Episode 85 - Transcript - Anxiety & Depression - Neuroscientist Alex Korb

By Michael Rhodes | November 6, 2022

This is a transcription of Episode 85.  The transcription was done by software, apologies for anything that seems out of whack. A link to the episode is below.

Michael 0:00
What’s up, gentlemen, this is Rising Phoenix Podcast, the podcast about how to rise up after your divorce. I’m your host, Michael Rhodes. Let’s get into it. Joining me today is Dr. Alex Korb. Alex, let’s just jump right into it wants to tell us a little bit about yourself.

Alex 0:15
Hi, I’m a neuroscientist, coach and author of the upward spiral.

Michael 0:23
Great, well, the reason I reached out to you is because I came across some of your material and I became very interested in what you do and your knowledge and, and in particularly around neuroscience around the brain and around depression and anxiety. So let’s, let’s jump into that. Let’s talk about what is happening. Let’s start with depression. First, what is happening in the brain? When when you are diagnosed as depressed?

Alex 0:50
Yeah, well, we can we can actually combine both depression and anxiety in way because this was my question. When I started grad school, getting my PhD, I was like, well, there’s, there’s gotta be something that you could like, measure about the brain that would tell you like, Are you depressed? Or not? Are you Oh, no, you just have anxiety or like, or even you know, which treatment would work? Because it seemed ridiculous to me that the treatment of these things were just like, I don’t know, I’ll try this medication and like, right, and there’s a lot of great research showing the brain circuits that are involved in depression. But one of the problems with most of them is that most of them are designed around groups of people, like you take 20 people with depression and 20 people without depression. And the you put them in like very controlled laboratory conditions, doing some specific task, and then you can statistically see differences on average, and say, you know, this region or that region, and it’s easy to look at these like little significant blobs and be like, ah, that’s the part of the brain that’s broken or wrong, or whatever. And people are always asking me, like, can you just scan my brain and show me like, what’s wrong with my brain, right. And the, the truth is that, you know, after all this research, trying to figure it out, like, there’s nothing technically wrong with the brain in depression, that doesn’t mean that you can just snap out of it. It is based in your neurobiology and the interaction of your neuro, your unique neurobiology with the circumstances of your life. But it’s not like there’s something broken about your brain, or there’s something wrong with your brain that you can just scan someone and diagnose them with depression. So that with that being said, it is caused by the activity and reactivity of some key brain circuits. And it’s a pattern that a dynamic pattern that your brain gets stuck in. And it has to do with the way the thinking and feeling and habit and reward circuits in the brain are communicating with and regulating each other. And it’s the tuning of those circuits, which varies from person to person, but specific set of like tuning of all of your circuits that’s get that gets stuck in this pattern, that that gets in the way of, you know, your joy, or positive habits or regulating stress, and so on.

Michael 4:00
So this is making my brain hurt already. But let me see if I can try and break this down in a way that makes sense to me. So depression is and or anxiety are caused by outside influences, right? Is that safe to say? It’s not that there’s something wrong with your brain per se, it’s something outside influencing, but that there could be some or is I’m gonna, okay, go ahead.

