The Melanie Avalon Biohacking Podcast Episode #187 - Dr. Wendy Suzuki
Dr. Wendy Suzuki is a Professor of Neural Science and Psychology in the Center for Neural Science at New York University and a celebrated international authority on neuroplasticity. She was recently named one of the top ten women changing the way we see the world by Good Housekeeping and regularly serves as a sought-after expert for publications including The Wall Street Journal, Shape, and Health. Her TED talk has more than 31 million views on Facebook and was the 2nd most viewed TED talk of 2018. She is the author of Good Anxiety and Healthy Brain, Happy Life.
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11:30 - wendy's personal story
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19:00 - getting tenure
21:00 - does anxiety change throughout your life?
25:00 - what is stress and anxiety, what is the evolutionary purpose
30:00 - where does anxiety live in our brain?
32:30 - will we evolve out of a negative response to anxiety
33:35 - why are some people more resilient?
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37:45 - depression and anxiety
38:30 - the pathways in the brain
42:35 - micro flow
51:25 - social anxiety
56:35 - empathy or the lack of
1:01:35 - bottom up or top down approaches to anxiety
1:04:05 - coping strategies
1:07:05 - the importance of sitting with your anxiety
1:10:05 - future books
Melanie Avalon: Hi, everybody, welcome back to the show. I am so incredibly excited about the conversation that I am about to have. It is about a topic that I think is just so important, that affects so many people, affects me personally, and my background on my thoughts and experiences surrounding this topic is, I historically have had my own bout of dealing with stress and anxiety and things like that. For the longest time, I think the worst part of it, honestly, is not so much that I would be anxious or stressed, but I would get anxious about being anxious or I'd be stressed about being stressed because I thought it was a bad thing. Actually, quite a while ago, like a very long time ago, I read Kelly McGonigal's The Upside of Stress, and that was the first time that I had a major reframe that, "Oh, maybe stress isn't as bad as I thought or maybe I can have a reframe here."
That was actually the first audiobook on Audible that I actually listened to twice, which I had never done up until that point. So since then, I was very much intrigued with this concept of reframing stress and anxiety and was hoping to do a deeper dive into it and just learn more about that. So, when I learned about Dr. Wendy Suzuki's book, Good Anxiety, just seeing the title, I was like, yes, this is what I want to read. Because I don't remember exactly how we connected right now. I think maybe it was through an agent that I'd worked with before. In any case, so I was an immediate yes, but I hadn't read the book yet. I read the book and it was everything I was hoping it would be and more. It was the deepest dive into the brain, what's actually happening with stress and anxiety, how we can reframe it, practical tools. It was literally the perfect book to read. I've been looking forward to this interview for so, so long.
Dr. Wendy Suzuki is a Professor of Neural Science and Psychology in the Center for Neural Science at New York University. Actually, this is super cool. She was named one of the top 10 women changing the way we see the world by good housekeeping. She's been in the Wall Street Journal and Shape and Health and her TED Talk has more than 31 million views. She's also the author of Healthy Brain, Happy Life. But in any case, here we are today to talk about all of this. So, Dr. Suzuki, thank you so much for being here.
Wendy Suzuki: Thank you so much for having me, Melanie.
Melanie Avalon: I've been looking forward to this for so long. Also, I wanted to say I love it when the authors read the books themselves on Audible. So, that was really nice to hear. Did you enjoy doing that?
Wendy Suzuki: I did. Good Anxiety was the second book I read. The first book, I was so excited to do it, but very daunted because they said, I can do it in four days. I'm like, you don't know what you're doing. It's going to take me a week, more, two weeks to do this. They were like on the dot. They could tell from a first-time reader, they knew exactly how long. It was so satisfying to read the book that I never intended to read but was my story. So, I also had that same feeling reading Good Anxiety.
Melanie Avalon: just feel like it makes it more personal and I feel so much more connected to the author. So, I love it when that happens, so thank you for that. In your book, you do talk a lot about your personal story and your experience with anxiety and reframing and all of that. Could you introduce listeners little bit to your own personal journey with anxiety and what made you so interested in all of this?
Wendy Suzuki: Sure. I am a Professor of Neural Science and Psychology as you said in the introduction. I was actually just recently named dean of the College of Arts and Science at New York University. I started in September. So, big new position.
Melanie Avalon: Congrats. That's amazing. That's so cool.
Wendy Suzuki: Yes. It's been so much fun to learn this new job, this new leadership position. But my biggest experience with anxiety really came during the tenure process when I was getting tenure. So, it takes six years to get tenure. For those of you who are not familiar with the American tenure process, they give you six years to make a big splash in science. If you are a big enough splash, then they give you tenure and they can't fire you anymore. If you don't, then they fire you, and you have to leave with your head hanging. It's the scariest thing after spending 15 years getting to that point of 15 years of education. And so, no big deal. I'll just work on this task of trying to make a big splash. Really that experience just taught me how not to handle a stressful experience, which was my very simple-minded strategy was, "Put your head down and just work." You only have one thing to do, get yourself tenure. You have six years and so all you're going to do is work.
