Episode #121: Dr. Russell Kennedy: A New Prescription for Anxiety Relief
My guest today is Dr. Russell Kennedy. Dr. Kennedy’s new book is out now, Anxiety Rx: A new prescription for anxiety relief from the Doctor who created it.
Dr. Kennedy grew up with a schizophrenic father who attempted suicide when Russ was a young teenager. This experience, along with other episodes, created deep anxiety that the neuroscientist could not figure his way out of. Journeys to India, yoga, and meditation did not do the trick. When Dr. Kennedy finally figured out how to manage, improve, or even heal from parts of his anxiety, he was inspired to refocus all of his work to help others. His ability to explain the science with the compassion of somebody who has genuinely been there makes this a highly impactful conversation.
If you have anxiety or are trying to help someone with anxiety, Dr. Kennedy has a lot of useful tools. I also believe that if you find yourself constantly feeling stressed out that the ideas he discusses are also beneficial. Dr. Kennedy wants to help you figure out the way to get the anxiety out of your mind and connect with what you are feeling. After all, as he explains, anxiety is not a feeling; it lives in the mind. He understands that anxiety is unavoidable, but he wants suffering to be optional. It’s not often you meet a neuroscientist who’s going to be as equal parts linear as he is mystical. Enjoy
Listen to the episode here:
- Growing Up with Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder [00:06:20]
- Worry and Anxiety [00:24:52]
- Coping Mechanism [00:40:14]
- The Repetition Compulsion [00:48:06]
- Parenting [00:58:11]
- Transfer of Trauma [01:02:41]
- Background and Foreground Alarm [01:08:16]
- Breaths [01:14:59]
- Posture and Anxiety Connection [01:16:51]
- ABCs [01:20:08]
- Ego [01:25:04]
Dr. Russell Kennedy: A New Prescription for Anxiety Relief
My guest is Dr. Russell Kennedy. His book is called Anxiety Rx: A New Prescription for Anxiety Relief from the Doctor Who Created It. I love this book. I’ve read it a few times. This was my second interview with Dr. Kennedy. Our first one got botched. I had a chance to take in all of the material. What he does so incredibly is take hard science, he’s a neuroscientist, and then compassion because this is somebody who grew up with a schizophrenic father who eventually ended up committing suicide and had attempted so when Russell was about 13.
He’s got the two living side by side. He understands because he lived it, went through it, and couldn’t figure out how to manage or get rid of his anxiety. He also has this scientific linear approach, which is like, “What is happening?” I love the book because there are 109 bite-sized chapters, if you will, so it’s a great tool. If you read a chapter and you think, “There’s something important in there for me,” you can go back and read it easily. It’s constantly bridging what’s happening in a scientific way, and then also what you might be experiencing.
An important part of his message is that anxiety is not a feeling. When we are experiencing these things in our brain, how do we move those into our bodies so that we can manage them and deal with them and maybe even move them out? A lot of us get stuck in the loop in our brains. His whole message is, “Here are exercises we can do to move these things from the meaning-maker.” Let’s say you’re having a stressed-out day. Your brain goes, “I’ve got to give you reasons why you’re feeling anxious. It’s your relationship. It’s your job.” Maybe it’s something stored in your body from childhood that you don’t even remember.
What I love about Dr. Kennedy’s approach is, “How do we get this out of the brain into the body? How do we soothe ourselves with the hopes of not only managing it but then eventually even trying to find ways to heal from it?” I know a lot of people suffer from anxiety. Whether someone or you’re experiencing this yourself, this is a great conversation. These ideas can be applied to stress.
A lot of us are projecting or past-futuring what we think is going to happen. Even if you don’t have full-blown anxiety, which is different from feeling stressed out or being in a stressful time, these are still important ideas that can shed light on ways like, “I can do this differently and make this a little bit easier.” Russell is a compassionate, intelligent person. I hope you enjoy the conversation.
No kidding. This is awesome. I look like a pasty, white Scott person and you look like a beautiful Hawaiian. It’s a nice contrast.
Way to start it. You just put me in a good mood. Thank you. First of all, I am so sorry about the last time but now we have it double-covered. Your podcast threw us over the edge. We’ll get started. I’m excited to talk about this. It’s funny, I relistened your book and I was like, “I’m excited to talk about this again.” What’s the temperature where you are, Dr. Kennedy?
You can call me Russ, Gabby. In Fahrenheit, probably 62 or 63.
That’s not bad.
It’s okay for Canada.
I still think when people go to medical school and they become neuroscientists, they should be called Dr. All that schooling, you deserve it.
Whatever you’re more comfortable with.
I might go in and out. For those of you reading, I am going to be completely transparent, this is the second time I’m doing this interview. We had a technical glitch, unfortunately. Dr. Kennedy and I are not in the same place so our technology blew out. I’m excited to do this again.
I wish I was in your place. Victoria’s a bit cold, but I would love to be in a study environment.
Your book is called Anxiety Rx. The fact that you did the 108/109 chapters, there’s something not only digestible about it but if something struck somebody, to go back and reread the chapter isn’t a huge thing. I know it’s based on a bigger meaning and I want you to share that. The way that you chose to write this book makes it something that if people are going through it, they can go back to it again and use it as a real resource. I appreciate it.
For people who want to learn more about this, let’s say they’re living with somebody or they have a child or a partner, your book is an incredible resource because it’s not only coming from somebody who has had a deep and personal experience that I would like you to share, and your own relationship with managing anxiety, but you’re a science brain. You’re a neuroscientist, so you have this linear way of thinking. It’s this combination of enough woo-woo, as you would call it, and science so that it meets us where we live because we’re complicated, yet sometimes there are scientific things happening. This book is such a beautiful blend of those things. Russ, maybe start with the journey which kicked you off into having to manage and figure out how to manage your own anxiety.
My dad had schizophrenia and bipolar. From the time I was born until about 10, I didn’t notice. He was an award-winning baseball coach, a brilliant guy, and one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever known, but genius and madness aren’t that far apart. When I was around 10 or 11, I started seeing him getting a little strange. At the time, we lived in Brockville, Ontario, and my dad was manic as well. He would go bipolar.
He decided that he was going to move out to Victoria, British Columbia one day. He got on the road, hitchhiked out here, and then sent for us, my mother and my brother. My life as a child was chaotic. My father was loving, caring, and present when he was present, but the problem was when he would go into a deep depression or a manic stage or lose touch with reality, as a child, you look at your dad like, “This is the be-all and end-all. This is the guy that’s going to pave the way for me.”
To see him lose it was hard for me because I loved him. He did so many things for me from 0 to 10, and then those things started to fall away. Eventually, he committed suicide when I was 26. For about fifteen years, I watched him gradually decline. There were some good times there, too. The thing about anxiety is hypervigilance. You’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’d always be watching him like, “Is he feeling a little bit low today? Is he going into depression? Is he getting a little too excited? Is he going into mania?”
[bctt tweet=”Life is about parenting yourself.”]
99% of the time, I was wrong, but I learned to read people well because I had to focus on him all the time. What I did was I lost myself in that. When you lose yourself and you split from yourself, you’re a sitting duck for anxiety, eating disorders, depression, OCD, all that kind of stuff. The book is about me coming back to myself and finding what healed my anxiety after 30 years of psychiatry, psychology, medications, frog venom therapy, ayahuasca, and MDMA. I did all these psychedelics to try and understand what’s going on in there.
The short version of that is LSD showed me that my anxiety wasn’t in my head at all. It was this old trauma of alarm that was stored in my body and I didn’t pay much attention to that alarm. It was the generator of negative thoughts. That’s my little journey so far. I dealt with anxiety for many years and was frustrated with psychiatry, psychology, and all that kind of stuff. They couldn’t help me, so I had to go out and help myself.