Alex 4:26
I’m gonna interrupt because like, this is one of the things like that is very hard to explain about depression, anxiety. The where they were defined originally is just as a list of symptoms, right? Do this list of symptoms, you have five out of nine of these symptoms, the low mood and lack of enjoyment and feelings of worthlessness and like okay, you check, you know, sleep problems. You have enough of these problems, check, check, check, like boom, you haven’t for more than two weeks you have depression. What that means in the brain. and is not always obvious. And we would like, a lot of people would like to be able to draw this clear distinction of like, Oh, hey, you have biological depression, and you are just depressed because like you’ve, you know, shady stuff going on in your life. And the truth is, those aren’t separable. Because the things in your life affect the activity and chemistry of these circuits and how they are, how they’re interacting, but also, the G, the genetics that you have in your early childhood experience, experiences also shape the tuning of these circuits. And some of those things you have control over some of those things you don’t have control over. But it’s all the biology, it’s just some of that some of the biology is, is caused by stuff that happened years ago, or we went before you were born. And some of the biology is being influenced by the stuff that’s happening in your life right now, or the specific habits that you’re stuck in, or the thought patterns that you’re stuck in. And it’s the combination of those things that dictates the tuning of these circuits. And they get stuck in, you know, overthinking or self doubt, or feelings of worthlessness or whatever. The reason why I emphasize the fact that there’s nothing wrong with your brain is because a lot of times people start with this view of like I’m broken. And the truth is like no, you’re not broken. But there are things you can do to change the activity and chemistry of these circuits, you can completely change, you know, your brain or who you are. But you don’t need to, you just need to start to disrupt this pattern by making small changes in your thoughts and your actions, in your interactions, and so on. And, like sometimes, it’s really hard to wrap around your head, your head around, like, how can, you know, I’d be stuck in depression or anxiety, like, and there might be something wrong with my brain. Like, obviously, there’s, you know, it’s a real thing, right? Like, yes, it’s a real thing, it’s a real condition that you can’t just necessarily snap out of. And the way I like to describe how that can be the case, and yet nothing is wrong with your brain. I like to use the example of a microphone, and a speaker. So if you have a really sensitive microphone, and your speaker’s turned up a little too loud, or the microphone is oriented in just the wrong way, then, you know, singing into it at a regular volume can lead to screeching feedback, and objectively you like that’s how it’s supposed to work. I don’t want this isn’t what I was wanting. And yet, there’s nothing wrong with the microphone, it’s not helpful to think the situation is like, Oh, it’s a broken microphone, I just need to replace the microphone. I can’t replace the microphone. It’s the only like, there’s nothing inherently wrong. Even with having a sensitive microphone, it’s good to have a sensitive microphone, it just means Oh, well, maybe I should turn down the volume of the speaker, or maybe I should just stop shouting into it. And so the problem is a real problem. And it arises from the tuning and communication of these circuits. It’s just, oh, well, this is the microphone and burn with and it’s sensitive, okay, well, let me just use it in this way, or make these other changes in my life that will affect it. And that’s what I think of as the upward spiral is like all these different little knobs that you can turn that affect all these the these different brain circuits.

Michael 9:12
Is it safe to say that it’s a lack of skill in some ways? So in other words, you get you get hit with as we all do, shit comes up in life, and you get hit with something. And you don’t have the skill set because of your childhood because of your upbringing, mainly, right, let’s be honest, it all kind of starts there. And so that prevents you from me being able to have an upward spiral to because you don’t have the tools. Right. Yeah. So isn’t it just a matter of nuts? I say simply, but I don’t I don’t mean, I don’t I don’t mean it’s simple. I mean, the thing is simple. But the work is behind it is very, very difficult. Yeah. Although although still still simple in some ways, right? It’s just a matter of learning new ways to deal with these things. Right. And it’s really hard because the neural pathways are there. They’re there from childhood right? they’re burned in there, right? And it’s really hard to change those that essentially what we’re talking about.

Alex 10:04
Yeah, well, so a lot of it is skill set and learning new tools. Some of it is like, well, you have the tools, you’re just, they’re just not automated. And so you just need to do them more like you have the ability to do it, like a lot of things. You under you can understand how to do something. And if someone’s like, hey reminded you, hey, you do that thing. You’re like, Oh, right. But it takes a lot of conscious, willful effort, which is part of the, the thinking part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. And when you get stressed out, or depressed, or anxious, that thinking part of the brain gets disrupted, and the habit and you know, impulse parts of the brain take over. And so it’s like, if someone was an alcoholic, they might be able to not drink, if they’re like, oh, no, remember, don’t drink, if they can remind themselves, but the moment they’re distracted, or overwhelmed by stress, well, and they just fall back into old habits. And then one of those old habits, by the way, is often self criticism, because they’re like, I’m so dumb, like, I know how to do this, how can I not get sick, ah, because you have this skill to do it, you just haven’t practiced it enough in a variety of situations to make it automatic, and habitual. And so some of it is a matter of developing new skills, some of it is it, it is, learning how to use the skills we have in a more automatic way and setting our life up. So that it doesn’t require so much effort, or willpower. And a lot of that, I think, often comes down to just like little shifts in your mindset, which, again, are like mental habits. Because oftentimes, most people have the tools for a lot of labor, you know, 80% of the tools, and, but they’re just, you know, using them in the wrong way, or they’re trying too hard to, you know, hammer, everything when you realize, like, I like to think of it as actual tools like a hammer is a very helpful tool. But it’s not helpful for everything. And even if it’s what you use 80% of the time. And if it’s not working, when you’re trying to, you know, paint or put up drywall, you shouldn’t be like this stupid tool, like, what am I like, I throw it away, like now, because I’m so glad I have this tool, it’s so helpful for so many things, it’s just not helpful for this specific moment of this specific thing that I’m trying to achieve. So I’m going to put it back in my tool belt and either know, which of my other many tools that I already have to use? Or realize, ah, I need to develop some new tool, some new skill. What What does science tell me is the best thing to do?