I stressed myself out. My anxiety was through the roof. I had no social life because I was only working. I gained 25 pounds because I ate so much takeout because I wasn't enjoying something that I love to do, which is cooking for myself. I realized that, "Wait a second, I'm not enjoying my science as much. I'm certainly not enjoying my life. I have no life anymore." That's when I decided that I needed to do something. So, I went on vacation and I went on vacation by myself because I had no friends. I went on one of those river rafting trips where you can just join and go to some exotic destination. I went to Peru, to the Cotahuasi River in deepest, darkest Peru. It was beautiful and I was outside.
All that physicality was exactly what I needed, a kind of antidote to Midtown Manhattan and Downtown Manhattan where I lived and worked. I came back thinking, "Aw, I need more of that in my life." I'm 25 pounds heavier than I usually am. I'm going to go to the gym. I'm just going to kind of keep going with the exercise. And so, I did. That was the first really good decision I made on that tenure process. I started to feel so much better. My mood was better, my attitude was better. It was just a life and attitude adjustment. That was actually not only the start of my first book, Healthy Brain, Happy Life, which told the story of me changing my whole research program from memory, which is the topic that I won tenure on, to the effects of exercising the brain, which is the topic I switched my research towards.
But at the heart of that was this overcoming that really, really stressful part of my life and learning so much about how physical activity and mindset can change the way you live your life. Then I started to notice not me going through tenure, I had gotten tenure, but all my students at NYU, this was before the pandemic, and how their levels of anxiety were going up and up, and up, and the fear and the anxiety around finals, and what they were going to do after college and how they're going to pay for college, all of these things. I saw kind of heightening to a level that I had never seen before. I realized it wasn't just them. My anxiety level had gone up. Not to the level of tenure, but just going up. Living was getting harder and dealing with all the social media and news cycles and bad news around the world and that's when I really wanted to dive in. Not just about exercise, though. As you know I talk a lot about the transformational effects of exercise on mood and brain and cognitive and mental health, but all of the other ways we can deal with anxiety and really reframing anxiety and asking, "Can anxiety be good for us? Is it always a negative thing?" And what I found is, absolutely not. It can beneficial. It is there to actually protect us. That was the start of the book.
Melanie Avalon: I love that so much. I did not know that about tenure. My mind is blown. Okay, wait, I have a quick question. So, tenure, is it optional?
Wendy Suzuki: Well, you can get hired in a tenure track position or a non-tenure track position. If you start out in a non-tenure track position, then no, you don't have to do that. Salary levels, as you can imagine are lower and there's not as many leadership opportunities. I always wanted to be that tenure-tracked professor with a big research lab, a research program. All of my role models were that and that's what I wanted. But I knew that it came with this six-year tenure clock. So, again, either sink or swim. If you don't make it, you're fired. You leave the university and find a different job.
Melanie Avalon: They can't fire you if you-- are there exceptions to that?
Wendy Suzuki: Yeah, if you murder somebody, yes, they can fire you.
Melanie Avalon: But they can't fire you for, like, what reason?
Wendy Suzuki: You can get tenure and decide, "Okay, I'm not doing anything anymore," and they can't fire you. I mean they can take away your perks and things like that. So, that very, very rarely happens. But in this day and age to have a job that you cannot get fired for is rare. I mean, it's always been rare, but in this day and age, it is even more coveted, and it takes a long time to get there. But that is the beauty of tenure.
Melanie Avalon: Wow. That actually makes me think of, this is a super random question, but it's related to the topic. You had so much stress and anxiety leading up to that position and then getting tenure that would presumably bring with it a feeling of safety or a lot of those things that you were nervous about might have been gone in that new position. Do you find that people, especially who haven't really thought about addressing their fear and anxiety. Are there certain types of people where even if the situations and environment changes, they're still going to find something else to be anxious about? Like they would get the tenure and they'll still be anxious? Or do people in general really react to their new circumstances and environments and adapt? How much has anxiety changed in most people throughout their lives?
Wendy Suzuki: I think that in this cohort that is tenure-track research scientists like I am, one has to be driven to do this work. Science is very, very competitive. Once you get tenured, then it's, what's your next paper? What journal is it going to be in? How many grants do you have? There's always something to be worried about. The thing that happened with me is that I remember when I got one really big, big paper that was the core of my tenure. It's called a Packet that you submit and it was in a really high-profile journal. I remember the morning that it was accepted, I got an email and I started crying. I knew that when this paper got accepted that I would get tenure. And it was just such, such a relief. There was just joy and relief and it felt like "Ah, all this work was worth it."
