Maybe it’s in social situations where you’re surrounded by new people. Or work situations where it’s so easy to start spinning about everything from how you’ll be perceived to what happens if you stumble. Or maybe it’s just the state of your life, relationships, family, community or even the world that triggers anxiety.
If so, you’re not alone. But what if there was a counterintuitively simple way to unwind anxiety and come back to calm? And what if that uneasy feeling so many of us have been experiencing lately also came with unexpected upsides?
Well, that’s what we’ll be talking about today. In this special episode, we’ll explore the neuroscience, psychology and practical techniques behind transforming your relationship with anxiety.
You’ll hear from neuroscientist Dr. Wendy Suzuki on how anxiety physiologically affects the brain, tips from psychologist Dr. Jud Brewer on short-circuiting unhelpful anxiety loops, perspective from anxiety specialist Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. on reframing anxiety through acceptance, and insights from psychologist Ethan Kross on gaining distance from unproductive rumination.
If you’ve struggled with too much anxiety lately, or simply want to transform your relationship with this complex emotion, you won’t want to miss this episode. Let’s get started unlocking the surprising upside of anxiety, together.
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photo credit: Jen Geer, Matthew Guillory, Matt Simpkins Photography
Dr. Wendy Suzuki (00:00:00) – The emotion of anxiety is not a disease. It is a normal human emotion. And evolutionarily that evolved to protect us from danger. And that is why we are here today. People can usually say, okay, I get that, that sounds good. I buy that, but still, I’m not feeling protected one little bit from my anxiety. And the answer is no, we’re not, because the volume of our anxiety is turned up way high. And so the big part of the book, Good Anxiety, is about providing science based approaches to turn the volume down, not to get rid of it. Again, it’s normal human emotion, but to start to turn it down.
Jonathan Fields (00:00:46) – So anxiety, even saying the word makes me a bit anxious. Have you ever felt overwhelmed or helpless in the face of anxiety? Like the more you try to manage it, the more out of control it becomes. Maybe it’s in social situations where you’re surrounded by new people, or work situations where it’s so easy to start spinning about everything from how you’ll be perceived to what happens if you stumble.
Jonathan Fields (00:01:07) – Or maybe it’s just the state of your life, the state of relationships, family, community, and even the world that triggers anxiety. And if so, you’re not alone. But what if there was a counterintuitively simple way to unwind anxiety and combat to calm? And what if that uneasy feeling that so many of us have been experiencing lately also came with unexpected upsides? Well, that’s what we’re talking about today. In this special episode, we’ll explore the neuroscience, psychology, and practical techniques behind transforming your relationship with anxiety. You’ll hear from neuroscientist Dr. Wendy Suzuki on how anxiety physiologically affects the brain. Tips from psychologist Dr. Judd Brewer on short circuiting unhelpful anxiety loops. Perspective from anxiety specialist Dr. Ellen Hendrickson on reframing anxiety through acceptance and insights from psychologist Ethan Kross on gaining distance from unproductive rumination. So if you have struggled with too much anxiety lately, or simply want to help transform your relationship with this complex emotion, you won’t want to miss this episode. So excited to share this conversation with you! I’m Jonathan Fields and this is Good Life project.
Jonathan Fields (00:02:20) – So our first guest is Dr. Judd Brewer, a New York Times best selling author of Unwinding Anxiety, neuroscientist, addiction psychiatrist, and thought leader in the field of habit change and the science of self mastery. He’s developed and tested really novel mindfulness programs for habit change, including treatments for smoking, emotional eating, and, yes, anxiety. And Dr. Judd’s groundbreaking work uses the latest neuroscience to help people break free from anxiety. And his wisdom has been life changing for many. And I know it’ll inspire you. I mean, what if you could rewrite your relationship with anxiety? What if instead of feeling trapped in worry loops, you could meet each moment with openness and curiosity? Judd will reveal some practical tools to help make this vision a reality. So here’s Judd. Your topic is a topic of interest. It has been for a long time, and for anyone that has not been touched by some form of anxiety, I think, you know, the last couple of years have made it a relatively universal experience.
Jonathan Fields (00:03:17) – I’m curious from your lens how have you seen the depth and the scope of anxiety change over these last 2 or 3 years?
Dr. Jud Brewer (00:03:25) – Yeah, I’m just thinking about that for anyone who hasn’t been touched. And I was just thinking, find me that person. Who is that? Yeah. It’s just seeing the rapid increase in anxiety societally is it’s just like this unfortunate naturalistic experiment to me as a neuroscientist. My brain says, oh, wow, I wonder how this is going to go. This was two years ago and then started thinking about the brains don’t like uncertainty. And boy, there’s a lot of uncertainty and etcetera. And then the prediction says, wow, things are going to spike. And then things spiked and then things kept going. And then were these with these multiple rounds of uncertainty just with the pandemic first round, then we get Delta, then we get Omicron. And it just keeps coming in economics schools. And so it’s it’s like we’ve hit these multiple rounds of uncertainty to the point where not only has anxiety gone nuts, but I’ve also seen where people are getting this.
Dr. Jud Brewer (00:04:26) – I don’t know if this is the perfect term, but this is how I think of it. Is is learned helplessness. A lot of people are just it’s just like I give up, my brain is fried. Just too much anxiety.
Jonathan Fields (00:04:36) – Yeah, I guess here’s what’s spinning in my head. If in before times anxiety was a pretty universal experience, but not entirely universal. And now basically, like you can’t talk to anybody who doesn’t say, I’m living with some level of this thing. Does that in any way, shape or form? Does the normalization of an experience that would normally be really difficult to deal with? Does the fact that we’re all in it together in any way change the way that we experience anxiety, potentially for the better?
Dr. Jud Brewer (00:05:04) – Yes. Two things come to mind. One is any time we can work together against a common threat or enemy, let’s say it’s always better. We really, truly, as humans are better together. And the other piece that comes with that is just even knowing that we’re not alone.
Dr. Jud Brewer (00:05:22) – There’s a single condition that we all have. It’s called the human condition. And there are variations on that human condition. And we all share in stress, we all share in anxiety. And so just knowing that we’re all together in this can be the beginning of the healing there. And then also when we can relate to each other, it’s easier to empathize and bring compassion in. When somebody is really struggling with anxiety and we know that place, it just opens our hearts a little bit where even non-verbally, oh yeah, I’ve been there. I know what you mean. And that too can be part of the process of healing.
Jonathan Fields (00:06:04) – Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So we’ve used the word anxiety a whole bunch literally in the first like 60s of our conversation. I think it makes sense also to really, really dive into what are we actually talking about when we’re talking about anxiety?
Dr. Jud Brewer (00:06:15) – There’s a definition, I think, that that works relatively well. This feeling of nervousness or unease about an uncertain event or something in the future.
Dr. Jud Brewer (00:06:25) – Basically, I think of it. Another way to think of it is fear of the future. And the reason I like that definition is, as I was doing research for my own wedding anxiety book, I was really looking into like, why do we have anxiety? Because it’s our brains are set up for immediate threat. Basically, our brains are set up to eat and not be eaten. Right. And so we’re set up to remember where food is. We’re set up to remember where danger is so that we can find the food and go back to it, and we can remember where the danger is and not go back to it. So this big question is like, why? Where did anxiety come from? And the best that I can gather is that think of this survival part of our brain help fear very helpful survival mechanism. We learn don’t go back there. But then also more recently our brains have evolved to plan for the future. So we’ve got the present moment. Is there danger? No.
Dr. Jud Brewer (00:07:20) – Okay, now I can plan for the future. And planning for the future is also helpful. But when you mix those two together. Fear of the future not so helpful. And so that planning part of our brain actually can start to spin out. Especially the more uncertainty there is. Our brain spins out in what if scenarios, and those what if scenarios make us more and more freaked out. Ironically, making our thinking and planning part of the brain go offline. And when I think of anxiety as fear of the future, it’s these two helpful survival mechanisms fear and planning that kind of get mixed together. And it’s not like peanut butter and jelly, peanut butter and jelly generally good together. This is I don’t know what the analogy would be, but mixing something that you would never eat with peanut butter and tasting it and saying, yep, I would never mix that with peanut butter. That’s a bad idea. Our brains just haven’t figured that out. And it turns out that anxiety is driven like any other habit.
Dr. Jud Brewer (00:08:18) – And so you say spinning. So for any habit to form, we need three elements a trigger, a behavior and a result. So just as an example we talked about survival right. You see the food there’s a trigger. You eat the food there’s the behavior. And then your stomach sends this dopamine signal to your brain that says remember what you ate and where you found it. So that’s how that’s the general process for habit formation. With anxiety, the feeling of anxiety can trigger the mental behavior of worrying. I’m going to say that again because that’s hard for some people to you know, I never thought about it that way. The physical feeling of anxiety, that feeling of nervousness, or that feeling of worry can actually trigger the mental behavior of worrying. And that worrying is where we start to spin because we can’t predict. We’re not very good at predicting the future. And the more we spin, the more we spin out, because we start to think, oh, this could be really bad. Or here’s another thing I didn’t think about.