Michael 13:08
Isn’t it? A large part of it, being mindful enough to know that you’re not in your thinking brain? Like, is that really fucking hard to do?

Alex 13:18
Ah, yeah, so mindfulness is a big part of it, it’s often a key first step of simply being aware, right? Like, oh,

Michael 13:30
I say this all the time. I say this all the time. But you’re when you’re in these emotional states, you’re you’re in what fight flight freeze or fun, right? And so you’re not in your thinking brain, right? You’re, you’re, you’re, you’re in your reactive brain, I think is what you call it. And so you’re not going to have the logic and the you’re not going to have those those those tools. And so it right, it’s about knowing when you’re out of thinking brain and be so being mindful, like Oh, shit, I’m, I’m stressed, and I’m upset or whatever. How do you? How do you catch that? How do you I guess is that me? For me, I know, I have learned a lot about how much the body is affected by the brain. Like, you know, the Body Keeps the Score, right to the point that everyone should read it to, like a mandatory. So I think I’ve learned to listen to my body and I can feel when I’m stressed. But how do you what are some other ways or the things or how do you stop yourself from staying in the feeling reactive, whatever brain?

Alex 14:35
Right? Well, so one thing is like mindfulness is a tool. But remembering to do it in the first place, is often the hardest part and that is a habit. And one of the reasons why People fail to develop that habit of like, remembering to check in with my emotions or noticing, oh, my heart rate is pounding is because they, they don’t practice it, or they don’t think about practicing it until they’re in that situation. And it’s like, you know, playing football, if the only time you practice throwing a football was like, under the lights on a Friday night, like you bet and you’re like, stressed out and like 300 pound guys running at you, like, you need to practice it in, in low pressure situations where you don’t need to practice. And guess what, when you’re trying to throw it through the tire, you’re gonna be bad at it. But because the consequences are lower, you can just keep practicing and get more practice. And then when it’s the high pressure situation, you’ll have started to dig those grooves in the brain, you’ll started to wire those habits to activate. And guess what, when you’re in that high pressure situation, you’re gonna mess up to, but like, but that’s helpful, and it’s still continuing to wire those habits. And that’s why one of the biggest impediments to change is the habit of self criticism. Because the one of the reasons we aren’t mindful, is that we’re like, Okay, I’m just, I’m just trying to throw this ball through the, through the tire, and then we miss and like, what do I can do anything, but like, what it’s just like, Okay, well, I can, I can still keep practicing. And I still have no more time like, Oh, I’m just upset, like, okay, that, if that be there’s nothing wrong, by the way of being upset. This is one of the other key aspects of mindfulness. A lot of times people think that kind of upset, I shouldn’t be upset, like, Oh, I am upset. Okay, well, can I use that in some way to focus more great, like? So some of the things are about reframing and understanding, nothing wrong with having emotions. In fact, it’s good to have emotions. And some of it is just whatever your motions are mindfully recognizing, like, Oh, this is what I’m feeling and say, Oh, I’m feeling anxious, I’m feeling angry, I’m feeling frustrated, or I’m feeling anxious and frustrated and a little bit excited and nervous. Because we can feel multiple things. Yes. It’s just that a lot of times when we first start to practice is like little tidbits of mindful awareness, that it automatically triggers our habits of like, why am I anxious, I just read the upward spiral or just read the body kids, and I should know these things, I should do them like, and then hopefully, if you do it, if you’re if you’re at least trying to be mindful, you can catch yourself after like, five minutes of going off on this autopilot habit, and then be like, Okay, I can be mindful, why wasn’t I mindful? Before they’re so dumb, I was like, okay, they may be a little tight, you can catch yourself after four minutes. And the goal is not that you will never make mistakes or whatever, it’s just to be able to catch yourself a little bit sooner. And then to also set up other habits and practices in your life so that it does make it less likely that you’ll, you know, make those mistakes and need to rely on those mental habits.