I lived at a temple in India for a while, studied the science of spirit there, and became a yoga meditation teacher. I did all these things because I firmly believe that my dharma on this Earth is to go through this myself, and then translate it so other people can understand it. There are a lot of people out there that have gone through traditional therapy and they’re not a lot better, and then they blame themselves. It’s not your fault. We’re just not treating the right thing.
It’s an important topic because it does feel accelerated right now. There are more people on the planet. Physiology is managing too many unnatural elements. We’re not supposed to be able to look into thousands of people’s lives each day, know every single crisis on the planet, and not slow things down and connect. I’d like to break this up because you chunked the book into three pieces.
I want to be clear about this. We talked about this the last time but you also mentioned it in the book. When I hear the word suicide or schizophrenia, don’t just float through it. Let’s say someone’s lost a child to suicide, I’m sure there’s a new story every time. There was a soccer player from Stanford, the goalie there. Every time you see something, it’s not that you’re completely bulletproof. You understand how to soothe yourself and also be aware of your feelings.
I want to say that at the top because whether I’m trying to be in a relationship, I’m trying to keep anxiety, I’m trying to manage this, I’m trying to deal with my weight, you see this everywhere. It’s not about whether you get it right or perfect. It’s that you have the tools to manage it. I want to encourage people that this also is a practice. You have a practice in place. Something that feels important is that we’re going to give people a bunch of information, but no matter how much knowledge you have, it’s finding these practices that keep you tuned up so that you can manage it.
If I said, “Gabby, I’ll give you $1 million if you can sync three basketball free throws in three months,” are you going to start practicing the day before? No, you’re going to start practicing right now. That’s the thing I tell people. Cognitive therapy is great, but I don’t think it’s going to heal you. The thing about cognitive therapies is that it leaves you when you need them the most.
If you’re in the middle of a fight with your partner and you think, “That book I read said that I should take three deep breaths,” you’re probably going to say, “Screw it. I’m going to take three deep breaths. I’m going after this person.” Our emotional brain is taken over at that point. It’s learning how to practice this feeling state that you can recreate over and over again. That can be your grounded platform because a lot of us with trauma didn’t have that grounded state when we were younger. We rely on our thoughts to save us.
In a way, when you have this trauma that’s stored in your body, you don’t want to go back down there. That’s painful. What we do is we go into our heads, we go into rumination, we worry, and we get trapped up here because our ego sees that being trapped in our brain is a better option than going back into that old pain.
Nobody wants to visit that wounded younger child that’s still in there, that’s still like, “I’m still suffering from seeing my dad in the psychiatric intensive care unit. They’re still charged in me.” It’s being able to recognize the feeling. Treat a feeling with a feeling rather than treat a feeling with a thought because when you try to treat a feeling with a thought, you can’t think your way out of a feeling problem.
This is a big one and everybody reacts differently. You were hypervigilant and also became hyper-performing. You were going to save everybody. I’m sure you’re interested in the sciences, but I would imagine that one of the reactions to your dad was becoming a doctor. I have my own versions of it. Meeting a feeling not with a thought struck me because that’s how I always compensated.
When I was younger, my mom took a hiatus from parenting from age 2 to 7. During that time, I was not living with my father either and he passed away when I was five. Instead of taking on more of a victim mentality, I became hypervigilant. Every time I had that feeling, I always meet it by overthinking it and that became a tool that worked well.
Something that you share is like, “When we abandon ourselves, then it’s impossible to connect with other people.” I thought that this was an important point. Even if we can be high functioning, a lot of times people react by being overachievers, but you’re missing that link. Maybe we can start with getting into awareness. You go, “First, you’ve got to figure it out and be aware.” The reality is the body doesn’t forget and maybe we can’t even dig that out. For you, what does that look like for somebody?
This is the revelational part about the book, my approach, and what I found at LSD that I didn’t know before. If I get anxious, or as I like to use the word alarmed because anxious doesn’t have a whole lot of conscious meaning to it, everyone’s been alarmed, everyone knows what alarm is. When you’re alarmed or you’re freaked out about something, start scanning your body and look between your chin and your pubic bone. You can do a version of it right now. If you’re relaxed, close your eyes, relax your jaw, and relax your shoulders.
Anyone reading, try to let your body go, and then think of a trauma. Don’t pick the worst trauma of your life but think of something that bothers you from your childhood and then scan your body from your chin to your pubic bone. Usually, it’ll show up in the midline of your body. See if there’s an energy there that feels a little different, feels a little more intense. It could feel hot or pressure or cold. I’ll tell you where mine is. Mine is in my solar plexus right at the bottom of my ribcage. It’s sharp. It’s about the size of my fist. It’s like this dull, aching, hot pressure, and it pushes up into my heart. When anyone mentions suicide, schizophrenia, and bipolar, that part of me will light up.
This is where it starts to get flaky for a medical doctor. I want to have a seizure because it’s the opposite of how I was trained. That’s your younger self because there is this theory that if you experience a trauma that you can’t handle as a child and most big traumas, we can’t handle as children, it will go into your unconscious mind. Because the body is a representation of that unconscious mind, it will eventually show up in your body.
As that shows up in your body, for me, it’s in my solar plexus, that solar plexus alarm is my younger self, my 12, 13-year-old who started to see his dad fail. I put my hand over it. If you get a chance, if you find it, it might be in your throat, it might be in the middle of your chest or your belly, put your hand over it and feel the warmth of your hand over it and feel the sensation of your own connected touch. If you don’t find the alarm, it’s not a big deal. As you say, Gabby, it is a separation from yourself.
This highly accomplishment-driven aspect of us, you have it and I have it, is a defensive accommodation to allow ourselves to feel the pain. When you allow yourself to feel the pain, when you go into the pain and you put your hand over it and you connect with it, you cut out the middleman. It’s like this is what the child in you has wanted all your life. When you start giving it to yourself, you start becoming your own parent as Nicole LePera talks about, and you start reparenting yourself and connecting with that child in you, then you start renegotiating that split.
This is where practice comes in. Your practice is connecting with this part of you, then you develop a relationship with the child in you and then you accept them unconditionally realizing that there is no new shames, they’re all recycled. There are no new blames, they’re all recycled. There are no new things that you’ve done that no one else has done. There are no new traumas, there are just recycled ones. Realize that you’re a citizen of the Earth, you’re going to make mistakes, and you’re going to do things that you’re not proud of, but chances are, you do things you’re not proud of because in your development somewhere you didn’t get your needs met.
I don’t want to sound all positive, like, “Everyone’s got to get there.” If we don’t get our needs met in a critical fashion by our parents or our caregivers, there’s a split. When things don’t go right in your house, children blame themselves. There’s a great saying that says, “When you abuse, abandon, or neglect a child, they don’t stop loving the parent, they stop loving themselves.” What happens is that we take these jabs at ourselves. JABS is an acronym I created for judgment, abandonment, blame, and shame.
This is what we do to ourselves to make sense of the crap that’s going on in our household. We judge ourselves, we split from ourselves, we blame ourselves, and we shame ourselves. That becomes this internal critic or whatever narrative that you have in your head that keeps you from connecting with yourself as a child, and then we develop these defensive accommodations. For you and I, it’s an accomplishment. For some people, it might be depression. They completely can’t do anything. Other people may go into an eating disorder to try to control the environment that they can’t control.
I could talk about this stuff for years, Gabby. I love talking with you. It is one of those things where we have to realize the root source of a lot of this and treat it at the root source as opposed to medicating it, as opposed to trying to talk our way out of it. There’s limited penetration from the cognitive mind into the amygdala, the feeling mind, superior temporal gyrus. There are all these places in our brains that aren’t that accessible to language. Unfortunately, that’s where a lot of these negative programs are stored. Why are we trying to heal these unconscious programs with conscious thinking? It helps, but it’s never going to heal you.
This is an important comment. You’ve even given an analogy of a child before they remember being attacked by a dog. They don’t remember this scenario, but when they come across a dog of a similar size or stature, they have these fears and reactions. What you’re saying is that in order to heal these things, you also have to figure out how to connect with the body.