But then after it settled in, it's like, "Is this all there is?" I still have to worry about the next grant and where the next paper is going to be accepted and part of me was like, where's the ticker-tape parade? When I get tenure, I was like, "I work so hard, it doesn't feel quite as grand as I thought it would be." That's when it started to become real that I had let so many things go in my personal life. I didn't have a strong personal life. I had a few friends, good friends, of course, that I continue to have, but I didn't particularly pay that great attention to them because I was so focused on getting tenure. It was a realization of the imbalance that I had in my life. I say that now with hindsight, it took a while to figure out what was going on.
I used executive coaching to try and get my career and try and figure out why was I not feeling as exalted as I thought I would after tenure. What do I really want to do now that I have this tenure? It's actually not the end all and be all even though it's just an amazing thing to have what is next. That was a long, a long process that I also described in that first book, Healthy Brain, Happy Life. Finding those things that were meaningful and kind of getting back into the physicality of my body. Sometimes I feel like a walking brain. All I do is use my brain to think about the brain and study the brain.
That's part of the reason why physicality and bringing more movement and music and classes and dance classes into my life was so satisfying for me. It turns out that meditation and being with yourself, being able to listen to those voices deep down that I was suppressing when they said, you're unhappy, Wendy. Even though you're in this tenure-track position and you've got this paper and you're actually unhappy. Those are hard things to listen to. For me, early on, it was easier just to suppress them. With the meditation, I learned to listen to them and accept them and do things about them that if I wasn't happy with where those voices were telling me I was in my life.
Melanie Avalon: Well, that ties into a huge question I have which is about addressing these things through bottom-up versus top-down approaches. But before that, I guess it would be helpful to step back a little bit because we're using the word like stress and anxiety a lot. So, what is stress and anxiety exactly? I know there are a lot of different diagnoses and definitions and in your book you talk about generalized versions versus specific versions. Then also after that, what is the evolutionary purpose? Like, why are we even experiencing this?
Wendy Suzuki: Yeah, that's a fantastic place to start. My simple starter definition of anxiety is that anxiety is the feeling of fear and worry typically associated with uncertain situations, situations that have a high level of uncertainty. For my last story, tenure, am I going to get tenure or not? I'm very, very uncertain. Are we going to get through a global pandemic? Also, the world thrown into a hugely anxiety-provoking uncertain situation, which is why anxiety levels worldwide increased significantly during the last three and a half years of the pandemic. So, that's the simple definition. Anxiety and the second follow-up to that simple definition is a very, very important point, which is "Anxiety is a normal human emotion." I like to really, really emphasize that because people have tended to think about anxiety as a disease and it's a stigma. Everybody has anxiety. Every single person has anxiety. If somebody tells you they're going to give you a pill or give you a program to get ready for anxiety, completely they're absolutely wrong.
It is part of our normal human emotion. You're always going to have anxiety. The reason you're always going to have anxiety is that it is protective. This is where I'll link it to stress in a moment. But evolutionarily, anxiety, the emotion of anxiety and that underlying physiological stress response that comes with it. When you have a feeling of anxiety, it actually activates your stress response. What is it for evolutionarily? It is for protection. The easiest way to understand this is to think back onto a female 2.5 million years ago with a newborn baby, walking around trying to gather food, again 2.5 million years ago, one of our ancestors, a female with a baby, and she hears the crack of a twig. Now, that could signal a predator. One of the major dangers that people 2.5 million years ago had, that crack of the twig could activate anxiety and that would release her stress response.
That stress response also known as the fight or flight response, we've all felt it before. It is that increase in heart rate, that increase of respiration rate. Your palms are sweaty. What's happening internally physiologically, is your blood is rushing away from your digestive and reproductive organs to your muscles. Basically, your whole body is getting you ready to either fight or run away. Hence the term fight or flight response. That saved her and that saved us as a species because she either ran away from that animal or fought it off and lived to live another day. That helped get us to where we are today. Unfortunately, very few people think that their anxiety is protective, feels protective at all. That is because our general anxiety level is simply too high. The volume is turned up way too high.
When it's way too high it loses its protective element and it starts to just feel like that rock, that big rock that you're carrying around your neck. That is where the book starts. Step one of getting to what I call good anxiety, which is, simply put protective anxiety. That protective anxiety that we use is first to learn how to turn the volume down on our anxiety that has so many different triggers these days. The news cycles, social media feeds, a conversation that might involve evil politics or the environment, all these things can be triggers for anxiety. The economic situation that we're in today, all of these things. And so, there're so many more triggers. It's not life or death like the crack of the twig anymore, but they're coming in fast and furious. The big kind of promise of this book is that we know a lot more about how to use neuroscience and neuro and psychology and physiology to turn down the volume of our anxiety. That's my step one of getting to good anxiety, learn how to turn the volume down.