Dr. Jud Brewer (00:09:13) – And then our brains just get way out of control to the point where we didn’t even get into panic. This wildly unthinking behavior, which is that far end of the spectrum of anxiety. Yes, what you’re saying is absolutely true. And it’s interesting you mentioned the word spinning because that’s exactly how these habit loops form. So worry gives us the brain reward of feeling like we’re in control, or at least that we’re doing something. I can’t do anything about this, but at least I can worry. We’re occupying our mind, and that is rewarding enough that it feeds back so that the next time we’re anxious, it says, hey, why don’t you worry again?
Jonathan Fields (00:09:45) – You write about and you speak about and this is baked into your technology. This is like the notion of three elements of awareness, curiosity and compassion. I want to talk about each one of those awareness, sort of like the starting point of what.
Dr. Jud Brewer (00:09:57) – Great question. So I would say certainly awareness is an endowed characteristic that we all have. We can be aware or we could not be aware of our mind if we’re lost in a story.
Dr. Jud Brewer (00:10:07) – So I would say awareness of everything, right? The more aware we are of our experience, the more helpful it can be for helping us live a healthy, happy life. So let’s drill down on that, because that sounds vague. In particular, when it comes to things like anxiety or things that are causing our suffering. Like you’re saying, there’s a lot of suffering in the world today. If you look at the Buddhist psychology, they talk about cause and effect. That’s the essence of karma, basically, is cause and effect. If you frame that in terms of modern psychology, it’s positive and negative reinforcement are another way that they’re described is reward based learning and that it’s described that way for a reason. If a behavior’s rewarding, we’re going to keep doing it. If it’s not rewarding, we’re going to stop doing it. And so here with awareness, what I would say is it’s helpful to drill down on awareness of the results of our behaviors. If we can see what the result of worrying is, then it helps us become disenchanted with it.
Dr. Jud Brewer (00:11:09) – If we can see if we’re a jerk to somebody, if we can see what the result of that is, instead of just yelling at somebody on the internet and then turning our computer off or our phone and ignoring it. But really, if we did that face to face, we get to see the results of that, and just the results can help us start to change our behavior and become disenchanted with being a jerk. If we can see the results of being kind, having kindness bestowed upon us, we can start to see the joy that comes with that. So I would say awareness of cause and effect or basically awareness of the results of our behavior if we’re looking specifically at behavior change, habit change or anxiety. But in general, awareness is good looking both ways before crossing the street. Very helpful. I think of this as can we bring awareness in any moment and be curious, right. Curiosity is that attitude and quality of mindfulness. And so there can actually be some joy and some reward that comes just from the noticing.
Dr. Jud Brewer (00:12:08) – And it gives us an opportunity to inject some curiosity and curiosity itself. I think of it as a superpower because curiosity feels great.
Jonathan Fields (00:12:19) – And that drops us into this space of, as you described, curiosity, where now we can inquire into it a little bit under that context. You also you write about and I know it’s part of your work, this acronym that I again was familiar with originally from a Buddhist teacher, Tara Brock, and it’s a shorthand. The acronym is rain, rain. So it was interesting to see you bringing it in in the context, in a very specific way, in the work you’re doing. Walk us through what those letters stand for and how it actually really plays into the curiosity and reinterpreting process. Yes.
Dr. Jud Brewer (00:12:52) – So first off, a shout out to Tara because she makes these practices so accessible for so many people. She is certainly adding light into the world in a much needed way. So this Rain practices this acronym. I think it was actually Michelle McDonald who had first, first come up with it.
Dr. Jud Brewer (00:13:08) – And then Tara has done a great job of helping people learn about it. Stands for recognize for lost. We can’t we’re not aware. So the first step is that moment of recognition like we’ve been talking about Gold Star, I’m aware. And it could be a craving. It could be worry, it could be anything, right? Whatever we’re lost in, we’re aware. The second step that A stands for allowing or accepting, where if we notice something and we’re like, oh, my mind wandered, we want to push it away. We don’t want to face it. We run away or we push it away. What we resist persist. Right. So here, instead of pushing something away, we invite it in. Oh, here it is. Can I just allow it to be here as compared to pushing it away already? There’s less energy needed, right? Because we’re not resisting that. I stands for investigate and this is where curiosity comes in. So if we recognize let’s use a craving as an example of craving for food.
Dr. Jud Brewer (00:14:00) – Recognize that craving allow okay, here’s this craving. Instead of saying I’m going to ignore, get rid of this. Oh, what does this craving feel like in my body? That I stands for that investigation where we’re starting to get curious about what that craving feels like in our body. And then N originally talked about non identification where we’re seeing that it is not me like a thought. I have a thought. It’s not me that can be challenging for people who are first learning these practices. I brought this together with a practice from a Burmese teacher, Moss said. I was the first one that popularized this, noting practice where you basically note physical sensations, thoughts, sounds, smells, taste. You just basically note whatever’s in your experience. And that noting practice is a really helpful way to help us gain perspective. It’s in physics. They call this observer effect. When you’re observing something, you’re likely to affect the result. And in psychology, I think the same is true when we observe a thought were less likely to be identified with that thought.
Dr. Jud Brewer (00:14:59) – So the N happened to be the same end. So I was like, okay, great. Let’s use noting instead of non identification so we can really get keep it on the pragmatic level. And so somebody has a craving they can note. What does that craving feel like. Is it tightness. Is it tension. Is it burning. Is it heat and note note. And as somebody notes and they’re having that perspective, they’re less identified with it. And they can notice, oh this can come and go. And I don’t have to act on it because it is not me. Just just physical sensations. And the more they inject the curiosity that I part of the practice, the more be like, huh, what’s going to come next? Oh what’s next? Let’s compare to oh no, this craving, when’s it going to go away? So that’s what the rain practice is for. And again, we use it as a core practice in all of our digital therapeutics. In our Eat Right Now program, we got these gangbuster results, 40% reduction in craving related eating.
Dr. Jud Brewer (00:15:54) – And that rain practice is really a critical piece of that.
Jonathan Fields (00:15:57) – Yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me. And it’s interesting. Reframe the sort of the non-attachment versus noting. It’s almost again, it’s it’s creating this kind of similar goal but or similar sort of like state but maybe more accessible language to different people. The last piece, the third Element is for you and you referenced it earlier, is kindness. I’ve seen you describe it as compassion or self compassion. We’re not talking about being kind to other people. When you’re anxious. Not necessarily a bad thing. Of course it’s about ourselves.
Dr. Jud Brewer (00:16:24) – Yes, absolutely. So think of a habit loop around anxiety. Anxiety triggers worry, which then makes us feel like we’re doing something in control. It feeds back to anxiety, shame, for example, or self judgment. We have a thought that could trigger us to judge ourselves or feel bad about ourselves. Shame is about I’m a bad person and then that shame can often the reward there because it’s not very rewarding.
Dr. Jud Brewer (00:16:47) – If you just look at it. It doesn’t look very pleasant to be in the shame spiral, but it again feels this makes us feel like we’re in control. I can beat myself up over who I am or what I did. Guilt is about what I did. Shame us about who I am. We can beat ourselves up over those things, and it makes us that self-flagellation, ironically feel can feel better because we’re doing something active as compared to not doing anything. And that’s because we don’t. We just don’t know anything better. We don’t know what else we could do. So here. Those all share the characteristic of this contracted quality. Think of we’re feeling shame. We feel this closed down contracted. This is where whether we’re beating ourselves up or not. Same is true for anxiety. We felt closed and contracted, same as for craving. We feel contracted. And that restlessness that underlies all of them drives us to do something, whether it’s to worry more or beat ourselves up or feel feel shame.
Dr. Jud Brewer (00:17:42) – So here we can just compare what is it? What is shame or self judgment feel like compared to being kind to ourselves? And this isn’t about roses and scented candles and unicorns. This is simply about thinking about the last time somebody was kind to us. What did that feel like? Oh, for me, it feels a lot better than somebody yelling at me. And then we can think about times when we’ve been kind to ourselves, like, when have I truly think of a time we’ve all had, moments where we’ve been kind to ourselves. For a lot of people, it’s foreign because they’re so used to being in this other loops. But then we can just compare. What does it feel like to feel shame or to be stuck in a shame spiral as compared to being kind to ourselves?
Jonathan Fields (00:18:25) – Yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me. I want to zoom the lens out a little bit. We’ve been talking a lot about generalized anxiety, which we’re all experiencing for a lot of different reasons.
Jonathan Fields (00:18:33) – One of the other sources of anxiety for a lot of people is moment or event based. And the thing that I think whether it’s test anxiety, interview anxiety, it’s around a very particular thing where they’re anticipating how it’s going to go and they’re freaking out. Yes, maybe. Let’s take like just as an example, test anxiety, test anxiety. Sure. Walk me through the process of like how this unfolds in the context of trying to step into a better place around that. Yes.
Dr. Jud Brewer (00:18:57) – So with test anxiety, for example, and I’ll just say, if it’s been a while since somebody’s taken a test, it could be they have to give a presentation at work or they there’s some event that’s about to come up. So we use test anxiety as an example. So what can happen is that we have this thought. It’s about the future. Oh I have to take this test in the future. How am I going to do did I study well enough. Is there are they going to be trick questions? Am I going to be up for it? So those thoughts there’s the trigger.