Maybe you can share when is a good time for traditional therapy. Is it that you want to go in there and work some things out? Maybe you’re navigating some things at work and with your family. Sometimes putting it out on a table in a neutral environment, there’s something powerful. That’s why I always think our closest friends are the ones that make that space for us and we puke it all out on the table and let us navigate it. That kind of therapy feels supportive for that. Trauma doesn’t have to be, “You have a defined and serious trauma.”
I have a friend who played in the NFL. He grew up in Pennsylvania, a tough guy. He’s like, “My parents never said I love you. I needed to go back in and tell that kid, ‘I love you.’” I want to move on to the victim mentality. I always tell my daughters, “Don’t be two things. Don’t be a liar and don’t be a victim.” I got one kid who’s working on being the aggressor victim. She’ll aggress you, then if you push back, she’ll flip on her back and become the victim. I’m like, “No, you have to pick one.”
I want to remind people that whether it was a big thing or not, if it impacted them in this way, go ahead and see if you can get in there and do that connecting and finding those ways to let that be liberated from your tissue if you will. Let’s let that go, but that does maybe take a minute. You talk about conscious awareness and unconscious awareness. You talk about how a lot of people will take on this victim mentality and also worry, “Is there to keep us safe?” It’s not like, “Why is it there?” Ultimately, in nature, it was meant to be like, “What’s that noise?” We understand that there’s a place, but you also delineate between worry and anxiety.
Typically, I put it into fear and anxiety. If you’re out on the street and you see some dark figure coming out of you, that’s fear that’s happening at the moment, that’s happening right now. Anxiety is when you’re in a bedroom on your 23rd-floor apartment and you’re like, “I hope I don’t run into a dark figure on the street tomorrow.” We have to see anxiety and worry for what it is.
One of the main reasons is that we have this alarm in our bodies. Worry and rumination are, if you think about it, an adaptive way of getting away from that pain in our body. The problem is that the worries have to get more elaborate, more fearful to keep us in our heads. Otherwise, we risk drilling down into the body where a lot of that old feeling, a lot of those unconscious programs are stored. We don’t want to go back there, so we avoid that at all costs.
This usually shows up when we get in our 20s or 30s. It’s showing up earlier and earlier now. I noticed that with kids going off to university or college, this is when it’s showing up because they’ve been using their phones as a way of distracting. There’s a whole bunch of stuff on the phone about the dopamine response and the reward system and that kind of stuff.
[bctt tweet=”What I want people to do when they feel anxious or alarmed is to focus on sensation and allow themselves to feel it.”]
In a way, there’s no boredom anymore, there’s no angst anymore because all you have to do is go to your phone. We never learned any resilience. The phones are anti-resilience operators. They don’t allow us to create this okayness with boredom or with, “I don’t feel good right now.” Instead of processing that negative emotion, we never get to that. We just keep using our phones.
When the kids go away to school or college or university, they go back to their phones, but their phones aren’t enough anymore. Now that they’re in a new environment, it’s not enough of a distraction from their pain, and then they collapse. You make a good point about when traumas occur before typically the age of 7, we call that pre-verbal, you start to get a good handle on your language and you start using language more.
If you have trauma before the age of 7 because we talk to ourselves in language and we encode memories in language as a way of recovering that memory, we talk ourselves back like, “This is what happened,” instead of feeling it a lot of the time. We don’t remember. You can get someone who was bitten by a dog at 2 or 3 years old. They have a lifelong fear of dogs, but they have no conscious memory of it.
What happens with them is that they have pre-verbal trauma. The thing that they respond to a lot is touch therapy because there is that sense that when you’re scraped your knee when you’re 3 or 4 years old and you’re doing okay until you get around the corner and you see your mom, and then you explode. It’s the touch, it’s the hug, it’s that physical contact. That’s why I say now, when you find your alarm in your system, give it some touch. That’s how we’re wired as human beings, to respond to touch. If you have teenagers that are feeling anxious, put your hand on their chest.
I have three daughters but with Brody, it’s like I’m taking my life into my hands to get a goodnight kiss. Can you at least be like, “Brody, let me put my hand on your heart.” It’s an interesting idea. The funny thing is sometimes they’ll be like, “Ew. You’re so annoying,” but then they would weirdly let you do it as well.
It’s how you approach it, Gabby. If you say to your kids, “I listened to this doctor who’s an anxiety expert and he says that once a day, I should be able to put my hand on your heart. I love you. I want to make sure that as you grow up, you’re not going to have all this anxiety and worry in the world that seems to be outside down.” Put your hand over their heart and then put your hand on their back right at the same place. You surround their heart and say, “I’m only going to sit here for a minute.”
The number of parents that I give this to, 2 or 3 months along, the kids say, “Can you do that heart thing?” Because it works. Unfortunately, as human beings, there’s such a resistance in us to feel better when the world is in this catastrophic mode. We almost resonate with whatever is going on in the world. There is this perverse sense of security in being anxious because it does line up with how the world is.
When you do something that suits them, they may resist it because it’s not congruent with what’s going on in the outside world, but you have to explain it to them. This is where the cognitive stuff comes in. It’s like, “I listened to this anxiety doctor and he said that we should do this one today.” You can make a joke out of it, too. Have some play with it. “The other thing he said is that we should try to do some eye contact every day.” I know that’s going to freak you right out.
One of the tricks that I use with my teenagers and my parents is I get them to go into the bathroom mirror and they’re not making direct eye contact with each other, face to face. It works as well from a neurological perspective. If you look at your parent in the mirror, it’s a little easier for them and it’s a lot easier for you because it’s intense. Try looking at yourself in the eyes in the mirror when you’re not brushing your teeth and think it’s something else.
I got to tell you a story. One time, a different daughter came home and dropped a big bomb on my husband and me. It’s one of the ones where you hope you never have to hear these kinds of things. “This happened and I’m feeling this.” We were completely clueless. I had no idea. I went upstairs after a bit because I knew it was going to take some time.
I have a good friend who said, “Everyone gets their time in the barrel,” the chamber. Sometimes you’re there longer than you want to be. I knew this was one of those moments. This wasn’t something that we were going to just solve the conversation or wrap up. This was going to be a process of healing for everybody.
I got as close as I could to the mirror and looked into my eyeball and I was like, “You’re going to have to be strong right now.” I knew it was the kind of thing that you could see me and then see me in a year and be like, “What the hell happened to Gabby?” I knew I was going to have to decide to pay attention to stand up straight because I wanted to go and get under the duvet.
I understand the power of that. It’s an interesting thing when we don’t even have to understand why we’re feeling bad. “Something is bothering me. I’m feeling off.” We don’t have to have everything listed out and perfect, like, “These were the dates and times.” “I need to take a moment for myself. I’m feeling it somewhere.”
The other part of this is living, being a human, and being sensitive to the world around us. I don’t think we have to take on other people’s things. That’s the other thing. We’re not better people because we’re miserable because our friend is miserable. I’m not suggesting that, but it’s okay to say, “I’m feeling something. I’m going to take a moment.”
Allow yourself to feel it because there’s this compulsion that we have as human beings that we can solve everything with the mind. That works until you’re about 32. You go through your first divorce or whatever because you realize that you’re going to have to feel it to heal it. You’re going to have to allow some feelings.
That’s one thing, depending on how much trauma that you had when you were younger. Allowing yourself to feel emotion is difficult. Even worse, allowing yourself to feel uncertain is probably the hardest thing for people that were traumatized when they were younger. You make a good point, it doesn’t have to be like you were abused or abandoned or neglected on the street or whatever.
What I see with a lot of my patients is this level of sensitivity. Everybody I see with anxiety, alarm, whatever you want to call it was born sensitive. That’s part of their makeup. We’re coming back to that victim mentality. It’s so easy to drop into a victim mentality when your brain is telling you to look for a threat because when you have an alarm in your body, your brain, which is a make sense machine, is going, “Where’s the threat?”
