The 1% Podcast

Brian Pennie

  • 01

    Brian Pennie

    Moving beyond addiction to change and growth


My guest today is Brian Pennie.


Brian battled a 15 year addiction with heroin and overcame all obstacles to completely transform his life. He is a qualified psychologist and is a final year neuroscience PhD student and lecturer in Trinity College and UCD, where he lectures on the topic of the neuroscience of addiction. 


He is a keynote speaker and consultant to some of Ireland’s leading corporations. His journey is documented in his autobiography ‘Bonus Time’ published last year. Brian believes that change is possible for everyone. He offers a number of courses on various subjects such as mastering self-talk and breaking bad habits.


Show Summary


2:55 Brian’s experience of putting his life story down on paper

  • He wanted to share the tools and lessons he learnt from his journey
  • It was a very therapeutic and cathartic experience
  • He was getting back in touch with his emotions after a few years clean


4:50 What being a functional addict is like day-to-day

  • Functional addicts are much more common than people believe
  • Alcohol is a drug
  • Started taking heroin from the age of 17
  • Brian used heroin every day for 15 years, but still held down a job, went on holidays, etc. 
  • The misconception with heroin addicts is that they’re high most of the time – the reality is that they’re sick most of the time, trying to get to a baseline level with the drug
  • He took drugs to get relief from anxiety, but over time the drug use made the anxiety worse


8:59 The common misconceptions about addicts

  • “Just because drugs are illegal, it doesn’t mean that they’re dangerous”
  • Interesting research from American psychologist and neuroscientist Carl Hart
  • Most Western countries struggle with prescription drug addiction such as Valium
  • Addiction is “if you need to use the drug on a regular basis and it starts to cause problems”
  • Addiction is a spectrum


12:08 Is addiction a primary or secondary issue?

  • Majority of the time it’s a secondary problem
  • Trauma can lead to addiction
  • “Addiction is medicating some kind of emotional problem”
  • The driver is to get away from yourself


13:53 Self-deception and its part in recovery

  • “My addiction was more about self-deception”
  • Learning about the lies he told himself through treatment
  • He still checks in with self-deception daily


17:26 Changing identity as part of the recovery process

  • ‘The false sense of self’
  • Our feelings and body change all the time
  • The true self is the ‘observer’
  • Learn to overcome the fear of change


23:06 Brian’s definition of happiness

  • It’s about having a high energy and being in pleasant surroundings with nothing to worry about, and a lack of material attachments
  • He calls himself the happiest person he knows
  • Action is a huge part of happiness
  • Happiness is “what is in front of you”, family and connections


25:27 Lessons from ‘The Power of Now’ by Ekhart Tolle

  • The book helped Brian’s recovery
  • Depression lives in the past, anxiety lives in the future
  • He’s learnt to be the observer, rather than consumer, of his emotions
  • “I have a wonderful relationship with anxiety today”
  • Don’t resist reality
  • On the art of ‘just being’
  • “Happiness is our natural state” – Anthony De Mello


33:04 When Eastern philosophies of the mind intersect with Western psychology: how practical is this?

  • The issue is when people have the knowledge but they don’t practise it
  • “Knowledge is not where the game is played”
  • Brian practises meditation, gratitude and visualisation every day


37:17 Staying in the present moment

  • When presence slips away, it’s a form of of relapse
  • He got caught up in the rat race with his academic studies
  • “When I put my mental and emotional welfare first, I excelled with my studies”


44:19 Having core values or a ‘higher force’

  • It gives you direction
  • Inner-peace, boldness and curiosity are some core values for Brian
  • It’s a blueprint for when you’re struggling
  • Be in tune with your nuanced core values
  • What do you value in other people?


53:05 The role of human connection

  • Addiction is a lonely existence
  • On meeting his girlfriend and the power of love
  • Nurture the connection with yourself
  • Vulnerability is a huge strength


55:39 What drew Brian to neuroscience and academia?

  • Doing a PhD with the Institute of Neuroscience and teaching on that subject in Trinity and UCD
  • His PhD finishes in September 2021
  • He was first interested in self-talk
  • His recurring negative self-talk was “I can’t cope”


1:02:25 Turning negative self-talk into positive self-talk

  • The ‘ABC’ model: Adversity, Belief, Consequences – it’s used as a framework that allows you to restructure beliefs about an event, and adapt a healthier response
  • Additional ‘DE’: Dispute your self-talk, the Effect of your assumptions
  • Dispute the reality of your situation
  • The power of affirmations
  • In a challenging situation, how do you speak to yourself?
  • “Treat yourself like you would treat a friend”


1:08:18 The balance of stillness and ambitious actions

  • Self-care and mental health will always come first
  • Listen to the body


1:10:14 Brian’s morning routine

  • The MAVIG technique: Meditate, Affirmations, Visualisation, Inner-child and Gratitude
  • 10 minute routine
  • Breath meditation


1:13:05 Advice to chronic overthinkers

  • There’s no magic wand
  • Consistency creates pathways in the brain
  • Cut off any negative ties, including friends or social media
  • Get the basics right: sleep, nutrition and exercise


1:15:58 Brian’s brain scan taken in 2013 versus 2018

  • Conducted Brain-Predicted Age analysis
  • Reduced the age of his brain by 6 years
  • Meditation plays a huge role in the brain’s age: improved focus and awareness
  • Health benefits of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: within 8 weeks of the program, the brain changes structurally


1:20:09 Brian’s current neuroscience research

  • Researching negative emotions
  • The amygdala is the ‘fear centre’ of the brain
  • The 6 major emotions
  • 80% of serotonin is created in the gut
  • Relational Frame Theory: the relationship between language and reality


1:25:40 Making our children emotionally resilient

  • “Kids only listen to kids”
  • We need to change the landscape of mental health
  • Focus more on excelling and thriving, as opposed to escaping from anxiety or depression
  • We need to teach kids soft skills in creative ways


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