Dr. Jud Brewer (00:19:25) – They trigger us to worry. We start worrying. Oh no, how am I going to do? Ironically, worrying doesn’t help us study for our tests because we close down. We’re not open. You think of fixed versus growth mindset. Growth mindset is where we can learn. So when we’re worrying about the test, we’re not actually in a good place to be studying for the test. Ironically. So that worrying can be that habitual behavior that then our brain has somehow lodged in there or habituated to and said, yeah, worry about the test. And it could be a number of reasons, whether it’s that correlation that we talked about earlier where worried. And then I did okay on the test, I assume that I need to worry for the test or whatnot. So the first step here is to just map that habit loop out. We actually have a habit mapper that’s free. Anybody can download and print it out map my habit. But basically what I do with my patients and my clinic or anybody that just wants to learn how their mind works, is I say start by mapping it out.
Dr. Jud Brewer (00:20:17) – So if you have test anxiety, map it out. What’s the trigger? What’s the behavior mental or physical, and what’s the result of that. The second step very simple also includes awareness right. Because you have to be aware to map it out. You also have to be aware of the result of the behavior. Right. We talked about cause and effect. We talk about reward based learning. So what is my brain thinking is rewarding for this. So if it’s worrying about a test I would ask somebody not to think about it, but to really feel into their body because our feeling bodies are much stronger than our thinking brains. That’s really where behavior is driven. So it’s like, what do you get from worrying? Is it helping you study for the test? Is it helping you retain information? Generally, the answer is no, right? But just seeing that it’s not rewarding is that critical step for helping us to become disenchanted with the behavior. And so instead of telling ourselves that we shouldn’t worry, and then beating ourselves up over the fact that we can’t stop ourselves from worrying, we can actually go to the source where our brain is and our brain.
Dr. Jud Brewer (00:21:12) – If it sees very clearly that something is not rewarding, it’s going to become less likely to do it in the future. And that’s where the process of change happens. Now we can accelerate that process when in this third step, I think of it as finding that bigger, better offer. So our brains are relative so they’ll look for relative rewards. Is this rewarding more rewarding than something else. And so if we can start to see that worry is not rewarding, that reward value drops. It opens up the space for some to find something that’s more rewarding, that bigger, better offer. And here we can ask ourselves, what happens if I just bring curiosity in instead of worrying, oh, can I let me get curious about those thoughts, those worry thoughts? And does it help me notice the thoughts and not get stuck in them? And does it also help conditioned me to be curious and learn the material for the test instead of going, oh no, I have to study for this test. Oh, what’s this material? Oh is it? And see where we can find the natural curiosity to.
Dr. Jud Brewer (00:22:11) – It’s not that we’re going to be curious about every single subject matter that we’re ever going to be tested on, but it can certainly go a long way in. Helping us start to at least have that mindset, that curious mindset. So that’s the three step process. Map out the habit loop. Awareness requires awareness. Ask ourselves what am I getting from? This also requires awareness and then ask ourselves, is that awareness, that curious awareness itself even more rewarding than getting stuck in a habit loop of worry?
Jonathan Fields (00:22:38) – I guess part of my curiosity is, do you find that people are really capable of doing this to and for themselves, or do you need someone else to help you through it, or some other technology, which I guess is part of what you’ve been building? Yes.
Dr. Jud Brewer (00:22:50) – So if somebody just listened to this conversation and said, and then they’re freaking out before a big presentation and they’ve not employed any of this stuff, it’s not like they can just flip a switch. And suddenly they said to be curious, okay, you go because their brains are going to be freaking out and they’re not going to be in a place where they can practice it.
Dr. Jud Brewer (00:23:07) – So here this is I’m as a practitioner of medicine, I want to figure out what are the systematic ways that we can help as many people as possible to learn how to be aware. Basically, because this is all about awareness and curiosity and kindness. And so we started developing these digital therapeutics. And what we found so far is that, again, it goes back to these short moments. Many times. Can we give people bite sized training like ten minutes a day systematically for over the course. And we’ve we’ve the core trainings for each of these apps is about 30 days. But then we have these theme weeks where they can build them over and they can go back. And so we’ve set up the context for people to do the learning in a self-paced manner. And I find our data are gangbusters. I never thought they would work this well. If you look at the studies works, they work pretty darn well. If you look at the process, I if I’m trying to learn something, I want to be able to do it at my own pace, little bits at a time, and be able to practice it over and over.
Dr. Jud Brewer (00:24:03) – So we’ve tried to set that framework up so people can do that. Now that’s just one way to do it. Also, I think that like you’re talking about having somebody help you with it can be very helpful. Yeah.
Jonathan Fields (00:24:14) – And what you’re describing also, it really takes us back to the beginning of our conversation around. And the normalizing effect is if you’re experiencing something that’s causing some level of suffering or distress, and then you start to realize that, oh, hey, I’m not alone. Actually, in this context, B I’m like in the vast majority and not the weirdo. I’m not broken. This is a part of the human condition that we’re all experiencing together, and that alone has got to just be like, change the nature and the quality of what you’re going through, and then you add to it process and tools and ways to actually collectively integrate the experience differently. Yeah, super powerful and sensible. And I love the fact that fundamentally we’re talking about these interesting ideas and we’re talking about peer reviewed research and we’re talking about technology, and we’re also talking about things that people have been doing for thousands and thousands of years that have worked and made them feel better.
Jonathan Fields (00:25:07) – And it’s just about making them accessible to a broader audience. And for the rational brain, people who need to know prove to me that this works. Here you go. Yeah, here it is. Like these ideas actually work. Yeah, very super cool. It feels like a good place for us to come full circle as well. I always wrap these conversations with the same question, so I’ll pose it to you sitting here in this container of Good Life project. If I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up? Yeah.
Dr. Jud Brewer (00:25:33) – Curiosity, kindness. Rinse and repeat. That’s what comes.
Jonathan Fields (00:25:37) – Up. Love it. Thank you. Thank you Judd. I love how he’s really shone a light on transforming our relationships with anxiety. By unraveling those worry loops, we can step into lives of deeper meaning. Our next guest is Dr. Wendy Suzuki, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at NYU. She’s a leading researcher on brain plasticity and memory, who’s now revealing the unexpected upsides of anxiety in her latest book, Good Anxiety.
Jonathan Fields (00:26:05) – Dr. Suzuki makes a surprising claim. This emotion we desperately want to avoid can transform into a superpower, and she shares the science behind reframing anxiety and simple, accessible tools to shift it from enemy to ally. Through inspiring stories and practical advice, she guides us to the sweet spot where just enough anxiety unlocks creativity, productivity, compassion, and more. Here’s Wendy. You’ve had this really fascinating focus on anxiety and what happens in the brain, how that affects us. And you make a really provocative claim. Also in your recent book, Good Anxiety, which is that this thing that something like 90% of people experience and want nothing but to never experience it at all can in fact explore differently, be turned into something of a superpower. Now I want to dive into that. But before we get there, let’s just actually talk about the word anxiety and the phenomenon, because I think there’s a lot of ambiguity around it. So when we’re talking about anxiety, what are we actually talking about?
Dr. Wendy Suzuki (00:27:10) – Yeah. So here’s something that’s really a huge take home message that the emotion of anxiety is not a disease.
Dr. Wendy Suzuki (00:27:21) – It is a normal human emotion. Every single human experiences emotion. I don’t know how many people have come up to me and said, oh, I have anxiety, I have it. Oh no, well, that just means you’re human. And the premise of the book starts with is that evolutionarily, the emotion, the normal human emotion of anxiety and that underlying physiological stress response that comes with it, you know what it feels like? Sweaty palms, butterflies in your stomach, heightened heart rate, sweats all over that evolved to protect us from danger. Okay. Oh, that sounds good. I want to be protected from danger. And so how did it work? Well, it was obvious 2.5 million years ago when a new mom was walking around with her little baby, trying to gather food, and she hears the crack of a twig. And that could be the, you know, the difference between life and death. The crack of a twig. What is that? Is that a raccoon, or is that a big mountain lion? And so her body, physiologically like our body’s, got her ready to either fight the bad animal or run away.
Dr. Wendy Suzuki (00:28:31) – And that is why we are here today. People can usually say, okay, I get that, that sounds good. I buy that, but still I’m not feeling protected. One itsy bitsy little bit from my anxiety. And the answer is no, we’re not. Very few of us are, because the volume of our anxiety is turned up way high, so we’re not quite at that. It’s actually quite a razor’s edge of the level of anxiety, where you can get the positive energy, where you can get that protection. And so the big part of the book, Good Anxiety, is about providing science based approaches to turn the volume down, not to get rid of it. Again, it’s normal human emotion, but to start to turn it down and we can start from there.
Jonathan Fields (00:29:19) – But then your your invitation is to say but two things. One, anxiety experience at a certain level actually comes with a myriad of benefits. And then how do we get to that place where like at the at a certain level where we actually can experience those benefits? Yeah.
Jonathan Fields (00:29:36) – So I want to dive into what some of those benefits are right now, because I think a lot of people listening to this are probably saying, I cannot imagine how you could tell me this thing that I like. All I want to do is not feel it actually has a whole bunch of benefits. Yeah. Let’s explore some of these. One of the things that you talk about is anxiety. One of the benefits is actually increased motivation. How does this work?