If you’re lying in your bed and you’re completely comfortable waiting for your partner to bring you breakfast in bed and you’re freaking out, your brain has got to do something with that, especially the left hemisphere. It’s got to figure out why. Then you say “It must be my taxes coming up.” “My sister’s coming over and my mom’s going to be with her.”
It’s so easy to go into your head and it becomes a runaway train at that point. That’s what I’m saying. Can you isolate where you feel this feeling in your body and put some touch on it? Or breathe in essential oil. What I want people to do when they feel stressed, anxious, alarmed, whatever they want to call it, is focus on sensation and allow themselves to feel it.
I wrote this article called Cognitive Bypassing on Elephant Journal. As soon as we get a feeling, especially a negative one, we need to explain it. It’s like, “What’s going on? What is this? What could this be? Is he going to call me back? Is she going to call me back? Are we breaking up? Should I break up? Am I gay?” All this stuff starts coming up because your brain is struggling to find a reason for why you feel this negative emotion.
The reason why it’s struggling is that you’ve never given yourself the chance to sit there and feel that negative emotion and become acclimatized to it. Bessel van der Kolk talks about this in The Body Keeps the Score. We’re not getting people to get rid of their anxiety. What we’re doing is they’re acclimatizing to this feeling of alarm so it doesn’t fire us out in our head and tell our head, “What’s the reason for this?” On top of saying what’s the reason for this because your body’s alarmed, your brain preferentially looks for threats so it will find a threatful reason.
When you come up with a horrible thought, the reason, it recharges the alarm in your body so you get caught in what I call the alarm anxiety cycle. The only way to get out of that is to go into a sensation, allow yourself to feel it, and be acclimatized to it. Teach yourself, “This is uncomfortable. I don’t like this feeling. I find that if I don’t compulsively add thoughts to it, I’m okay.”
This is the thing, if the feeling is too much to handle, then look for a somatic therapist or someone that can help you through to allow you to acclimatize to this feeling because you’re going to get the feeling. When I get stressed, I always get it to my solar plexus. That always comes no matter what I’m worried about.
It’s like, “There’s that feeling again,” and then you teach yourself, “This is what I do when I have that feeling. I don’t go into my head. That’s the last place I want to go. I want to go into my body and feel it to heal it.” I’m curious, Gabby, what did you do when you talked about that thing with your daughter? What did you do when you had huge matches in volleyball before? How would you prepare? How would you ground yourself?
I would create a ritual that would get me to shift gears from, “Okay. Hahaha,” to more lock and load. I would use the steps of the ritual to move into a different part of my personality. You would get ready, your uniform, I put my hair back, all of these were active triggers. We’re moving into this next place that is sometimes uncomfortable and also trying to bring in the focus without gassing out because you can’t be this intense focused for so long. You start to narrow the focus, and then you get these moments within playing that the focus gets more narrow and wider, but your everyday living is much wider.
When you say, “I’m going to work out the big meeting,” that scope gets a little smaller. Now we’re talking about a point in answering questions. That point is even more focused. You have to move that aperture because otherwise, you get too fatigued. Finding a way to move there relaxed so that I had the energy to execute. Once I’d run around the court, I would start to tell myself, “This is my area in space. I feel comfortable here. I belong here.” I would take a little ownership of that space.
I wish I knew some of the things now. I would have used my breath more. You talk a lot about the parasympathetic and sympathetic to downregulate. When I work with athletes that come here, I go, “If you have 1 or 2 minutes between plays, how do you quickly downregulate and get back to that even baseline? How are you using that long exhale, closing your mouth, trying to use the nose breath to move into the parasympathetic?” Otherwise, it’s too tiring. You can’t just be rah all the time.
You said something in the book that I want to remind people, “Anxiety is not a feeling, it’s not real, it’s not a coping mechanism, and it’s not a weakness.” That’s not to say to people who have anxiety that that’s not real. That’s not what we’re saying because I respect and appreciate if people are having an experience. It isn’t a coping mechanism.
When I look at it now, it is a coping mechanism in a way because you don’t want to go into that alarm in your body. I was trying to track back to something you were talking about. I’m not saying if you feel horrendously alarmed that you have to sit in that horrible pain. You can go into it and then out of it again. I’m not saying, “Go in there, lock yourself in, lock the door, and blow your brains out.”
Be aware of what that feels like, and then come in and then come out of it at the same time. It does show you because you want to teach your unconscious that the negativity, the anxiety, the alarm isn’t all of you. There is part of us when we get triggered, we go back. There’s that theory that says, “If you experience a major trauma at a younger point in your life, part of you stays stuck there. When you see that same trauma like the dog bite, you may not know if you’ve got bitten, too, but if a dog approaches you, part of you will go back into that same place as a 2-year-old.”
Knowing that you can go into that space, and then teaching yourself that you can come out of that space too. We often talk about finding a safe place in your body. For me, that’s my sinuses. I’d go into the alarm in my solar plexus and I’ll sit there for fifteen seconds. I have this little mantra I call sensation without explanation, which is such a great mantra for me. There’s a great story behind it, but I won’t get into it. When you feel anxious, sensation without explanation, if you repeat that phrase over and over, you’ll acclimatize to that feeling and then know that your brain is going to compulsively try to worry because, in a way, it was a coping mechanism when you were younger.
Anxiety is not a feeling because I want to tease it out to the point where we get to know what we’re dealing with. When we tease it out, we can break the cycle, the anxiety, and the alarm cycle, on each other. The point is to understand that anxiety is not a feeling. Anxiety is just anxious thoughts. I often tell this story, if I have two teenagers in my office, say they’re 15, and I go in and say, “Angela, you might be pregnant,” Angela’s going to freak out. If I go in and I say, “Mike, you might be pregnant,” he’s just going to laugh.
[bctt tweet=”The point is to understand that anxiety is not a feeling. Anxiety is anxious thoughts.”]
It’s the same thought, but there’s no belief behind it. There’s no resonance behind it. It’s a matter of allowing the thought to sit there as a thought, as a collection of English words if you speak English, and seeing it as this isolated curious thing and not automatically linking it into the alarm. Because as soon as you link it into the alarm, the cycle starts and it’s difficult to get out of that cycle.
I love the idea that it’s not all of you, it’s a piece of you. That can empower us to take a look at things. It almost would be like having a backup. The rest of yourself would be like having a big brother if you were going to go face a bully. If you go, “This is just a piece of me, but there’s a bigger part of me that’s also there to support me as I look at these things,” it feels empowering.
That’s why people who meditate have so much success because it’s that resilience you’re talking about. It’s not having to react to every thought and feeling. What I appreciate is that there are all these tentacles that lead to the same thing, all of these practices that are so important. You talk about the three W’s.
Worries, what-ifs, and worst-case scenarios. They start to go up. The first thing is a worry like, “I’m going for my checkup this week. My uncle had diabetes. I hope I don’t have diabetes.” Then, “What if I have diabetes? I can’t eat sugar anymore. I love chocolate. What am I going to do?” Then, “I’m going to die like my uncle died of diabetes.” Within a minute, you’ve gone from, “I might have diabetes,” to, “I am dying from diabetes.”
It’s funny how your mind works because we have these amazing imaginations. One thing I noticed about people with anxiety is that they’re typically intelligent because we get caught in our heads so much that we practice thinking so much. The other thing about it is that we get focused on this feeling. It becomes this familiar feeling. Human beings equate what’s familiar with what’s secure. If chaos was secure to you when you were a child, which it was for me, I got used to it, I created chaos in my life. I’ve been divorced twice.
It’s one of these things that I noticed in my relationships when I was younger. I would create the same chaotic pattern. I would pick a partner who I needed to take care of like my dad. Eventually, I would resent them and they would resent me, and then the relationship would break up. Look at your patterns as a child and ask yourself, “What pattern did I have as a child that I am replicating in my adult life now?”
