause that, it’s not your fault that you have the addiction. It’s a circuit that triggers you and as you stop blaming yourself and start that recovery that’s sustainable, you become the level of a loving person that you really can’t get any other way.
Zach: I did want to ask you a question because you brought up the concept of neuroplasticity. I’m sorry. We have to edit that out. My son’s here in the room.
Dr. Mellin: Cute.
Zach: Just hang tight, we’ll edit this out. Yes.
Dr. Mellin: How old is he?
Zach: He’s about 18 months.
Dr. Mellin: Oh my gosh.
Dr. Mellin: How cute.
Zach: My wife is coming through here. Sorry about that.
Dr. Mellin: Yes, not at all. I have three kids myself. I have a grandchild who’s about a year old named Henry.
Zach: Graham is 18 months.
Dr. Mellin: Oh boy.
Zach: Okay. They just left. Yes. In terms of this concept of neuroplasticity, tell our listeners about what that means because most laws will tell us that the brain is really fully developed by about age 25. Neuroplasticity says, I guess it can change further. Can you kind of dive into that a little bit, unpack that?
Dr. Mellin: Yes. The brain is actually very plastic in the emotional circuitry. The reason for that is evolutionary biology requires it. If we didn’t have adult neuroplasticity for those emotional circuits of how we respond to stress, whether we go to a substance or whatever we go to connect into the deepest part of ourselves, it would have extinct a long time ago.
It turns out that the emotional circuits are among those plastic in the brain in adulthood. If the brain is really sensitized to a specific substance, the reward centers are how we sensitize to it and that person may choose to harm reduction, may choose to avoid that completely because the brain’s sensitized. There’s never ever just one circuit that causes addiction. It’s a whole family of circuits that cause disconnection, an insecure attachment system.
What we want to do is in EBT you learn how to use those moments throughout the day when you’re stressed to stop a message in the bottom of your brain when you’re at, let’s say four or five when the brain stem’s really in charge that has a false association between existence, protection, love, pleasure, and whatever it is, whether it’s drinking or whether it’s rage or whether it’s people-pleasing or being a victim, whatever those two things got associated in the brain, associative learning in the brain can be unpacked.
You have to be in stress. You use the EBT tool or community connection because there’s peer-to-peer support or coaching from your provider. You go to the app. For example, let’s say that I was at five. I would go ahead express my emotions, get down into my emotional brain. The circuits unlock and I said, “Oh my gosh. My unreasonable expectation is I get my existence from hating myself.,” whatever that is.
Zach: Whatever, right.
Dr. Mellin: Right at that moment the circuit is unlocked. It’s only going to be unlocked for a short period of time and so you give it a new message. If you did that when you were in a low stress set state, it’s been proven it doesn’t work; but if you’re in the middle of a stress response which is great, it will actually be retained and reconsolidate the circuit.
As you say, “I cannot get my safety from hating myself. I cannot get my safety,” then you make fun of the circuit. “That’s ridiculous. I cannot get my safety from hurting myself,” and then a new message, whatever that is for you, “I get my safety from loving and accepting myself unconditionally.” Day by day as you’re stressed you do some background work in addition to your recovery program so that you can strengthen those circuits of resilience and rewire the addiction circuits. You do it day by day.
Zach: I love it. I don’t want to spend too much time here but in terms of associative learning in the brain, just for our listeners who are on this podcast today, can you talk a little bit about how those pieces take place in the brain? If I can take a guess when you said people-pleasing; naturally at a younger age when you were growing up you probably learned to please people and you get rewarded for that.
Dr. Mellin: Yes.
Zach: There was reward of being liked. Is that giving credence to what you’re talking about?
Dr. Mellin: Yes. Let me give you an example because food addiction can be highly addictive but it’s not as addictive as some chemicals. The issue is this and this is a really important learning is you have in your body and brain and the genes of stress response — a fight or flight survival response that the brain activates.
Dr. Mellin: Of course it was encoded there; it was part of the genes for physical stressors that are going to kill you. It’s also activated by emotional stressors. Let’s say I go to work. Someone looks at me in a really critical way and I activate my people-pleasing circuit. It’s activating a survival drive that is as if a line and we’re chasing it. It’s a super, super strong circuit.
Dr. Mellin: Maybe I have a little people-pleasing circuit over there that’s left over from childhood. It’s a weak circuit, but if I have a yearning to people-please by chance in that moment those two circuits combine and form an addictive drive to people-please.