Michael 18:48
So there’s a lot here. Okay, so how do you let’s let’s let me focus on this first, how do you practice? Like, what’s the equivalent of throwing the football at the tire to your mental health? Like when you’re not stressed? What are you doing to quote unquote, practice,

Alex 19:07
right? So there’s lots of different ways. One of the most the simplest ways, or sorry, the most straightforward way to practice mindfulness is with mindful breathing, in which the goal and you could download headspace or calm or any of these apps, they like, walk you through these things. And the idea of mindfulness is basically you direct your attention to some thing that’s like basically neutral, but that it exists right now in the present. And you focus on that and you don’t pay attention to the other stuff that’s happening around in your life. And as you try to do that, I’m just paying attention to my breath. I’m not trying to control my breath and not judging my I’m just trying to pay attention. But as you do that, you cannot help but be distracted by the neighbor’s kid yelling something or by some frustration or emotion. And when you inevitably get distracted, you just acknowledge, oh, I’ve, I’ve been distracted by this feeling or this thoughts. And you know, and then you’ll probably have this automatic habit of like, oh, so stupid, I should be clearing my mind and wouldn’t like, and then all you need to just like, oh, oh, I’ve distracted by that thought. And the moment that you acknowledge something as a thought, or a feeling that you are having that it immediately makes you aware of the present moment, because instead of being sucked into this thought that’s like, focused on your, all of the mistakes that you’ve made in the past, and you’re focusing on the past, or being sucked into all your fears and anxieties about the future, you’re like, Oh, I’m having this feeling of anxiety about the future. And that is a thought or a feeling that you’re having right now at this present moment. And in that moment, you have a choice to then, oh, okay, well, I’m gonna return my attention back to my breath, because that’s what I said I was gonna do, or, you know, to just go on autopilot, wherever it’s taking you. And that’s how you retrain it by trying to do something that’s seemingly very simple, just like throwing a football through a tire swing, seemingly very simple. And yet, you won’t be good at it when you first try. And the goal is to like, Okay, well, let me just keep trying. And to just do that, for three minutes or five minutes, you know, even 10 minutes a day, when you’re not super stressed, will give you a habit to fall back on when you are super stressed, or a will help you not go down the downward spiral as much, because you’ll start to go down, you’ll recognize that and it will help. So that’s one of the most straightforward and powerful ways, it’s just that when you feel a lot of negative emotions, that’s often a very difficult thing to do to just sit there and focus on your breath. And so there are kind of easier ways to go about it, which are like, actually practice slow breathing, like to slow down your breathing. And to try to be mindful while you’re doing that. The reason why that differs from just straight mindfulness is that slowing down your breathing, pushes your brain and body away from the fight or flight response, and towards the rest and digest response. So it’s really helpful to just

breathe in slowly. Try and relax, allow the air to come in through your nose for five seconds, and pause, and then exhale, for five seconds and pause. And the goal there is to try to relax your body, because it’s easier to be mindful when you are relaxed. And if that’s even too much, you can just do stuff like, go for a run, like bike ride, because that also helps reduce stress. And like, when you’re when your feelings are really big and strong, the hardest thing to do is just sit there and experience them that it is the most powerful thing to do. That is what like mindful, this is about is to just like, Okay, there’s these big feelings threatening crash over me and I’m just sit there. But that’s hard. And so often, like the slow breathing helps you sort of ease into it, or something like yoga, where it’s like, it’s more of a challenge. It’s more uncomfortable, like it’s more stuff to focus on or like just going on a run like there’s more other, you know, positive stuff from just more stuff going on. So that you’re you’re not just totally alone with these, like overwhelming thoughts.

Michael 24:35
Yeah. And so that, is that what, I think we shift a little too, when you’re in a depressive state, is that the foundation where you start to get out of it, like like yoga breathing? Is that some of the foundational things that you would do? And then if so, then if that’s the case, then what are some of the next steps? What are other things that get you out of that depressive?