I always tell the story about my patient, Jane, who had an abusive alcoholic father. Jane was beautiful. She looked like Susan Sarandon. She had all sorts of male attention, but she would only pick abusive alcoholics. All sorts of men would ask her out. She would go out with a nice guy and say, “There’s nothing there. There’s no charge there.” She would only get that intense attraction with someone who fulfilled that kind of childhood familiar pattern.
I always like to say the word familiar can be broken down into two words, family and liar, if you grew up in a traumatic household because it lies to you about what’s safe, and then you wind up following that path. I tell everybody, “What were the patterns in your childhood? How is that same pattern showing up in your life today?” The number of messages I get back is amazing, “I had no idea that I did this, but this is exactly a replication of my childhood.”
I feel like sometimes it’s also this thing of like, “What I deserve…” It’s this weird thing of, “Maybe I’m not meant to be a person who gets that kind of love or gives that kind of love or is looked after.” It is connected to that. It’s funny, I heard this study once that if you said to somebody, “This is how you’re doing this in your life. If you’re doing it like X and now you’re going to do it like Y, you will be more successful, but it’s going to be different than the way you normally do it.” People won’t pick it because it’s too uncomfortable. You even will say, “The outcome will be better.” Familiar must be some kind of neurological groove, don’t you think?
Freud had a lot of amazing theories. He got a little wonky with the sex thing, but he had tremendous theories. One of them was called the repetition compulsion, which is to reproduce your childhood in your adulthood unconsciously. We all do it. For some people, it’s a revelation when they go, “This is exactly a repetition. I was always trying to make my mother feel better. I was always trying to do things. I was always trying to be perfect for her. I do the same thing for my husband,” or, “I do the same thing for my friends.”
You split from yourself. It’s not your authentic self. You develop this coping strategy as she did. Her coping strategy in her head was, “If I do everything for the person I love, they will love me back.” It creates a tremendous amount of anxiety because abandoning the child in me to look after my dad’s needs, as soon as you deviate from that authentic self, then the JABS come in. Then you start judging, abandoning, blaming, and then the chasm gets wider. Your mind and body disconnect. That’s why exercise, yoga, breathwork, that kind of stuff, it’s so great to pull your mind and body back into connection.
You have to find that feeling of alarm in your system because I do believe that that alarm is your younger self trapped at that age. The boy in me is about 11 or 12 years old. He’s watching his dad, as I say in the book. That was the first real conscious memory of watching my dad being taken away in an ambulance to the mental hospital. I can still remember it now and it still creates that alarm in me. Now I’m so familiar with it that I can go from that alarm state to that put my hand. I automatically do it now. I don’t even think about it. It makes it weird at the grocery store.
I feel it now and it’s like, “The poor kid had a hard time with it.” I can even laugh now because of some of the sympathetic activities coming up. It used to be this dorsal vagal shutdown when I thought about my dad or schizophrenia or suicide. Now, a little bit of sympathetic activity comes up. I go into humor. I lean into humor a lot. I also have to be aware that I don’t just displace everything with humor like, “Allow yourself to feel it.” You can make jokes about it.
That’s why people are struggling. That’s why relationships are breaking up. It’s because we don’t allow ourselves to sit with our feelings without this compulsive, relentless need to explain everything we feel, especially negative emotions, rather than just sitting with it. Meditations like that are like, “Anger will come up. How long is this going to last? It feels like it’s going on forever.” Then you watch your thoughts.
One of the best explanations I heard in meditation was, “Your thoughts are like a parade. You can let the float go by. You don’t have to grab onto it.” That’s what meditation does. It makes us more thought-resilient. It’s like that quote by Michael Singer that says, “You are not your thoughts. You are the one that observes your thoughts.” This is from The Untethered Soul. It’s an inversion of it. It’s not completely verbatim. If you can observe your thoughts and curiosity, you have a degree of separation from it and it doesn’t charge you up so much.
I found this being in a long marriage. I’ve been married to Laird for over 27 years. We call it dividing the furniture. There are days when we’re like, “We’re good.” Inside myself, I see certain things, I have reactions, and I’m like, “We’re probably not going to be married past 5:00 PM.” Within that, we’re having fun with it because I know it’s not monumental. We’re on each other’s nerves or we’ve been in too much close proximity or I’m in a different part of my hormone cycle so I’m not as cool as usual, or whatever it is. All of this is real, by the way. Especially with females, we also have to understand we’re dynamic in a different way than men.
I heard Dr. Alisa Vitti say once, “At certain times in your cycle if you’re feeling things, write it down three months in a row, like, ‘Maybe I should fire that person.’ ‘Maybe this relationship isn’t working.’ If you write it down three months in a row, that’s probably how you’re feeling.” Humor with brutal honesty, at least with yourself, is a helpful way of looking at things but also let them go. I call it humorous aggression. I look at it and I’m into the way I’m feeling about whoever it is or whatever the situation, but then I think about myself from further away, looking at myself going, “Look at her. She’s having a little temper tantrum.”
See her as the child because if you lost your parents between 2 and 7 with one of them and metaphorically with another one, there is that child in you that feels like, “This is over. This is done. I’m going to have to harden my heart. I’m going to have to protect myself.” I can completely see. I have the same thing in my relationships. It’s quick for me to go, “This isn’t working.” It’s almost like in my head. It’s like a joke.
For the first two marriages, it wasn’t because we went up getting divorced. Now I know where that comes from. I talked to my child who feels like he’s completely separate. I know how woo-woo and flaky this sounds, especially for our neuroscientists and medical doctors, but it’s finding that place in you that feels hurt. All overreactions are age regressions. When you see someone losing their cool and they have turned into a 5 or 7 or 8-year-old, I can guarantee you they experience some trauma at that age and they’re locked in it. Their amygdala is bringing them right back to that place and saying, “This is it. I’m not doing this anymore.”
With kids, for me, I know I’m not going anywhere. I will stand tall. I blew it, but I’m committed to trying to be the parent and trying to be the adult. When it’s all happening in it, when I feel untethered and emotional, I sometimes will say, “What would the parent or the adult do?” If I can’t find it myself emotionally, I want to tell my kids, “Sod off,” and walk home because I feel that way. Or like, “You’re going to grow up to be a terrible person,” whatever stupid thing we feel as parents.
At that moment, I go, “Gabby, you can’t totally rely on yourself, but you can rely on your commitment to what a parent would do and what an adult would do.” Sometimes I use that as a default to not say anything. Sometimes less is more. We sometimes need to follow the exit sign when we’re in that craziness. The practice of not only self-soothing but reminding ourselves like, “How am I trying to show up?”
As you said, you wouldn’t practice the day before the free throws, so you have something to lean on when it’s coming at you in a real way and you want to freak out and you go, “I’m going to go with my strategy. I’m going to follow the exit signs right now because I’m pissed,” or, “I feel overwhelmed,” or, “I am scared.” Half the parenting thing for me is fear that my kid is not going to know how to work hard or have good friends or be loving or whatever a million things. I appreciate the humor and the practice.
There’s no parenting without guilt, Gabby.
I don’t know why that’s an important natural mechanism. I get it. I have a couple of thoughts about it though. Every kid needs a narrative in their life. I’ve heard it all. Two of my three daughters, at one point or another, have in their development, one said to Laird, “Mom is your number one.” One of them said, “He’ll do whatever you want.” I’m their advocate because I understand their language better and they’re females. I’m thinking, “Yeah, because he doesn’t know some of these cues.”
We’re allies too much. I’ve had the younger one say, “We live in the same place. Don’t you want to change it up?” I’m thinking, “They all need something to push against to go into their life to do it the way they need to and that should be different than us.” It’s like this weird acceptance of, “They’re going to have something. I’m interested to hear what it is and it’s okay.”