Dr. Wendy Suzuki (00:29:56) – Yeah, the word that I like to use for this particular superpower of gift of anxiety is productivity. I love using that word because usually people think, oh, anxiety just shut me down. I can’t, you know, I’m I’m done for for the rest of the day. But it comes from the idea that the anxiety that we’ve been talking about since the beginning of this podcast is really a form of energy. It’s a form of activation energy, because again, remember, evolutionarily, it’s getting you ready to do something. You’re going to fight the line.
Dr. Wendy Suzuki (00:30:26) – You’re going to run away. That is energy. It’s cognitive energy. It’s physical energy. It’s like oh well that could be I could kind of start to see how that could be good. So here is how the super power of productivity works. So this. Uses a very, very common form of anxiety that most of us have, which is the what if list. It strikes us at different parts of the day and for different projects like oh, what if I. What if I didn’t send that email and it wasn’t written in the right way, or I didn’t send it to the right person or, you know, all these? What if it happens to hit me still to this day, right before I’m going to try and go to sleep and like, sleep is coming and being, oh God, I just remember all the what ifs. And so here is it. And that is your anxiety rearing its head. So here is how to transform that for me the next morning. I don’t do it at night because I still try and fall asleep, but the next morning I can still remember all those things that woke me up for that moment.
Dr. Wendy Suzuki (00:31:26) – Each one of those, I write those down. Note none of them are about watching Netflix or similar things. They’re all about important things that you need to or you want to do. And after each one of those what ifs that you write down, you put an action on it. You do something about it. You ask somebody, you reread your email, you rewrite your email. You ask five people to rewrite it for you. You put an action on it. I must give credit where credit is due. This gift came from a lawyer that I met at a birthday party who, when told that I was writing a book on anxiety, she said, oh, I’m a high paid lawyer, that I am New York City lawyer because of my anxiety. And this is the approach that she told me about. And I’ve since hired her, actually, because she is a great lawyer and I’ve given her credit for, you know, you created the first superpower that I always tell everybody because it’s so easy to grasp and literally everybody out there, your call to action is do this anxiety hack today.
Dr. Wendy Suzuki (00:32:30) – Turn your what if list into a to do list. Do it and see what that does for both the the feeling of anxiety because it should go down. Putting an action on those words rather than just sitting there. It’s like, oh God, what’s going to happen? But doing something for it helps relieve that anxiety and I find it so powerful. It’s doable. It’s understandable. And so I’m glad you started with that one.
Jonathan Fields (00:32:56) – Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting to me also the way that you sort of like it’s almost like the alchemy part here. Like you’re transmuting anxiety into actually output, right? Yes. But it also occurs to me, as you’re saying this, you know, that anxiety is largely it’s an anticipatory experience. I think this negative thing might happen. Yes. And by doing it, you effectively take yourself out of the future tense and put you into the present moment where you’re actually just you’re making the thing that you’re concerned happen, or at least you’re testing your hypothesis in real time.
Jonathan Fields (00:33:27) – And once you can respond to actually like fact and doing it makes it harder to then spin about the future, because now you have sort of like your current experience to counterbalance it. Does that make sense?
Dr. Wendy Suzuki (00:33:38) – Yeah, it absolutely does. Although now, as administrator and dean at NYU, I think of all of our students who are just putting in their application now, they did that right. But there’s this waiting period. Now, what is the to do to do for that? There isn’t a lot of action that you can do, and that’s where you can go back and do the approaches. Exercise. Ten minutes of walking will decrease your anxiety levels. Did you know that that is my biggest tip of anti-anxiety tools? Ten minutes of walking. You don’t even have to change into your sneakers. Just walk with whatever shoes you have on that will turn it down and remind yourself once you’ve turned the anxiety down. That anxiety comes from this wonderful desire that you students are having out there to further your education.
Dr. Wendy Suzuki (00:34:34) – That is a great desire to have, and it’s coming from a positive, generative place. And so I’m sorry I can’t alleviate all of your students, you know, worry until you get that decision letter. But there’s still lots of things that you can do to make that gap between submission and receiving of that news a little bit easier to live through.
Jonathan Fields (00:34:58) – You love that. It’s sort of what you described, feels like a combination of exercise and a little bit of like cognitive behavioral therapy, reframing mixed in like all as a blended experience. One of the other benefits that you talk about is increased creativity. And again, this feels so counterintuitive to me. And I’m wondering as I’m thinking about some of the other benefits, I don’t want to talk to you about some of them as well. If part of the counterintuitive part is that when we are at a state of maximum anxiety, none of this feels accessible to us. But it sounds like what you’re saying is, if we use some of these other tools that you talk about, we can sort of down regulate the level of anxiety to this more manageable.
Jonathan Fields (00:35:40) – A level. And once we’re at that space where we’re not on complete overwhelm.
Dr. Wendy Suzuki (00:35:44) – Right.
Jonathan Fields (00:35:45) – That is sort of like this. There’s like a sweet spot where there’s a lot of benefit that comes from it. So before you even get into creativity, is that assumption right?
Dr. Wendy Suzuki (00:35:55) – Yes.
Dr. Wendy Suzuki (00:35:55) – You’ve hit it on the head. It’s exactly right. There is this combo of learning how to turn it down, being able to step back a little bit. And that is a really important key creativity. And it is counterintuitive because anxiety kind of nixes usual creativity flow is gone. Sorry, no flow, no creativity for you. But again, if you have some of these techniques and here’s the other thing that people don’t realize, there’s like, oh God, what anxiety’s going to come come at me today? Well, I think you can predict 80 to 95% of your anxiety because, you know, our lives are not that uncertain. We know this person gives us anxiety. We know that situation gives us anxiety. They’ve given us anxiety for years or at least several times before.
Dr. Wendy Suzuki (00:36:45) – So we can predict what that is. And so in a moment where you’re not in heightened anxiety, here’s where it becomes a wonderful tool to test your creativity. This just comes from, you know, typical approaches to diffusing difficult situations. Are there more than one way to approach this person or interact with this person that always gives you anxiety? I mean, just the name of the person will spark anxiety. Well, are there other approaches? What? Maybe you approach them with another person. You put a third person in there to help buffer that. Maybe you prep that conversation in a different way. Maybe you get a lot of information about that person’s opinion so that that, you know, more difficult kind of confrontations are minimized because you know much more and you hadn’t bothered to, you know, some meeting or encounter before, you know, 100 different ways. And so you start to get good at, oh, actually, maybe there are ten different ways that I’m not doing to do this. And you start to go through it and then you start to learn what works better, what works worse.
Dr. Wendy Suzuki (00:37:56) – Maybe you’ll find one that works worse that that happens sometimes too. But then you know never to do that. But you start to get this more systematic approach to your own anxiety. Coming back to this concept of self experimentation and what are you doing? You are being very creative in coming up with different. That is very hard to do because we are creatures of habit. We go into these situations. You know, I think of conversations with parents, our longest relationship except for the relationship with ourselves. And oh, it’s always I’m always a little 13 year old girl when I go into that conversation with my mom, I don’t know what’s going on. Well, maybe I come to that conversation as a 50 something year old adult and see what would I say if this wasn’t my mother? But it was, you know, just another person that I’m having conversation with that is a creative kind of exercise that everybody can do. But guess what? It helps our situations of anxiety. And the more you do it, the better you get at it.
Dr. Wendy Suzuki (00:38:53) – Yeah, ten minutes of walking immediately after will decrease your levels of anxiety. So you might have five anxiety provoking things. Got it. And I would recommend that you walk for ten minutes five times before those anxiety provoking things, or right after those anxiety provoking things to decrease that anxiety level. But everybody just wants to know how little exercise they need to do to get any of these benefits. So finally, I have this answer. So it’s not ten minutes a day to solve all your problems. It is ten minutes has been shown to turn that volume down. So use that in your life because it’s doable. You don’t have to go to the gym and just dress up in spandex. So that is the take home that people should have. And the other thing is breathwork meditation. Very, very helpful immediately. I mean, here are two things I’ve just told you. They’re both free and they both have immediate benefits. And both of them. You can find over 100 free videos on YouTube to give you an example of, well, you don’t need an example of how to walk, but breathwork would benefit from a little bit of guidance and there’s so many to choose from.
Dr. Wendy Suzuki (00:39:59) – So that’s why I start with those two.
Jonathan Fields (00:40:02) – And I love that. And I love the fact that it’s really widely accessible to a lot of people. And even if you have mobility challenges, we all actually have to breathe all day, every day to sustain ourselves. So in some way, shape or form, you know, it is an extraordinary level of accessibility. One other thing I want to ask you about before we come full circle is in terms of, again, under the category of things that let us just kind of like get to more of a manageable state, is the notion of like altruism playing into your experience of anxiety?
Dr. Wendy Suzuki (00:40:31) – Yeah, that is my favorite superpower. That comes from anxiety. I call it the superpower of empathy. And I really. Came about and discovered this superpower. Thinking about my own, as we’ve been discussing my own old anxiety of social anxiety and this form of social anxiety, the thought that I think about still a lot is the social anxiety of raising your hand in the classroom and asking a question, and I had years and years of anxiety.