Alex 24:56
Yeah, well, so like, with With depression, specifically, mindfulness is really powerful. But it’s not always the best place to start, because it’s so easy to slip from, like mindfulness to like rumination. And now you’re just stuck sitting in your own head forever. So the best place to often start is with these actions. That whether you do the mindfully or not, but just these actions and activities that we know are helpful for you. So exercise and getting some sunlight, and trying to go to sleep around the same time or wake up at the same time and just hang out with your friends like things, they might be a little difficult, but at least like, you’re pretty sure like, well, once I do them, like I’ll feel a little bit better and like, focus on doing those activities first, and then it makes it a little bit easier to be to be mindful. And, and that’s why I often talk like that the most important things to start with are just moving your body and doing like, stuff that you enjoy, or either stuff that you used to enjoy, before you’re depressed and just be like, Okay, well, like it’s better than sitting on a couch doing nothing. And that’s often the first place to start, then you can start to like, you know, you’ll have a little bit more resilience, you’ll, your stress won’t be quite so overwhelming. And it’ll be easier to think about, you know, things like mindfulness, or to think about a notice of what are the habits that I keep getting stuck in? And like, how could I not just try to change that habit. But just notice before I get stuck in it? What’s a different habit that I could take, for example, by just remember, when I first started going, like, grocery shopping for myself in college, I would just like go up and down every aisle. And one time my girlfriend came with me and she was like, what? Why are you going down that aisle? Like there’s nothing on there that you need this just like cookies. And you know, candy? And I was like, oh, and thought about it and realize like, oh, like if I’m if I don’t want to eat too many cookies. Well, why am I eating too many cookies? Because there’s cookies in my house? Why are the cookies in my house? Because I was walking down the aisle. And I saw cookies and was like, Oh, those look good. And then. And like that, once you are the hardest place to intervene is when you’re like kind of hungry and bored and lonely and the cookies are sitting on your kitchen counter. You’re you’re you could theoretically intervene with your prefrontal cortex and be like, Nope, don’t you know, don’t do it. But you’re already your temptation is like already activated. And so the, the best way to get out of that is not to try and resist temptation and just be like, I need to be stronger, whatever. It’s like, think, several steps earlier, like, oh, how can I avoid that temptation in the first place? And so when I’m walking down the supermarket, I’m like, Oh, there’s the aisle with the cookies. like, Nope, I know where that leads. I’m gonna buy them, whatever. And so but that sort of reflective Scott process and understanding like, oh, you know, thinking about how things have affected you before and what what patterns are stuck in and, and not just trying, as we encourage men to do a lot to just like, you need to be stronger and power through it like, well, now if you can figure out a better way earlier on in the process to avoid that overwhelming feeling then awesome. And if you can’t figure it out, okay. Well, that’s that’s mindfulness for you know, and self compassion. It’s okay to feel that feeling. And you can be compassionate towards yourself. Because when you’re feeling a feeling, and you’re like, I don’t want to feel this feeling, I shouldn’t feel this feeling. Well, guess what? That doesn’t make the feeling go away. And now you’ve piled stress and self criticism on top of that, which makes you more emotional, which further shuts down your prefrontal cortex. And so the these further steps are often, you know, just making these little like mental shifts and practicing compassion, practicing mindfulness, strategizing about our habits. There’s also gratitude, which I’m happy to talk about, but you know,

Michael 29:43
well, I think, you know, I think Scrooge McDuck said work smarter, not harder, right. So, if you can identify what sense I think we’re talking about triggers, right. No one, you know if you know going to that restaurant, reminds you of your ex, then don’t go to that restaurant, right. And so again, and it comes back to I think being mindful, paying attention to what affects you what why am I thinking this? What happened? Asking questions, you know, just just trying to understand yourself at rather than staying stuck in the pattern of, I guess, like woe is me right kind of things. Well, we

Alex 30:17
get stuck in these patterns. And this is one of the things that’s so important and helpful to understand you’re not stuck in these patterns, for no reason, you’re not stuck because you’re stupid or weak. Like you’re stuck in these patterns, for good reasons. Our brains are wired, to want to connect with other people. Because humans are social animals. We, like anytime something doesn’t make sense. And you’re like, why am I stuck this way? Why am I feeling this way? I think it’s almost always helpful to put yourself in the perspective of the situation where our brains evolved in like, 50,000 years ago, where you’re a member of a tribe, you know, wandering the savanna. Because like, if, if you know, someone, your friend doesn’t text you back, now, nothing’s going to happen, right? But if you were out in the forest, on a hunting expedition, and you like, looked up, you’re like, Hey, guys, where are you and like, nobody responded to you. Like, that’s scary as shit, because like, not being a part of your tribe, or being cast out or rejected from it. That’s the same, you know, badness as like being attacked by a bear. And like, our brains recognize, like, we need each other to survive and thrive, like, we don’t have particularly thick skin, like a cow is wrapped in, you know, leather, like, we don’t have sharp claws or teeth, like almost any other animal is, like better suited to survival in the wilderness. But we are capable of of surviving and thriving because we have these big brains, that allow us to think and allow us to connect with each other and work in groups. And so that the survival parts of our brains were like, Ah, it’s just as important to be connected with people as it is to you know, avoid lions. And so, when you are feeling these feelings of disconnection, you can remind yourself a guy, like the consequences are not immediately as dire as like being left out in the, you know, the Woods by myself, you know, and rejected by my tribe, it feels that dire Oh, I understand why it feels that way. And that’s why I think it’s so helpful to recognize the neuroscience because like, you can’t change the nature of having a human brain. But you can just realize, like, Oh, I understand why I feel this way. And it makes total sense, which is much better than I shouldn’t feel this way. It doesn’t make any sense. Because you again, you still feel that way. But now, you’re like gaslighting yourself and you’re criticizing yourself. So yeah, that’s just one of the first things to recognize that, like these feelings. Make sense?