Everybody’s got their path, too. Look at Jordan Peterson’s daughter, Mikayla, who’s had two joint replacements. She’s had a lot of pain in her life. Things are starting to flow for her now. She looks like she’s got a good guy and she’s engaged, which I’m happy to see. Part of parenting is letting our kids have their path. What’s your intention as a parent? You were saying earlier, “I have to stand tall.” I’ll remind you that you have no choice but to stand tall. You’re 6’3”.
It is one of those things where we have to let our kids have their own path. We can protect them from only so much. Sometimes they’re almost, from a consciousness level, supposed to go through this for their own development, but it’s hard. I remember when my daughter was 21 and she went into this anxious space. I didn’t know nearly as much about anxiety when she was 21. I helped her. She said, “The biggest thing that helped me the most was when you said, ‘When you wake up in the middle of the night, you say to yourself one thing, when you’re freaked out and you’re in a panic, am I safe at this moment?’”
She said that to me not too long ago, “I still use that in the middle of the day or the middle of the night. When I’m feeling panicked, I’ll say, ‘That’s all a possibility but at this moment, am I safe?’” That has grounded her so she can find that place because anxiety is all about the future. It’s all about what-ifs, worries, worst-case scenarios, all that stuff.
You can bring yourself into the present moment and the best way of doing that from my position is sensation. Use your sensation, use your touch, use your smile, use whatever you need, give yourself a hug or wrap your hands across your shoulders because that will bring you into the present moment. The other thing is looking at yourself in the mirror, in the eyes, which is way harder than it sounds. It’s hard to look yourself in the eyes because you are talking to your own emotional brain at that point. There’s no crap, there’s no BS at that point. You’ve got to answer yourself when you look at yourself straight in the eyes like that.
[bctt tweet=”Look at your patterns as a child and ask yourself, “What pattern did I have as a child that I am replicating in my adult life now?””]
The big thing about parenting when we all lose at a point is, “What’s my intention here? My intention is to provide the safest and I’m their best bet. Even if I’m not having my best day, I’m still their best bet.” I have three dogs, so it’s like that, too. I walk them at the same time. They have three leashes and they all go different ways. They wrap me up, trip me, and tie me. They’ve all got their path. If I find it, I fall down but if I let them go their own way, things are a lot easier.
With parenting, you said guilt is always part of it. I feel like that’s the next chapter of our growth as human beings. We’re always managing feeling like we’re not good enough or doing it right. When you talk about resilience, when you can have peace or harmony with that feeling of, “I probably screwed that up,” I feel like that’s some other chapter of our personal growth.
Laird always jokes with me, “Parenting is for us to grow up. That’s what they call parenting.” There’s some other extra opportunity for learning because that is part of it. You’re always feeling like you’re not good at it. Parenting is the only thing for sure besides like, “We’re going to get old and die,” that you won’t get right. You can’t hit the bullseye.
It’s so powerful for me that it’s like, “You’re going to show, you’re going to wake up every day, and you’re going to keep doing it.” In a way, for me, that is much more than how life is. It isn’t about, “I hit the bull’s eye.” It’s like, “Every day, even when I don’t feel like it, I’m going to do my best.” There’s something for me in that that is the next level of growth. If people don’t choose to have kids, I’m not suggesting they can’t do it in other ways. I’m specifically talking about that guilt that we’re always experiencing as parents.
Life is about parenting yourself. That’s what it is. We have these little objects below that let us practice and they bring up all our wounds, all our fears, or whatever. From my perspective, it’s finding where you weren’t parented and soothing that part of you because that’s when we stop the inherited family trauma. I have people that contact me all the time going, “My teenage son is losing it.” The first thing I say is, “First, we have to fix you. Once we fix you, then you’re not handing it down.”
Not to put guilt on people but unconsciously, we transfer these patterns. As our grandparents transfer to our parents and our parents transfer to us, we transfer these patterns, either through noncoding DNA or whatever because trauma can be inherited. It’s about developing the awareness around, “What are my patterns? I tend to cut and run. That’s my pattern. I know it’s coming. The basketball thing, I’m going to practice. In my mind, the next time I get into an argument with my partner, I know my first impulse is to grab my car keys and go.”
It’s like, “Can I give that another five seconds? Can I find that place in me that freaks out? Is it in my belly? Is it in my throat? Can I pay attention to that? Can I reparent that as Nicole LePera talks about? Can I find that place and resource that place?” Because that’s the child, that’s the part in us that creates all this negativity on some level from their own childhood experience. To wrap it all up in that sense, that child is supposed to go through different things.
My little time in India gave me a sense that everyone has their path. Some people get cancer, some people get ALS, and some people live a life that’s comfortable and calm. I saw a lot of people because as a doctor, I talk to them at the end of their lives. It’s like, “Everything went well for me.” “I wish that I got divorced.” “I wish that something bad happened.” I say, “That was your path. Your path was to have a comfortable life.”
Other people go the other way. Every negative thing that could possibly happen happens to these people. A lot of us are here and given these paths because consciousness wants to experience itself. It reminds me of what Teal Swan says, “What would someone who loves themselves do?” That’s been a great grounding thing as well because you’re going and finding that child in you and loving them. When you can love that child in you and you can examine those wounds, those wounds are there for a purpose.
I grew up with a schizophrenic dad for a purpose. I wouldn’t have written the book and I wouldn’t have done all the work that I do to help other people had I not had that. Would I have chosen it? No, I wouldn’t have chosen to live a life full of anxiety. Am I enjoying it more now? Yeah, because I feel like I’m putting some good into the world because of my dad, because it was so painful, because I experienced so much pain with him. That’s what drives me to help other people.
I always say I don’t want people to have to suffer anxiety the way that I did. That’s why I found a new theory of anxiety, a new way of treating it, and a new way of understanding how the angst gets into our system and how our mind hammers it in there and makes it worse. If you can understand what makes it worse, it’s like the story about the guy who’s hitting himself with a hammer 100 times a day and someone walks by and goes, “Why do you hit yourself with a hammer 100 times a day?” He says, “Because it feels so good when I stop.”
You can start making things better by stopping what’s making it worse. What’s making it worse is your brain, your compulsive need to explain the feeling. Sensation without explanation. Allow the feeling. If it’s overwhelming, get someone to help you process this feeling. Until you acclimatize, get used to that feeling, allow it to be there, and embrace it, anxiety is always going to hold you hostage.
In the book, you talk about the autonomic nervous system. You give people the tools to understand it on these other levels. I want to talk a little bit about that. If I was going to sum it up, you’re asking people to go from the mind to the body. I know Robin Sharma and he says, “The mind is a wonderful servant but a terrible master.” I thought that was poignant. Maybe we can talk about the foreground and background alarms. We get better at things even when we have more of an intimate understanding, even the nuance versions. Can you talk about the different types of alarms?
I came up with this concept because I noticed that I’d be driving to go get my daughter or whatever and I’d have this feeling of impending doom. I look around and it’s a sunny day, and it’s like, “There’s nothing in my life now that is bad, so why am I feeling this sense of impending doom?” I came up with this concept called Background Alarm, which is anything that challenged you in childhood. For me, it was the separation from my dad. Anything that challenged you in childhood is going to form this background of angst in your system. Anything that comes into your awareness that charges that up like if someone mentioned suicide or schizophrenia, that charges that part up. That’s the background alarm. It’s there.
When you’re sitting in a movie theater or whatever, you’re feeling this sense of anxiety, you’re looking around and going, “There’s no threat here. Why am I feeling this horrible anxiety?” Something from your background has been charged up and you may not even know the source of it. A foreground alarm is what everyone has. If you come around the corner and you see a stick that looks like a snake, your sympathetic nervous system, your fight or flight nervous system is going to rev up. Your heart rate is going to increase, your skin impedance is going to increase because of the sweat, and you’re going to get into this alarming state from what’s directly in front of you, what’s happening.