Dr. Wendy Suzuki (00:41:01) – Ooh, I wanted to ask a question, but maybe if I say something stupid, everybody will think I’m stupid. Everybody thinks that. And so it took me many years to realize that. Everybody thinks that. And I should just ask the question. But now I’m at the front of the classroom, and I realized that those years and years and years of struggle and, you know, dealing with that gave me a superpower of teaching, which is I know there’s ten times as many questions out there than are actually people raising their hands. And so I really try and go out there and answer questions and get them to ask me things, you know, one on one rather than in front of the classroom. And I realized that my own anxiety, social anxiety for asking questions became a superpower of empathy. Now that’s just not for me. It’s for every single person. Because what you can do, and this is your second call to action here, is to think about your most common form of anxiety. You know what it feels like.
Dr. Wendy Suzuki (00:41:57) – You know what it looks like. You know the situations where it comes up. And likely so many other people are having that same form of anxiety, even though their mask is saying, hey, I’m cool, no problem. Well, if you notice that and you notice somebody mask crack, all you have to do is reach out and say a kind word. And I love this one because it is a super power of empathy and the act of compassion that comes from your own, your own deep understanding of your own anxiety. And I love it because I can’t think of anything that our world needs more today than higher levels of empathy, both for ourselves and for others.
Jonathan Fields (00:42:40) – I love that it feels like a good place for us to come full circle. So in this container of good Life project, if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?
Dr. Wendy Suzuki (00:42:49) – Love yourself, love your life.
Dr. Wendy Suzuki (00:42:52) – And love others.
Jonathan Fields (00:42:54) – Thank you. So I love Wendy’s reframe on our relationship with anxiety and revealing its hidden superpowers.
Jonathan Fields (00:43:03) – Our next guest is Dr. Ellen Henriksen, a clinical psychologist and social anxiety expert at Boston University. She’s the author of How to Be Yourself, Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, and Dr. Henriksen reveals how she turned the very thing that once paralyzed her social anxiety into the foundation for her life’s work and purpose. With empathy born of experience, she guides us to see anxiety less as something to be avoided and more as a prompt for growth. And through stories and insights, Ellen really shares how to find the sweet spot where anxiety allows self discovery instead of self criticism. She gives us permission to accept our fears while also pushing past them. Imagine stepping into the life you want, into the social situations that you want to feel great at, and feeling so much better rather than just waiting for some confidence that never comes.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (00:43:54) – Here’s Ellen I know there is a skyrocketing problem with anxiety and social anxiety, so I work at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, and we treat everybody. We treat Boston University students, but also it’s a community clinic.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (00:44:10) – And so whoever walks through the door is welcome. And I’ve noticed that the population that we see is skewing younger and younger. And so we still get the full range. But there are a lot of college kids, a lot of young, like early 20s, and they’re really struggling with feeling anxious about their lives, about connection, about just existential. Who am I? Yeah, there’s a lot of that going on. I think a parallel reason why we see more and more young people is because the stigma of mental illness is slowly eroding. I think that there is a thanks to this online culture of revealing oneself, or being more personal, or confessing various problems or foibles or whatnot. I think a lot of people are able to look online and read a story that actually does sound like them and say, oh, this, oh, this is so validating. And if somebody else feels like this, that probably implies that there are a lot of us and the stigma is lifted. And oddly, it takes stigma being lifted to be able to seek help, I think, and I wish it wasn’t that way.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (00:45:15) – But I think when you realize you’re not alone, you don’t feel so ashamed. If it’s so widespread that this has a name like it has a diagnosis, then that gives hope and that makes people seek out some assistance. I didn’t set out to be an anxiety expert, but I think once I found it, I was like, oh, this. Yes. Okay, this, this is I get these people, these are my people, right? Yeah. And I talk about in my book, I have a history of social anxiety. Right. I know that everybody is different in that a client who comes to my office is going to have a very different story than my story. And at the same time, there are things that I get and like if they if just various things that they like, oh, I get that urge or I know what you mean, and I feel like being able to truly empathize, not just cognitively empathize like I we use Theory of Mind a lot. Oh, I can imagine what that was like.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (00:46:06) – I can figure out what your perspective might know.
Jonathan Fields (00:46:08) – It’s your lived experience, but if.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (00:46:09) – It’s one’s lived experience, then I feel like there’s a special connection there and I don’t bring my own story into the office. I don’t try to say, you’re like me or this worked for me, that no, we’re going to work within their values and work within their life. And this is all about them. This is their hour. And at the same time, I enjoy having that, that, that connection.
Jonathan Fields (00:46:27) – When we think about this thing called social anxiety. And what do we actually do with that is this idea of there’s two tracks, there’s change and acceptance. Yes. Tell me more about these.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (00:46:38) – Oh my goodness. So change is, to use a metaphor, is getting in the ring with your anxiety and going a few rounds. So it’s really challenging it and questioning it and saying really? Is that really the case? Social anxiety predicts that horrible, humiliating things will happen. And so it’s saying, how likely is that? What really what are the odds or how bad would that really be that if we’re predicting that if we were giving a presentation and we stumble over our words, how bad would that really be? And so we can question our anxiety that way and try to actively change it, we can ask how okay, so let’s say the worst case scenario happens.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (00:47:19) – How would I cope? What would I do? How could I handle this. And so that and that takes away the what ifs and gives a plan. Right. So all that has changed. And then there’s acceptance. And so by acceptance I don’t mean resignation I don’t mean oh well I guess this is just how it’s going to be more like mindfulness. Like to look to get some space between you and what that inner critic is telling you, and to see it as a thought, to see it as a perception, and so as to use John Kabat-Zinn example, to try to be behind the waterfall, rather than have that waterfall falling on your head and yanking you all around. This, there’s a big difference between. So as a social anxiety thought perhaps between I’m annoying or no one wants me. Here is the difference between that and I’m having the thought that I’m annoying, or I’m having the thought that no one wants me here. Those things are really different. One is truth and one is a thought.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (00:48:17) – And thoughts can be changed or simply set with as we go on and behave, because thoughts and behavior are different and so we can make our behavior work in line with our values, even as we carry this thought along with us. And that can be very powerful. And so I think that there you can honor that anxiety and say, okay, anxiety, I get it. You’re trying to keep me safe. You’re trying to help me plan for the future. You’re trying to you’re trying to tell me what’s really important. And at the same time, if it turns into worry where you can’t get traction and you’re not doing anything, then you ask, is this useful? And you can try to dial that back or just say, thanks, anxiety, I really appreciate you trying to help me out here. I’m good or I’m going to go take this action now. Thank you. No more need for commentary and especially and if the anxiety still comes up as even in social anxiety, certainly even as we go through life and challenge ourselves and grow and stretch and that anxiety lessens, it might pop back up in times of stress.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (00:49:20) – And we can still we can still use the skills and say thanks, thanks, anxiety. Oh, here you are again. I appreciate you and I’m going to I’m going to move on and live my values and act in the way that I know that I want my life to be. Yeah, that.
Jonathan Fields (00:49:36) – Makes a lot of sense. You use the phrase social anxiety, which is different than sort of anxiety generally. I guess there are all different categories.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (00:49:43) – Oh yeah, many different flavors. Yes, 31 flavors.
Jonathan Fields (00:49:46) – I have one of those. One of those, one of those, yes.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (00:49:48) – I’ll have in a code. And you’re.
Jonathan Fields (00:49:50) – Right. Talk to me about the distinctions there. Sure.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (00:49:52) – Okay. Social anxiety is self consciousness on steroids. It is this idea, this perception. I want to emphasize perception that there’s something wrong with us and that unless we work really hard to conceal this perceived deficiency, it will be revealed and that everybody will see it and will judge and reject us for it.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (00:50:14) – But the reason that it’s a disorder is because this perception is not true. It’s either not true at all. It’s an illusion. Or like maybe it’s like there’s a grain of truth in there, but not to the degree that anybody would ever notice or judge you for. So, for instance, maybe somebody really does stumble over their words or has trouble with word finding, but it’s not to the extent that they perceive that others are noticing or judging them for. Perhaps people do actually blush and turn quite red if they’re embarrassed or the center of attention. Again, it’s not to the extent that people would reject them to the extent that they believe they would. So that’s a very long way of saying that, that social anxiety can probably be encapsulated in the phrase it will become obvious that I am blank. So the reveal with other types of anxiety, I would say. So if we’re going to talk about official diagnosable terms like generalized anxiety, which is worry about everyday matters, your worries chained together. Oh my, my partner’s late getting home, I hope.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (00:51:22) – I hope they’re safe. And oh, by the way, the worry is exactly. There’s no traction. The worries just spin out of control. So I’d say that that is encapsulated with the phrase what if, what if, what if, oh what if, what if this, what if this then OCD is could be characterized by did I it’s the doubt. It’s the doubting disease, you know, did I check the stove?
Jonathan Fields (00:51:48) – So you keep going back to say.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (00:51:49) – Did I get all the germs off my hands? Did I assault that woman? There’s it’s the did eyes, right. Yeah. And it’s not trusting one’s own memory, not trusting one’s own experience and always questioning and having that that nagging, torturous doubt come back again and again. So I think all the, all the there are others certainly the disorders I think can all be boiled down to one phrase or one question that that each person who suffers that disorder is plagued by.