Michael 33:15
Yeah, I think it takes the pressure off, right? I mean, I do this a lot to talk about, more than likely, you could trace some of this stuff back to your childhood. So I mean, you’re obviously going back way farther, and obviously, right, makes money because

Alex 33:27
some of this stuff hurts, right? Some of this stuff is about this is just how the human brain works. And you are human. Then some of the stuff is like, Ah, well, how does your specific brain work? Because like, well, your parents always told you to, you know, stop whining and stop crying. And so you’re like, Oh, I just need to ignore my emotions. And so then you weren’t as good at being mindful. And then, you know, society encouraged you further to do that. And then, you know, now, you just don’t have as many habits of, of reaching out to friends, when you’re struggling, you have a habit of isolating yourself when you’re struggling. And to, to acknowledge, like, oh, I can understand why I ended up here. Like that makes total sense. It sucks. And it will be difficult to change. And here’s the thing, you don’t have to change. But if you’re like, because a lot of people have to change, it’s such a bad habit of like, No, you don’t have to do shit, like, but if they because a lot of times, the things that we quote unquote, have to do. And the things that we want to do are the same thing. It’s just that the more that you focus on how you do it, the more it feels like an external pressure and an activate stress and it’s sub solely enjoyment out of it, like your job job, if you’re like, oh, I have to go to my job every day. Because if I don’t, I’ll get fired, and then I’ll lose my house. Like, that might be true. But if you’re like, Oh, I like my job because I like my co workers, and I like, having money to like, pay for rent and like buy stuff. And then Playstations they like, you know, then it’s a choice to go to your job. And a lot of times we get stuck in these unhelpful patterns, because we’re focusing on it as something that we have to do, even though, which is true, a lot of times like, yes, there could be negative consequences if you don’t do it. It’s true. Okay, well, there could also be positive consequences if I do do it. And the more that you focus on that, the more it feels like an opportunity, the more it feels like a choice, the more agency you have in your life. And there’s, by the way, good reasons why we don’t just automatically do that. Because your brain, the subconscious, these automatic, deeper parts of your brain, like the habit circuitry, and the the the emotion circuitry, they’re trying to take the simplest path to keep you safe. Your brain didn’t evolve for you to be like happy, per se, right. And so if you, for example, experience heartbreak. And you’re like, I don’t want to ever experience that again, that’s the worst feeling in the world. Your your habit circuit in your motion circuit in the brain is like, it’s very quick. And it’s not even you’re not even aware of it. It’s like, Oh, brilliant. I know the simplest way to avoid heartbreak. Just never care about anyone ever again, or ever try to date and say, boom, boom, we solved the problem guys like, and you’re not even aware that your brain made that choice for you. And then it just like when it starts to feel scary to like, you know, try and reach out or connect with someone. Your automatic habit circuit is okay, great. Let’s not do it. But you’re the one who has to suffer the consequences. If there’s some point you’re like, ah, but if I just follow that autopilot, then I’ll be alone. And I don’t want to be alone. I want to feel connected. And then you can strategize like, Okay. Is there a way that I could figure out how to feel connected with someone deeply connected? Without any risk at all of heartbreak? If so, do it like, no, no, then there’s like, if you know, the easy way to do it. But if you don’t, then you’re left like, Okay, well, I could do this thing. That’s really important to me. It feels really difficult. But it’s really important to me. Or I could take the easy path, because I’m just not up for it today. And it’s either one is fine. If you take the easy path, it doesn’t mean you’re weak, it just means like, just need more time, that’s fine. But if at some point, you’re like, well, this thing’s really important to me, well, anything of value is going to cost something it’s going to cost time or money or emotional effort.

And once you sort of recognize that, then it becomes easier. Like, oh, I’m not torturing myself for no reason. I’m not stressing myself out for no reason. I’m doing it because it’s the only way to get where I’m trying to go. So like, Okay, let me do it.

Michael 38:35
Oh, let’s, let’s shift a little bit and talk about anxiety. It seems sort of questions, though. I think there’s probably some similarities. But how do you get out of anxiety? That’s more I think of in the moment, like, panic attack. Like that’s the anxiety I’m thinking of how do you? How do you come out of that? Not general, but in the moment, right. Yeah.