If there’s a reason right in front of you, it’s the foreground alarm. A foreground alarm could also say you’ve got blood sugar issues or whatever. It’s your body reacting to something and it’s charging up your system. Unfortunately, those of us that have old background alarms, we’ve had wounds from our childhood that are unresolved and are still stored in us, that will trigger them. It’s like having two tuning forks that are set to the same hertz. This is what I talked about in the book. If you bang one of them and put one of them beside the other, you don’t even have to touch it, the other will start resonating.
Those of us with anxiety and alarm have this background alarm and it sits in the background of our lives. If things are going great, it doesn’t typically come up that much but if things aren’t going great or something triggers you, that background alarm gets fired up. It will also activate the foreground alarm, which is the typical fight or flight reaction. Your body gets flared up and you get into that cycle so then your body says, “We’re all excited. We’re all worried about something. What are we worried about? Are we worried about our taxes or are we worried about our relationship?”
The mind will always make sense of it and then that’s when you get in the loop. When you get alarmed, recognize that you’re getting alarmed and know that your mind is going to start handing you on a platter, all these things that are scary for you. You have the choice of picking up those canopies, eating them, and putting them into your system or realizing, “A better choice for me right now might be to ground myself and in my own feeling of alarm, find the child in me that flares up.”
Reassure that child from a touch sensation from say, essential oils, some breathing, or anything that starts to calm that autonomic nervous system with the intention that you’re connecting to yourself. You’re connecting to that younger wounded part of yourself because that’s constructive, that you can learn from, that you can do something. If every time I heard suicide, I freak out and had to wait for two hours until my body calmed down, I wouldn’t be in a good state.
The worst part of anxiety is that you don’t know when it’s going to end. When you have something that you can do and you start feeling some agency and you start treating the root cause of it, which is this sense of alarm in your body, which is your younger self. Finding that and repairing that younger self connecting with them. What would someone who loves themselves do? Create that internal connection and the alarm goes away because all that wounded child wanted was an attuned attached parent. You have to give them that attuned attached parent now that they wish they had back then when the trauma was happening.
It’s such an interesting thing how a few years of our life can impact us. It’s planting the roots for the tree but it is always interesting. I hope that people know that sometimes doing your practice a little bit the bridge, the time between all that feeling, those reactions, or those being alarmed, can shorten it. It becomes less scary when it shows up. You go, “I know but I’m not going to have to be stuck in this dark tunnel forever and ever.” You love acronyms and I appreciate that you have them. You have JABS and alarms. I would like it if you could break it down because your ABCs are helpful and so easy for people, and they go into faith and gratitude.
The main thing is awareness. If you have health anxiety, be aware of what you commonly tell yourself. Smile when you start worrying about your health and realize, “It’s not about your health right now. It’s because I’ve got into alarm.” Awareness is the first thing. “What’s my normal trigger? What are the things that I often think about when I feel anxious or alarmed?” Recognizing that early, and then once you get that, getting out of your head and getting completely in your body and breath, that’s B. Awareness is, “What are my usual triggers? How does my body react when I’m feeling alarmed?” Training myself to recognize that early.
Russ, I want to mention that you do have a chapter that gets into breathing and holotropic breathing. People have to understand you’re not throwing things out there that then through the book, they’re completely supported with ideas on how to do this.
There are a bunch of different breaths. Our breath is the only real conscious link we have to the autonomic nervous system. I was listening to Andrew Huberman. I love his podcast and he talks about the physiological side. Two quick breaths in and a long exhale. Intuitively, I have worked with people but I make it three. I find that when people do two breaths, if their chest has been constructed, it doesn’t open up their chest that much so I get them to make three deep inhales, spread their collarbone, spread their chest.
When your chest expands like that, it sends a message up to your brain stem, the bottom part of your brain that connects to your body, that everything is okay. The converse is also true. When your chest starts to constrict, which it does when you get anxious, it also sends a message up, “We’re in danger.” The brain starts looking for dangers and if it doesn’t find one, it makes one up, which is what worry is.
[bctt tweet=”When you abuse, abandon, or neglect a child, they don’t stop loving the parent, they stop loving themselves.”]
To this point, I want to go through C, D, E, and such. I did something interesting and I would love to know if you think it’s true. When we’re on our phones, we’re typically hunched forward. Physiologically, it puts us in a fight or flight posture. I always thought that on top of whatever we’re being blitzed by what’s happening on our phone, the mere posture alone, we’re having an anxious physiological response. I thought that that was interesting. The shoulders are coming forward. Tell me what you think. If you were in nature and your head is down and you’re forward, you’re vulnerable.
What happens is that your body will match how you’re feeling and your feeling will match how you’re thinking. It becomes this loop. When we get into this place where we are hunched over and our shoulders come in, it does tell our brainstem that there’s a threat and we’re not safe. Our brain, which is a meaning-making, make-sense machine, gives us all these reasons for exactly why we’re not safe, which confirms that, which makes our body feel the same way so you get into this cycle. It’s breaking that cycle of reinforcement by spreading your shoulders apart.
I’m certified as a yoga teacher. When I get stressed, the best thing I can do is twist because my spine doesn’t twist in day-to-day life. You can do forward folds, go down and touch your toes, and arch your back backward but twisting is one of those things that we don’t do. I always imagine when I’m doing twists that I’m wringing out my spine. I’m starting to get into the little woo but with the negative thought patterns, the negative energies, or whatever, I always feel that when I’m doing a twist, it’s like wringing out a towel. I’m wringing out all the negativity.
Twists are one of those things that are highly underrated in yoga because it’s one of those things that move our spine in a way that allows us to discharge energy. I have this thing on my Instagram called the six-way spine twist, which is a forward fold, arch your back backward and you’ve got your hands in your back pockets, twisting from left, twisting right. Then laterally go side to side where you put your hands up in the air, and then you move your torso all the way over to the left and all the way over to the right.
That six-way spine movement pulls you back into presence because your body and your mind are so linked and they will do what the other one wants you to do. If you’re feeling depressed, your body will adopt a depressed posture and then that will reinforce your brain, “We’re depressed.” The opposite is true too if you open up. Backbends are also amazing like the camel pose in yoga. If I’m stressed, I’ll go in a camel, and then I’ll do a twist. For five minutes, it makes a world of difference for me.
When you hear people go, “Lead with your heart,” there are so many cues that we hear and all these other disciplines that are important. I used to teach a breathing class and what I would tell people at the end is we do the breathing. For a lot of people, they can’t concentrate so I’d say, “Why don’t you envision a color? Whatever your favorite color is that you want today.”
What I would encourage them to do is bring the color in, go through the toes and the tissue, go everywhere, but also on the exhale, see the color leaving, and take all the stuff you don’t want that doesn’t serve you like the worry, the anger, or whatever it is. Try to give people the tools to connect with that ability to go, “I’m going to offload this.” You talk in your ABCs, then you have C for connection.
A is awareness. Be aware of the feeling that you get in your body and your common anxious thoughts, because we all have the same thing. Maybe you won’t recognize the feeling right away because you haven’t trained yourself to look for it. Look for it. Get my book built and it’ll teach you how to get it. When you find those patterns starting, go into your body and breath. Get out of your head because your head is not going to help you even if it tells you, “We’ll think positive.”
Once you start going into your mind, your mind will slowly start turning the corner and all of a sudden, you’re back into worry again before you even notice it. It’s awareness of what anxiety feels like for you and then you go into your body and your breath. Get out of your head because your head is not going to help you. Find some compassion for yourself, find that alarm, find that child, and reassure that child that they’re okay. Continue the breath. I have a picture of myself at 10 or 12 and I have it behind my bathroom mirror. I connect with that child so I look him in the eyes and the picture that I look at myself in the eyes in the mirror. I look at the picture and I reassure him.