Jonathan Fields (00:52:19) – And it seems like the commonality is that there is this perception.
Jonathan Fields (00:52:24) – And at the same time, there’s this small potential nugget of truth like that, like your brain just say there’s we’re probably like somebody who didn’t experience this would take that nugget of truth and be like, nah, I’m good. Yeah, yeah. Like, yeah, it’s possible, you know, like 0.1 percent chance of this, but I’m good. Whereas if you just keep cycling back to that or if you can’t let it go.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (00:52:46) – There is there is a point 1%.
Jonathan Fields (00:52:48) – That’s where it becomes. Yeah. So that’s where it moves from okay. This is just a generalized behavior to the the level of disorder. Where is that threshold. Is it is it when it’s interfering with your ability to live your everyday life.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (00:53:01) – That’s exactly what it is. Yes. So the threshold for disorder is distress or impairment. And so you talked about impairment. So it’s interfering with your everyday life. You can’t live the life that you want or it’s you can white knuckle your way through your life. But it’s extremely distressing for folks with social anxiety the most to avoid.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (00:53:19) – And we can avoid in one of two ways. So there is overt avoidance, which is not showing up. So staying on the couch with the cat or there’s covert avoidance. So there’s showing up, but then doing all these little behaviors that artificially tamp down one’s anxiety or keep one safe, avoid eye contact or talk really fast to get it over with. Or try not to reveal very much about oneself, just to keep it close to the vest and make the other person carry more of the conversation. It could be that we show up to the party, but we scroll through our phone or we find the host’s cat and.
Jonathan Fields (00:53:51) – I’m just like checking every.
Jonathan Fields (00:53:53) – Box. They’re like.
Jonathan Fields (00:53:54) – You know.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (00:53:54) – But we all do some of these things to an extent, certainly. And it’s I guess it’s when again, when it crosses that threshold into distress and impairment is when it becomes a disorder. But yeah, so many of us do these little behaviors because we’re just trying to keep ourselves safe. We’re just trying to we’re trying to neutralize.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (00:54:10) – Yeah, we’re.
Jonathan Fields (00:54:11) – Trying to breathe.
Jonathan Fields (00:54:12) – I’m kind of neutral, trying.
Jonathan Fields (00:54:13) – To like, feel okay.
Jonathan Fields (00:54:14) – Anxiety.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (00:54:14) – I have a lot of people come into my office and say, I really want to, like, hit pause on my life. I want to just go away for a little while and work on myself and build my confidence and then re-emerge into the world and then start living the life I want to live. And I say, you sound super motivated and let’s do it in the opposite order. Let’s have you start living the life you want to live and your confidence will catch up. And that is always kind of a terrifying prospect when you’re looking at it from that direction. But when you’re on the other side and you can look back or so what happens actually is. So there’s this thing I call the moment where you do something that you never would have done before, but you do it without thinking. Like for social anxiety, you might wave a waiter down for more ketchup, or you might go to a party without thinking of a million reasons to stay home.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (00:55:05) – Or you might gladly be a bridesmaid in your best friend’s wedding and speak and give a toast. And you could have never done that when you started this journey. And then you do the thing you’re like, oh! I never could have done that before. That’s so interesting. Look how far I’ve come. It’s. And so, as we’re gaining confidence and doing the thing and learning how to fight our anxiety, we can’t see that in real time. We can only see it in hindsight. We really only see it when we’re looking back and we say, oh, I just did that. That’s pretty cool. Yeah. And so that’s I feel like that’s been my story as well.
Jonathan Fields (00:55:43) – Does that moment. So let’s say you’re running these little experiments up till that moment, a little bit of this, little bit of a step out a little bit here. So there’s like this iterative slow progression of getting a little more comfortable, but then you have that moment where you actually you become awake to the fact that something really big and different has happened.
Jonathan Fields (00:56:01) – In your experience working with so many clients and patients over the years, does the awakening to that moment then in any way accelerate, like the path to ease from that moment, or does it just stay incrementally?
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (00:56:14) – Yeah, I think the moment help you turbocharge your tipping point. Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Because I think you realize, oh, if I could do that, what else could I do? Or I think it’s you know what it is. It’s evidence. It’s proof that, oh, I can change or a way I like to put it to clients is when you see yourself doing it, you start to believe you can. And so I think once they go through the anxiety not around it, not trying to avoid it either overtly or covertly, but go through it and do the thing again. You don’t have to jump in the deep end. You don’t have to do something that would be 100 on the scale for you right away. You absolutely start with the 20s and work your way up.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (00:56:56) – But I think once, once they experienced that, oh, that wasn’t so bad, I can maybe I can stretch and grow a little more, and now maybe I can stretch and grow a little more. And it’s just I love working with people with social anxiety because inevitably they are lovely people. I think their social anxiety tends to be a package deal where on the. So if you reel back caring too much about what people think of you, if you reel that in a little bit, you simply get caring about people. And that’s a wonderful thing. And it hangs together with conscientiousness and empathy and often being a good listener. And so all these lovely characteristics, and I am privileged to help these folks realize how amazing and cool they are, because they’ve been walking around with this perceived efficiency. And so to have them not only disprove that that deficiency, that when as that goes away, we can edge it out and the realization that, oh, hey, wait, I am pretty cool, or I am competent or kind or whatever, like that takes up more of the space as we edge out the perceived efficiency.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (00:58:04) – And so that that process is really amazing to watch.
Jonathan Fields (00:58:06) – So then the sort of more positive traits or qualities that I guess are often associated with social anxiety as you work with the social anxiety to help it, to help minimize or help it go away. Those same traits remain, though, correct?
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (00:58:22) – Exactly. I’m glad you said that. Yes, yes. Those do not receive fear does. Yeah, but those don’t.
Jonathan Fields (00:58:26) – Are those traits are we talking about like the big five or other? Are there specific things that are like really correlated with people who tend to to show up with social anxiety?
Jonathan Fields (00:58:37) – Sure. Yeah.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (00:58:37) – It’s not necessarily the big five because okay. So for instance, so for like introversion extroversion, you can be socially anxious and be either of those. We often think of it correlating with introversion. Sure. Because those kind of oftentimes seem like the same thing. There’s some inhibition, there’s the tendency to be quiet, but you can absolutely be an extrovert and be socially anxious. But the fundamentals are the same.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (00:59:00) – And there are various techniques that we use and that I talk about in the book that are pretty straightforward and work quite nicely. So we can’t avoid everything, like because social anxiety is really fed and watered by avoidance, whether that’s that overt or the covert. And so as we go through life and get older, we can’t avoid everything. And so just, just incidentally, we’re going to learn we’re going to refute the two lies of anxiety, which are that the worst case scenario is definitely going to happen. Like the worst, whatever our anxious brains can come up with is a foregone conclusion. So that’s one lie. And the second lie of social anxiety is you can’t handle it anyway, that whatever situation life throws at you, you’re going to be unable to cope. And so just getting older and living our lives again, we can’t avoid things. And so we’re going to slowly accumulate this evidence that, oh wait. The worst case scenario doesn’t usually happen, that usually people are friendly and things are benign, and I ask for help when I get it, or that people are happy to do favors, or be asked questions, or start a conversation or hear about me, and that even if things do not go perfectly or even well, I can cope, I can handle it.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (01:00:16) – I can reach out and talk to somebody who I love and trust, and they can give me a pep talk, or I can figure it out. If things don’t, don’t unfold according to how I thought they were going to, or even if things go really wrong, I can take some time out and do some self-care and bring myself back. And so we learn to refute those two lies just by getting older. But absolutely, if we can be intentional about it and try to think of some things that maybe if I could conquer this little fear or this little fear, or just to even do it on the fly, I could just like your story. I could either go sit, eat lunch alone, or I could go join this table. Okay, here’s my decision. Tree point. And if we take that that harder road in, in the moment, it pays off and we learn. Absolutely. What keeps me going is, is seeing people improve. And yeah, seeing that this does make a difference.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (01:01:06) – And my job is to make myself obsolete, like I, my job is to take the skills and to transfer them to whoever I’m working with, and then have them go fly on their own. My job is to not have a job anymore, and unfortunately, there is enough anxiety and depression in this world that I will always have a job. But I think that it’s important to either one by one in the clinic or many at once, through a book or through some other kind of project to be able to help people find their their the answer, the balance, the refutation of what anxiety is telling them. So anxiety is telling them that there’s something wrong with you. People will see you can’t do that. Or it’s their anxiety, it’s criticizing them. And so to help them move on from that and to get out from under that is so rewarding and really fuels me. I often have students come to my office and say, oh, Dr. Hendrickson, can I talk to you for a little bit? How did you how do you how are you doing what you’re doing? As those visits have increased, it’s made me reflect and say, wow, I’m living the dream.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (01:02:11) – And this is pretty cool. And the thing that is that still blows me away, though, is that it, that what I’m doing now is inexorably tied up with the thing that brought me the most shame, which is social anxiety and thinking that something was wrong with me. Because as I’ve gone through my life, the that that inner critic, that little voice that tells you that something’s wrong with you has evolved based on my kind of social surroundings. So like in college, where a social life is very important, that little voice like you’re a loser. Like when I was starting my career, the little voice was, you’re incompetent. And when I was writing the book, certainly the voice was quieter. By then I’d gotten older. I’d done a lot of work, but it was when I was trying to email luminaries and academic luminaries of psychology and ask to interview them about this book, about social anxiety from an unknown writer. That little voice came back and said, you’re annoying. And so just the fact that the mix of things that I’m doing all centers around this thing that I was that made me so miserable for so long, it’s just unbelievable to me.