Alex 38:55
I mean, that the only reason I ever resist asking that question is because almost everyone asked like no in the moment, like what do I do right now? And like, okay, I can answer that. But like, when you get out of that moment, then like, short take care of these other things. Because yeah, absolutely. It’s like, in in if you’re in driving on the freeway and your brakes, stop working. You got to do whatever you can to get out the moment but like, once it, you’re out of the situation, like okay, take it to a mechanic like don’t just keep so that’s the only reason I hesitate to ask, people are always looking for the reason to like not do the difficult work. But when you’re sort of in that moment of anxiety, the the brain, you know, is activating these emotional circuits. It’s getting in the way of your thoughtful rational circuits and it’s pushing you into your deepest, most ingrained habits. So anything you can do to notice like my brain is pulling me to you know, want to go punch Someone I want to do, like, if you can do anything other than the exact thing that your brain is trying to get you to do at that moment, that is a win. If your brain is like, I just want to drink, like I’m wearing a Guinness shirt right here, like, I just want to pound, five beers, whatever. Like, if you just have that moment of like tiniest sliver of mindfulness to be like, okay, just do literally anything, like go for a run, like, I mean going for a run and sort of easy because it’s also helpful for you. So you don’t have to do something that is like, helpful for you just not actively bad for you, like go chug, some, you know, Coca Cola, or whatever, or like chew gum or like, drink a milkshake or, you know, punch a punching bag or something like an any time you do you change it from that automatic habit, you’re starting to rewire, and makes it easier to create new habits. Other things that help with that in the moment. And that’s like, the concept of distraction, like anything you can do to distract yourself, or new or think about something different for like, one minute even. Like, that is super helpful, because sometimes the emotion dissipates a little after one minute and then oh, it’s easier or like, even the fact that you delayed it for a little bit. Just it’s like weightlifting, right. Like if you can only do something, you know, three reps, and then you’re too tired. Well, that’s better than not trying to lift up the weight at all, you’re strengthening those new circuits. But other things that can help with that are focusing on the things that you can control. Because a lot of times we’re like I, you know, I can’t control my feelings, or I can’t control the situation that I’m in, like, what can you control? Well, I can make a plan or I can punch a punching bag like punching a punching bag is helpful. Because a exercise is helpful, but be it’s something you can do. And focusing on anything you can do reduces stress, one of the things you can do also, that’s very simple is to slow down your breathing. Just like when we’re stressed and anxious, we tense our muscles and we breathe faster because of how the stress response works. And just intentionally like slowing down your breathing, I’m making a sound by the way, because like when you’re really stressed. It like making a sound actually slows down the air. Like if I go like I can excel really fast. But if I like it forces you to slow down your exhale, which is easier than slowing down your inhale because slowing down your inhale is like I need oxygen or like Okay, so just right. And you can try this by the way, when you’re like another way to practice is like after a hard workout, like go through, do some sprints, and then like. Like, just try and slow down your breathing to a point where like, okay, now I can breathe regularly is helpful. And another piece is like, just like, just another way of distraction is like cold water on your face. Cold water in your face is it’s a it’s a physical distraction, but also it activates these nerves in your face that automatically slow down your heart rate.

Cold water in your face, like you used to think of I feel like we think of this as like, oh, that’s something they did in like the 30s like women who are hyperventilate, like cold water on your face activates, I believe is the trigeminal nerve. It’s part of something called the mammalian diving reflex, which I think is it’s like one of the, you know, things that leads to you know, whales and dolphins being able to live underwater longer, like when you cleanse your face into cold water. It just has this automatic trigger like it’s a neural connection to slow down your heart rate, and that doesn’t solve everything. But it’s a little bit easier to then make another positive choice when your heart isn’t beating out of your chest. And that’s why I like to think of it as the upward spiral. It’s not you’re trying to solve everything all at once you just make one little tiny change that causes a change in your brain to like focus on what you can control or get a little exercise or splash cold water on your face and then it makes it a little bit easier for your prefrontal cortex to intervene and like, oh, okay, let me just be a little bit more mindful and more compassionate. Or just call a friend or do something else. And then those changes make further positive changes easier.

Michael 45:14
Oh, man, I tell you, Alex, I thank you. For one for doing this. I could I could listen to this stuff all day. It really. It just it hits every curiosity and it just I love knowledge. I love knowing I never heard that nerve in the face. That’s fucking crazy. Yeah, I think we could probably go on and on. But unfortunately, we both have lives. So I’m gonna, I’m gonna skip to the last question.