The other thing I tell him is, “Look at all the things we’ve done,” because he doesn’t know. He’s still stuck at 12 years old. He’s still watching his dad being taken away so tell him, “We went to medical school. We became yoga teachers. We did stand-up comedy for fifteen years.” He doesn’t know that. The child in you doesn’t know all this stuff that you’ve accomplished as an adult. It also doesn’t know how you’ve made yourself feel better, your coping strategies, because the child in you is still stuck back at that age.
Developing that compassion for that child is hard for a lot of us because we judge. I know I’m covering a lot of ground but especially if you were bullied, part of you agrees with the bullies when you’re younger so you get that split from that. It’s like, “Maybe they’re right. Maybe I am a nerd. Maybe I’m not that funny,” or whatever it is. That split gets more and more defined. The more split you get, the more of a sitting duck you are for anxiety, depression, all this stuff. It’s learning about self-compassion.
Kristin Neff has a great self-compassion workbook. Self-compassion is probably, if not the biggest, one of the biggest things to heal you. It’s getting into that sense that you love yourself and you take care of yourself. I see that a lot with my anxious people, including myself. Self-care isn’t our forte because we weren’t looked after when we were younger. We weren’t shown how to look after ourselves so it’s not familiar to us. The other thing that I tell people is no one’s coming back to look after you.
A lot of us, when we grew up with this trauma of losing our parents from whatever when we’re younger there’s always this unconscious part of us that’s always longing for that parent to come back and look after us. A lot of people that I see use that unconscious drive or desire to not look after themselves and they consciously know it’s not accurate but they have this hope that someone is going to come along and look after them the way their parents never did.
Self-compassion is massive as far as that goes and it starts building. Once you start connecting with that younger version of yourself, some old memories have come up, which is okay, but it’s allowing that stuff to come up. Seeing yourself without resentment because that resentment keeps us split and it keeps us locked in anxiety and alarm.
I can still relate to so much of that. I appreciate those reminders because we’re growing up. We can be 40 and still be growing up. We’re learning and changing. I want to finish this by talking about the ego. You also say the solution in the book and it’s like, “Heal thyself.” You do get into the ego and how either we’re in protection or we’re in growth. It’s one or the other. We’re either in this protection mode or we’re in a growth mode. You talk about where the ego dragon shows up and such. You said, “It’s not reflective, it’s reflexive.” Talk about the ego’s dynamic in all of this.
The ego isn’t there to hurt us and the ego gets a lot of bad press. I invented this thing called the ego dragon. When you’re feeling helpless, hopeless, and powerless as a child, you develop this mythical omnipotent figure to protect you. The dragon basically will stop you from doing anything that has ever hurt you in the past. The dragon is like the amygdala. Anything that’s ever hurt you in the past, the amygdala will stop you from doing that again.
If you’re giving a lecture to your class when you’re in grade six and you split your pants, or whatever it is, the ego will tell you never ever speak in front of people again. It blocks us from growth, but it’s this hyper-protective, hypervigilant part of us that says, “I have this child in me that I have to protect at all costs. I’m going to make sure that they don’t do anything that challenges them or that goes against their own fears.”
We get locked in this cavern of our own fears and we can’t grow or go out of it because our ego is playing and it won’t let us. This is probably the most damaging in relationships. With me and my dad, because I loved him so much and he was such a great dad in the early part of my life, and then all of a sudden, it all exploded. I got this unconscious program that to love somebody isn’t safe because they’re going to leave you.
In my relationships, they would start off all fiery and intense, and that kind of thing, and then that old pattern would creep back into my life. It’s like, “This isn’t going to work out.” I would either separate from them or they would separate from me and the relationship would break up, and then the whole cycle would start itself all over again. It’s like a Freudian repetition compulsion.
It’s understanding that this pattern is in me. What can I do about it? Can I understand it? Can I connect with that part of me that feels hurt, that feels alone, that has the ego program saying it’s not safe to love because that’s going to get taken away from you? It is a powerful thing. Our nervous system is not developed when we’re a child and it’s still disorganized in a lot of ways. The more trauma gets in there into a disorganized nervous system, the more likely it’s going to show up in not a healthy way.
We get all these kinds of patterns and anything that’s hurt us, the ego dragon will say, “Don’t ever do that again.” Our bodies will react in a significant fashion to wherever we get close to that again. Whenever you get close to love, for me, go into the personal thing, the first three months of a relationship were amazing. After that, once the oxytocin, the serotonin, and the chemicals dampened down a little bit, that old pattern came up again.
That’s the case with a lot of us. We’re hardwired for love. When you first meet somebody, it’s amazing. You have all this oxytocin shooting around in your system that overwhelms those old programs. As the relationship becomes more mundane and drops down, those old programs that were there before start making more sense and you may not even be consciously aware of it.
I would get into this state where it’s like, “This is the right relationship for me,” or whatever. I didn’t know any of the stuff that I know now. We all have these old programs. Especially in love relationships where we’re stoned in the first layer of love in a lot of ways and we don’t see. When those chemicals start dropping off, then the old programming starts coming back up.
Three to six months is that critical zone in relationships where it’s like, “Is this going to be compassionate love that you grow together or is this going to be this fiery, up and down, break up, get back together, kind of disorganized attachment?” It’s not fulfilling and you replicate it. Next thing you know, a new girlfriend and a different haircut. It’s like, “I did that for a long time.” I got divorced twice because my programming says to love isn’t safe and it’s only been in the last couple of years that I figured that out.
That’s important because people feel that although we failed at this or we’re disappointed maybe we weren’t equipped yet. To give ourselves to be compassionate with ourselves and say, “Maybe I have more tools. I can get in there and try again or allow myself,” that’s another thing we do. We’re like, “I’m not good at this. I’m not good at that,” and we wrap it up.
I have that in different ways and I’m trying to get away from that because I realized that we can keep expanding, growing, and changing but we also have to participate, we have to work at it, we have to get the tools, we need to raise our hand and say, “Maybe I need some help.” It’s amazing. We see that sometimes with people.
I’m sure we have adult children that go, “When my parents were younger, when they were raising me, they were a completely different person.” You hear that a lot. Dr. Russell Kennedy, the book is Anxiety Rx. Thank you for doing this. I enjoyed this book and I learned a lot. I was reminded about some important things. For those of you reading, thanks for spending time with us. Thank you so much, Russ. I appreciate it.
Thanks, Gabby. It’s always a pleasure talking with you. You’re an amazing person. I thank the world of you.
Thanks so much for being here. If you’d like, rate, subscribe, and leave us a review. All of my music was graciously done by Frank Zummo and Tom Thacker. If you want to see some of the behind-the-scenes action, follow me @GabbyReece. Remember, don’t miss new episodes every Monday.
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- Dr. Russell Kennedy
- Anxiety Rx: A New Prescription for Anxiety Relief from the Doctor Who Created It
- Nicole LePera
- Cognitive Bypassing
- The Body Keeps the Score
- The Untethered Soul
- Dr. Alisa Vitti
- Teal Swan
- Andrew Huberman
- Instagram – @TheAnxietyMD
- Kristin Neff
About Dr. Russell Kennedy
Dr. Russell Kennedy’s anxiety started as a result of growing up in a chaotic and confusing household with a father who suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar illness. By the time he was 12 years old, he swore he was going to make a difference in the lives of people with emotional pain. That’s why he became an MD. Since graduating from med school in 1991, he had over 100,000 patient encounters. His dad was not the only one who suffered, his whole family was crushed by his illness. He knows first-hand in he’s own body and mind how excruciating it can be to suffer from chronic anxiety and alarm. His mission began in an attempt to heal his own debilitating anxiety, as the best methods and medications “modern” traditional psychology and psychiatry had for him still left him in considerable pain. Perhaps you have tried the traditional routes of medication and talk therapy and are still suffering as well? In his own search for relief, he hit many exasperating dead ends before he started to make progress. He believes there are no better teachers than those who have been where you are and found the way out, and he is fully committed to showing you that way out.