Now all of a sudden instead of a mild desire to people-please I now have an unstoppable survival drive to people-please. I start to people-pleasing and it doesn’t work. I go back to my habit of addiction because that’s been activated now. These secondary circuits of trauma and also secondary addictions have to be rewired to get lasting sustainable recovery. That’s how it works.
Zach: This is great. In terms of this rewiring process, how long does this typically take people to do?
Dr. Mellin: We really want you to do it mildly. You go to our website at ebt.org.
Dr. Mellin: Just get a little simple membership so you can get a little reading about it and the app. The app will be your best friend.
Dr. Mellin: You put on there and you start playing with it. First thing is you try out the tools and you start playing with it. Take our 30-day course. Some people take it after they come out of their on-site addiction course or other psychotherapy that they’re using.
In 30 days you learn how to rewire a mood circuit, a habit circuit, a work circuit, and a relationship circuit that’s causing you chronic stress. In 30 days you become amazing at how to use emotional neuroplasticity with your app or with a group. There are tele-groups there, too, remote groups. You start raising your set point.
People will raise their set points, some people in a year. There are courses that you go through to get each of the rewards: sanctuary, authenticity, etc. Some people go in and they stay with it for longer because once they get wired at one, their purpose and they’re going out in the world and they’re changing things and they’re running into more stresses so they want to be with other people who speak that language of EBT and the numbering system because it’s just very simple to use.
Zach: I love it. In terms of where this is right now with the work that you’re doing on the app level but also on the book level, you talked about wiring triggers different brain states and what happens with that and people’s reactions. You’re not suggesting by any means replacing therapy with this just by itself. You’re talking about using therapy and what we do in tandem with this particular approach, right?
Dr. Mellin: Right. What we would see is if someone had a soft addiction, it was in let’s say areas three or three-and-a-half of the brain or sometimes four, if they use only EBT and there are tele-groups and such, for someone that has five circuits at the bottom of their brain we want them to have…we know that recovery is tough and we want them to have the absolute best neuroscience approach.
We want them to have everything that you’re doing and then in the best of all worlds they will be introduced to EBT during the time they were in the first phases so they have that template in their mind that could think in terms of “Oh, there are five different levels of stress. I have some power here. They’re just circuits.” As they come off of that they would transition into EBT.
They could still be using psychotherapy. They could still be using medication. They use whatever they have. Essentially this is called a foundation of well-being and addiction freedom so they always have that. They’re held in that five-point system. They use it as much or as little as they want. It’s just part of what they’re doing to take really good care of themselves.
Zach: Got it. The biggest thing that I’ve seen right here and it says on your website is that most people have deficits in processing high-stress emotions as the biggest problem, right?
Dr. Mellin: Exactly.
Zach: Using the tools that you’re talking about that you had developed, you reported on your website that 91 percent of the people increased their happiness level, 86 percent enhanced relationships, 86 percent improved work, and then 77 percent decreased weight.
Dr. Mellin: Yes.
Zach: That’s pretty phenomenal stuff.
Dr. Mellin: It is. The reason that it’s not available to more people is the science is new. Making it really practical is what we’ve been devoted to doing. That’s why people are taking it up because those data that you just looked at have been published in a peer-reviewed journal and they did show these changes that are sustained. That’s what we’re looking for. We don’t want to be constantly in an intensive recovery program.
We want to transition out of it because we dealt with the root cause which are the stress circuits at the bottom of the brain and have sustainable change. We are very excited and we’re actually looking for innovative sustainable recovery programs to align with because we believe that the comprehensive approach is going to get people well faster and going on to lives with purpose and having more joy in their lives.
Zach: I love it. Folks listening, you can learn more about Dr. Mellin and her work. You can find her blog online at brainbasedhealth.org. Her book The Stress Overload Solution is available on Amazon. I highly recommend picking that up. Dr. Mellin, I just want to thank you for taking the time to come on the show with us today.
Dr. Mellin: Zach, it’s a pleasure to be with you. Congratulations on your beautiful work.
Zach: I appreciate you and look forward to learning more about this with my own app now that I have my phone.
Dr. Mellin: Wonderful. Okay. Remember you start each day by saying, “I am creating joy in my life.” When you’re not in joy and with those natural pleasures, no judgments, you just pull out the EBT app and spiral up to a better state. Even if you get up a few points in your stay, you’re going to feel the chemical effects. You’re going to feel that sense of satisfaction and pride.
Zach: I’m absolutely down with that. All right.
Dr. Mellin: Okay. Thank you again, Zach.
Zach: Thank you.
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