Jonathan Fields (01:03:19) – Yeah, and pretty cool and pretty cool.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (01:03:21) – Who would have guessed? Absolutely.
Jonathan Fields (01:03:23) – Which feels like.
Jonathan Fields (01:03:24) – A.
Jonathan Fields (01:03:24) – Good sort of place for us to come full circle. Sure. So hanging out here in the context of this thing we call Good Life Project. So if I offer out the phrase to live a good life, what comes up for you?
Jonathan Fields (01:03:34) – Absolutely.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (01:03:34) – So I, I think okay, so I’m going to crib from Freud here. So I’m not a Freudian, but because he was wrong about a lot of things. But he did get some things absolutely right. And one of them in my opinion, was that to live a good life, you need to love and work. And so love I think, is pretty self explanatory to surround yourself with the people you love and who love you, whether that’s family or friends as family, or if you have a partner or kids, then yes, absolutely. Those people are your core and will really determine so much of your happiness and your health, it turns out.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (01:04:07) – And then in terms of to work, I actually interpret that as purpose because work doesn’t have to be paid. It could be you could be a stay at home parent, or you could have a side hustle, or it could be your actual career. But whatever gets you out of bed in the morning, whatever your purpose is, that is your work. And so I think with a little help from Freud, that to love and to work makes a good life.
Jonathan Fields (01:04:31) – Thank you, thank you.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. (01:04:33) – It was a joy to talk to you.
Jonathan Fields (01:04:35) – So I love that simple tools like refuting those two big lies can really work wonders and bring it home. Today is Ethan Kross, an award winning psychology professor at the University of Michigan and author of the bestselling book Chatter The Voice in Our Head Why It Matters and How to Harness It, and Ethan dives into the difference between our inner voice. And the unhelpful chatter that can hijack our thoughts. He shares insights from decades of research on how chatter impacts our health, performance and relationships, and the good news we have tools to take control.
Jonathan Fields (01:05:06) – Ethan reveals science backed techniques to recognize chatter and distance yourself from unhelpful thoughts. Here’s Ethan. What do we actually talking about when we’re talking about chatter?
Ethan Kross (01:05:15) – So when we’re talking about chatter, we’re talking about the dark side, the dark manifestation of the inner voice. And I want to be clear that the inner voice says, I hope to have already explained, does a lot of good for us. When people tell me, oh, just get rid of that inner voice, I want to silence it. My initial response is, you wouldn’t want to do that. In fact, there are case studies in which that’s happened. I talk about one of them in my book where a person experienced a stroke, lost her ability to use language temporarily, initially describe the experience as euphoric because she no longer worried and ruminated, but shortly after that found it completely disorienting because once her inner voice left her, so did her ability to make sense of her experiences, life, and who she was. And she couldn’t. Her working memory system was gone.
Ethan Kross (01:05:59) – She couldn’t do the most basic things, like remember what to do in the grocery store and so forth and so on. So inner voice on the whole, really good for us. An important tool that you wouldn’t want to live without. But as many listeners will no doubt relate to, at times when we try to use this tool, it seems like it backfires on us. We experience adverse events. We go inside to try to make sense of them with language, and we end up ruminating about the past instead, or worrying about the future or catastrophizing the common thread that runs across those different states rumination, worry, catastrophizing nation is that we’re getting stuck in a negative thought loop. We have this goal. We’re trying to make sense of an experience, but we’re not progressing. We’re not succeeding. And that, in turn, has a really negative effect on our ability to think and perform can negatively influence our relationships in our health. And that is the phenomenon that I call chatter. I use that term chatter to capture getting stuck in a negative thought loop, sometimes about the past, sometimes about what’s happening in the moment.
Ethan Kross (01:07:01) – Sometimes it’s about the future. But the common theme is we’re trying to make sense of something, but we’re not progressing. And I think it is without without trying to exaggerate at all. One of the big problems we face as a species, I think the research documenting the negative effects of chatter in the domains that I just mentioned, thinking and performance, relationships and health. It’s astounding how consequential chatter can be for those different domains of life, which just happened to be three domains of life that I think make life worth living for many of us. And so trying to understand how people can manage chatter is, I think, a really important question. It’s what I’ve been doing for the past 20 years. So we know that chatter can have negative physical health implications. And in part how it does so is it prolongs our stress response. So we often hear that stress kills. That’s not exactly true. The stress response. We evolve the capacity to have this response for a reason. It serves a vital function when we’re in the presence of a threat, the ability to respond very quickly, fight or flee.
Ethan Kross (01:08:09) – Good thing what makes stress toxic is when that response becomes prolonged. And that’s precisely what chatter does, because we experience something negative in our lives and we don’t leave it behind, we then, after the experience is ended, after I’ve gotten the rejection letter on my last paper, or after I’ve been insulted in the car, I think about that event over and over again, and thinking about that event keeps it active in our minds, as well as the corresponding physiological response that is associated with it. So that prolonged stress response in turn, predicts things like cardiovascular disease, problems of inflammation, even certain forms of cancer. There’s also some work now, even showing that chatter like chronic stress, can alter the way our genes are expressed. Turning on genes that are involved in inflammatory responses and turning off genes that are involved in fighting off viruses. So even at the genetic level, at the epigenetic level, we’re seeing effects of chatter. So I’m hesitant to say it’s not all in the mind because I’m a I believe it.
Ethan Kross (01:09:14) – The mind is grounded in the body and in the brain. But what we know is that the effects extend beneath your shoulders into every corner of your body in ways that can have really consequential negative physical health implications. And so so that, again, is why one of the reasons why I think this is such a huge problem. But there’s really good news, which is at the same time that we’ve evolved to be able to to have this chatter like response, we’ve also evolved to possess a boatload of different tools that we can use to manage it. And so one thing I like to tell people is if you experience chatter can. Nations. Welcome to the human condition. Most of us do at times, and just because you experience chatter does not mean you’re clinically anxious or depressed. Those are extreme manifestations of chatter. But most normal, healthy individuals experience chatter in small to moderate doses at various points in their life. But that’s okay, and experiencing small blips of chatter aren’t necessarily going to predict developing these physical ills, because we have so many tools that we can use to nip it in the bud when it strikes and regain the ability to manage our inner voice.
Ethan Kross (01:10:25) – And so so that’s why I chose to spend one chapter of the book talking about the negative stuff. And I think six talking about tools, because I think that is really where much of the action is. And most of the opportunities surrounding being a gentle about being proactive revolve around these tools with respect to how to manage our chatter.
Jonathan Fields (01:10:46) – Yeah, let’s talk about a few of those tools. Also, there’s a lot of them, as you mentioned, and you dive into a whole bunch of them. And one of the approaches is something I may characterize it wrong, but effectively creating psychological distance. Tell me more about this.
Ethan Kross (01:11:01) – We’ve characterized it perfectly. So when we experience chatter, we often zoom in on our problem tunnel vision. We’re focusing explicit what happened, what we felt, what’s going wrong, and we lose sight of the bigger picture. And so what we’ve learned is one natural antidote to that state is to pull people back, to have them step back from the immediacy of what their experience so they could focus on the big picture and and develop alternative ways of thinking about what they’re going through that ultimately help them feel better.
Ethan Kross (01:11:34) – The real world example I like people to think about, to really drive home the power of distance for helping people manage situations is to ask them to think about a time when a friend or a loved one came to them with a problem that they were spinning about, chat, or can’t get through it. They don’t know what to do. They come to you for advice, and when they present the problem to you, it’s relatively easy for you to give them advice to weigh in and coach them. When I pose that scenario to to audiences and ask, has anyone ever experienced this consistently? Every hand in the audience goes up, right? It’s a very powerful response. The reason why it’s so easy for you as the friend, to weigh in on the problem is because that happening to you, you have some psychological distance from that experience and you could bring your this wonderful, gorgeous brain you have to bear in all of its capacity to weigh in on the problem and come up with a solution. We often lack that distance when we’re experiencing chatter, but what we’ve learned is that there are many different things you can do to regain it.
Ethan Kross (01:12:34) – And so that characterizes one set of tools that people can use when they’re experiencing chatter. And so to make that more concrete, one tool that you can use is something we call distance self-talk. And it involves using your name or the second person pronoun you to coach yourself through a problem. So if I’m spinning over it, Ethan, how are you going to manage the situation? Here’s what you need to do. If you think about when we use names and second person pronouns, we typically use those parts of speech when we think about and refer to other people. So there’s a very tight link between a name and thinking about someone else, someone who’s distant from us. And so what we’ve learned is that when people use their own names to work through their problems, it virtually automatically shifts their perspective. It puts them into this. It activates the neural machinery involved in thinking about other people, and it puts us into this coach mode that is much more constructive than when we’re trying to work through a problem in the first person.