Alex 45:42
fortunate thing, by the way, that’s a good thing we have that I just sort of joke about that. Because a lot of times, we’re like, oh, I have work. And I have this, you know, other thing and my kids or whatever. And sometimes it feels like a pressure. Because again, we’re focusing on like, all the things that could go wrong. Instead of realizing like, oh, what’s the alternative, that I didn’t have a job that it didn’t have people that care about? So like, yes, sometimes it feels like these are things that you have to do, and they are stressed. But when you focus on your appreciation for them, and the positive consequences and your role in choosing them, then you’re like, I’m, I’m glad I have all of these things to juggle instead of feeling like Oh, my God, I have all these things to juggle. I don’t want to drop

Michael 46:27
them. Yeah, it really is about gratitude. And that’s something we’ll have to do this again. So we can touch on that. Yeah. As you know, the last question I asked everybody is what words of wisdom would you impart to a man just beginning his divorce process?

Alex 46:40
Yeah. The, I think the first thing is to acknowledge that it’s, it’s very difficult, and it’s a shitty situation. And so, so that when it feels difficult, and it feels shitty, you can be like, yep. Because it is like, because a lot of times we we feel these feelings, and we tell ourselves that we shouldn’t feel these feelings or that they’re the wrong feelings. And then we make it worse. It would be like, you know, if at work, you had a shitty boss, and you were like, talk to your coworker, like, oh, isn’t that boss? Shitty? He’s like, What are you talking about? Like, you’re the one who said like, what like, and inadvertently do that to our selves. And I, I very consciously remember doing this, like, at the start of the pandemic, when I was like, trying to, you know, work from home and take care of my kids and like, work out and like, do all this stuff. And I was just, like, stressed and overwhelmed. And I was like, Oh, right. It feels stressful, because it is stressful. And like, there was a, I think, Obama’s chief of staff or something had like a little plaque on his desk that said, hard things are hard. And I wrote that on a post it note, and put it next to my computer like hard things are hard, like, yeah, so when it feels hard, I can be like, Yep, it’s hard. And then like, once you validate your own feelings, it makes it much easier to be mindful. And it makes much easier to take positive choices, because you know, what, when you invalidate your own feelings, and you’re like, No, suck it up, don’t listen to that. You’re not whatever, like, what happens is your brain, you know, the emotion circuits and the habit circuits. It’s, it’s doing stuff automatically, and it’s like, fine. If you’re not going to listen to me, I’m not going to tell you what’s going on. And then you’re like, Why? Why can I feel joy? Or why don’t I feel I need these things like, well, because you’re not listening and acknowledging the things that your brain is trying to tell you. And so it’s just like, Okay, fine. I’m just gonna go do my own thing. And you’re left wondering why, you know, you don’t feel joy or motivation, or you’re procrastinating and everything or, and so on. So that’s why understanding your brain and listening to your brain is so helpful.

Michael 49:16
Indeed. And again, I could do this all day. Thanks so much for doing it. How can we find you in your book and all that kind of stuff? Your website? I’m pretty sure Yeah.

Alex 49:25
Alex core phd.com. I have a Facebook page. I mean, find me on Instagram or Facebook to at Alex score PhD, I created a group not first specifically for divorce people but more broadly, about people who want to use positive neuroscience to stop stress and self doubt. And so I have a private group you can join and the upward spiral you can find more about me or join my mailing list Alex core PhD done dot com. But the upward spiral is available on Amazon anywhere, you know, it’s in 12 different languages. Chinese, Romanian, Hungarian, German. So you know, it’s pretty old should be able to find it. If you come over to my house, a few copies.

Michael 50:21
Well, I accept your invitation. I’ll be over as soon as I can. I want a signed copy, though.

Alex 50:26
Yeah, and there’s a there’s a workbook to help helps you more specifically, how do I go through these things, and, and even a card deck, it’s like a nice little 52 little things that sort of do this first. And you know, and then if you do that, and that helps them, like go to this thing that’s sort of it’s about understanding and then taking

Michael 50:48
action. Awesome. Well, thanks again, Alex. I really appreciate it, we will definitely do it again. And, you know, just amazed that the knowledge and how helpful and useful it can be so so thanks for imparting us with that today. I

Alex 51:02
appreciate you’re welcome. Thanks for reaching out and it’s great. It was great to be here.

Michael 51:06
Thank you Take care.

Episode 85 – Anxiety & Depression – Neuroscientist Alex Korb



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