Ethan Kross (01:13:35) – So that’s one thing that people can do. I would advise that if they do it, though, that they should do it silently, or if they feel the need to really do it out loud while walking down the streets of their neighborhood to make sure that they have a pair of AirPods in their ears, looks.
Jonathan Fields (01:13:49) – Like they are on the phone call. That’s right. Let’s just think of that same thing. We had Jeanine Roth on the show a couple of years back, and she described something which is similar but different. She’s lived with his voice nonstop in her head and like tons and tons of chatter, she gave the voice a different name. It was like the crazy aunt in the attic or something like that, and she created a character out of the voice of the chatter that was not her, and then would have these conversations with that person.
Ethan Kross (01:14:13) – That’s distancing right there. It’s another manifestation of it. And in fact, one of the one of the experiences that I found so interesting while researching the book, and I talked a lot of people about that voice in their head.
Ethan Kross (01:14:24) – And interestingly enough, just as an aside, like I interviewed C-level executives, Starbucks baristas, and everyone in between and outside those distinctions and they all, you know, resonated with this experience, many of them spontaneously, and they didn’t know why, had named the voice in their head. I heard things like, itty bitty shitty committee. Arianna Huffington, I think, said the obnoxious roommate in my head. I saw an interview with her. One of my favorites was someone who named their. Chatter. Marvin. Just Marvin doesn’t sound like a nice person in there. And those are in fact it’s not me. And if it’s not me. I can engage with it differently. So that’s just one kind of distancing tool that exist. And I really want to emphasize that because I think it is fascinating how many different tools we have. Like, just to give you one other example of probably 10 or 12 distancing tools, a tool that I’ve relied on a lot during the pandemic is something that is technically called temporal distancing, but I call it mental time travel.
Ethan Kross (01:15:27) – So when you’re dealing with an acute stressor and you’re zoomed in on the awfulness of it, oh my God, I’m still at home, I can’t exercise, my kids are doing zoom sessions at my ankles. All these negative things. It’s easy to get filled with chatter in those circumstances. What I would often do is think about how I would feel six months from now when I’m vaccinated, when I’m traveling again, when I’m seeing friends, and when I engage in that mental time travel. What it made it clear was when I got some distance by traveling in time, from the moment it made it clear that what I’m going through, as awful as it is, it’s temporary. It’s eventually going to pass. And that gave me a sense of hope, which we know is really powerful for managing chatter. So I mental time traveled into the future to get some distance, to broaden my perspective. I also traveled into the past. I thought of the last great pandemic we experienced in 1918 and my God, like as bad as things are now, they were even worse back then that the death rate was higher.
Ethan Kross (01:16:25) – No zoom, no take out, lots more adversity. And guess what? We got through that and we came roaring back. And so we’ll get through this. It’s another very simple mental shift that a person can engage in when they’re when they find themselves experiencing chatter that has the potential to provide them with relief. And the key point to to keep in mind with these distancing strategies is we’re often having people step back in order to then approach and make sense of their feelings. We’re not having them step back to avoid thinking about them. That’s not a good thing, right? That’s something bad. So there’s nuance to how all of this works, but there are certainly lots of individual tools and CT that I think you don’t have to be clinically anxious or depressed to be able to benefit from. And I think the more we can do to identify what are these with pinpoint precision, these tools that we can use to manage our inner voice and give those to people, the better off we’re going to be for helping people and society?
Jonathan Fields (01:17:25) – Yeah, it occurs to me also, one of the really big things is we’ve got to be aware of the tools we need to know they exist and then be know at least what some are so we can start to deepen into and find more.
Jonathan Fields (01:17:36) – But there’s another thing. We can’t actually use the tools until we become self-aware enough that we actually we know when we’re in the grips of chatter, we can actually understand, oh, oh, let me zoom the lens out for a moment. Oh. I’m spinning. That’s exactly right. And that’s like a meta skill that we need because we can’t access the tools until we actually understand, oh, we’re in a moment where we need them.
Ethan Kross (01:18:03) – Yeah. And I said, so that’s why I think just having an understanding of what chatter is, being able to define it and recognize once, oh, I’m experiencing chatter. That’s not a recognition that is obvious to a lot of people. Being able to put a label on it in that way, as I think in and of itself quite useful. So people ask me all the time, do you experience chatter? And I say, yeah, I experienced chatter. I’m a human being and I come from New York City. It’s predestined that I experienced chatter, right? Of course I do at times.
Ethan Kross (01:18:32) – And they asked me, do I use the tools that I talk about? And I emphatically do use many of those tools, not all of them, because I have my favorites. What I’ve become really good at over the years is a recognizing the moment I start slipping into chatter, and then the instance that I find myself slipping into it. I rapidly take that chatter fighting cocktail that I have at my disposal non-alcoholic. And it’s the tools. There are like 4 or 5 tools that I will instantly deploy, and usually they’re quite effective at nipping it in the bud. So that’s exactly the two step process that you’re describing, being able to know what chatter is and practicing recognizing it and then making the conscious intention, making the specific plan. If I find myself experiencing chatter, then I will use the tools in my repertoire and doing some self experimentation. We’ve talked about two tools, but as I’ve said for lots of others, and some of them don’t involve things you do on your own, but rather they involve other people or actually are physical environments.
Ethan Kross (01:19:37) – And so there’s a really broad repertoire out there of tools that exist. And I think what science has done really is profile, individual tools. We’ve identified specific tools. We’ve studied how they work, what are the mechanisms that explain how they work. But what we are only beginning to do is study how those tools come together in daily life, in different combinations to help people and whether they. A combinations of tools that help you are different from those that help me. And so while we wait for science to give us answers to those questions, I think there’s an opportunity for people who are listening or reading to do some self experimentation to try out these different tools. And if they serve you well, continue using them. And if they don’t serve you well, don’t use them anymore.
Jonathan Fields (01:20:24) – Yeah, that makes so much sense to me. I am a daily meditator for over a decade now, and I’ve noticed that one of the not immediate, but longer term benefits has been it doesn’t eliminate the chatter, but it trains you in being becoming aware of when you’re in it, when it’s rising up, and then in intervening more quickly, which I found like, that’s this really interesting single practice that I feel like sort of like gives you multiple skills and tools.
Ethan Kross (01:20:51) – Yeah. And there’s an important distinction that I think comes across from what comes out of what you’re saying that I think is important for people to be aware of. And it’s certainly a distinction that has helped me, which is the following. We don’t possess the ability to control the thoughts that pop up into our head. I don’t know of any research that provides us with tools that can prevent us from experiencing certain thoughts. I don’t know that we even know why we experience certain thoughts that just pop up in our head, so we can’t control the thoughts that pop up into our head, but we can control how we engage with those thoughts, whether we elaborate on them, whether we drop them, or whether we do any number of different things to to manage them. And the reason I like to convey that to people is I think a lot of people, a lot of students that, like, have taken my classes over the years on self control. I’ve often asked them, so let’s say it’s 10:00 at night, you’re in the pantry and you really want the Oreo cookie, but you decide not to take it.
Ethan Kross (01:21:55) – Have you been successful at self-control? And some of them say yes, but a lot of them say no, because the fact that they experience the temptation in the first place that is evidence of not succeeding. And my response to those students is, if that’s your definition of self control, then you’re you’re bar for being effective is really high, because I don’t know that you’re ever going to be able to manage those tempting thoughts that pop up in your head or those dark thoughts, but what we can manage is how you manage them. So I think that’s just an important additional distinction that can be useful for understanding how the mind works, and maybe also not being so hard on ourselves. If we find ourselves experiencing thoughts that aren’t necessarily ones that we are proud of or yeah.
Jonathan Fields (01:22:41) – Forgiveness is a part of all of this. I think it feels like a good place for us to come full circle in our conversation as well. So sitting here in this container of a Good Life project, if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?
Ethan Kross (01:22:55) – Engage with other people.
Ethan Kross (01:22:58) – Give to other people. Learn how to manage your chatter. And indulge every now and again.
Jonathan Fields (01:23:07) – Mm.
Jonathan Fields (01:23:07) – Thank you. Thanks so much to Ethan and to all of our guests today, the wisdom in research and harnessing the power of our inner voice to live healthier, more supportive, more purposeful lives is truly inspiring. We’ve covered a lot of ground on the winding path of anxiety. Though the journey isn’t easy. Take heart in knowing that if you are experiencing any of the many different forms of anxiety, you’re not alone and there are things that you can do. I hope these ideas spark inspiration to gently tame your inner storms. And if you love this episode, be sure to catch the full conversations with today’s guests. You can find a link to those episodes in the show notes. And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow Good Life Project in your favorite listening app. And if you found this conversation interesting or inspiring or valuable, and chances are you did. Since you’re still listening here, would you do me a personal favor, a seven second favor, and share it? Maybe on social or by text or by email? Even just with one person? Just copy the link from the app you’re using and tell those you know, those you love, those you want to help navigate this thing called life a little better so we can all do it better together with more ease and more joy.
Jonathan Fields (01:24:22) – Tell them to listen, then even invite them to talk about what you’ve both discovered. Because when podcasts become conversations and conversations become action, that’s how we all come alive together. Until next time, I’m Jonathan Fields signing off for Good Life Project.