Melanie Avalon: The actual anxiety process that you talked about, like the physical, chemical neurotransmitters that are released and our body's reaction to it, the responsibility for that, where does that lie in the brain? Then the second part to it, is it the language part of our brain, like the prefrontal cortex that is attributing that narrative to anxiety. For animals, do they have the exact same experience, but they don't call it in their head a negative thing?
Wendy Suzuki: So, it's hard to compare. They don't have language at all. It is a kind of reactive situations. Baby animals that have not learned anything will be afraid of spiders and snake-like things that has evolved to stimulate fear. Animals can feel fear and respond to fear. And how is fear responded to? Well, with the same fight or flight response. I'll highlight one brain area and one part of the nervous system in this response. The fear response and anxiety is also included in the brain area that responds to, that detects it, you might say, is the amygdala, which is an almond-shaped brain structure in the deep dark towards the middle part of the temporal lobe, which is near your ear. The amygdala will then activate all those things that I was talking about, heart rate, increased respiration, increased shift blood through another brain area called the hypothalamus that controls something called the sympathetic nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system. The other name of the sympathetic nervous system is the fight or flight part of our nervous system. There's a whole set of cells and nerves that all they do is respond to stressful, fearful situations in all those ways that I talked about. It's complicated. The nervous system is very complicated. It's detection by the amygdala that can activate this fight or flight system through the hypothalamus and the sympathetic nervous system.
Melanie Avalon: Like, with your conversation in your book and thinking about things in this new mindset, we're realizing, like you said, that anxiety is not and the fear response is not necessarily bad, and we can use it to our advantage and it can be empowering. Like will we always as a species have to go through this practice to relearn this? Or do you think we would naturally evolve to not have that negative response to it?
Wendy Suzuki: Well, yeah, that's a great question. My answer is, we must always have the negative, at least partially negative response. It is a warning system. If it was warm and warning anymore, it can't be happy faces and popcorn. If it is warning you against-- I don't know why I said that, it just came up in my mouth. If it's warning something dangerous or something that you should pay attention to immediately, that is why that fear response is there. That is why that uncomfortable feeling is there. Something is on the line, you need to pay attention to it. That is the body's answer to saying, "Hey, pay attention." And that part works very well. So no, that's not going to go away.
Melanie Avalon: Why do some people, because you talk in the book about how some people seem to be more resilient and adaptive and automatically use stress to advantage and others they don't [laughs]. it's a downward spiral. Why do you think that is?
Wendy Suzuki: I think that these behaviors can be learned. Look around, you will see so many different kinds of reactive people including reactive parents, those hyper-reactive, vigilant people that get so upset if something dangerous or potentially dangerous can happen to their kids versus other more laidback personalities and/or parents where it's not such a big deal. One can try different things and maybe one can fail. Sometimes it's not that big of a deal. I think a lot of it has to do with something they talk a lot about in good anxiety, which is mindset and mindset shifting and teaching yourself those mindsets that can be most adaptable to this world that we're living in today, which is full of stressors. I mean, there's no getting around it. It is full of stressors. That's why it's even more important to realize the power of mindset and that these responses can be learned.
Can I actually say one really important thing? I don't want to minimize the fact that people-- the anxiety, even though basic anxiety is a normal human emotion. I want to also emphasize that anxiety exists on a very, very, very wide spectrum. I would say 80% of it is like normal anxiety. At the highest levels, that's where you get into clinical anxiety. That is high enough levels of anxiety that it really disrupts your normal life. You can't work, you don't have normal relationships, you must see a medical professional. That is a different animal. It's on the spectrum of anxiety, but it becomes debilitating. I'm not saying that you should read this book and everybody's anxiety will be addressed, even though all the approaches that I described certainly can be used by people with clinical anxiety. It just should not be the only thing that you use to try and address that system. I want to acknowledge that it really exists on a really, really wide spectrum. Maybe medical intervention, psychologists, psychiatrists can be very, very useful at the highest levels.
Melanie Avalon: Actually, to that point, how does anxiety relate to depression?
Wendy Suzuki: Yeah, so often people with depression have anxiety and people with anxiety have depression. There are different patterns, behavioral patterns, but they tend to cooccur. Both tend to be evoked by very, very stressful situations like the ones that you described in your life, like the one I described in my life. But they are separate syndromes and they're different brain areas that are implicated. Different, but overlapping brain areas that are implicated in both.
Melanie Avalon: One of the things you talk about in the book are the different pathways involved in anxiety. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that and what's going on, like the reward pathway and creativity and resilience. What do you mean by these different pathways of anxiety?
Wendy Suzuki: Creativity is not really a pathway of anxiety. It's one of the superpowers of anxiety that I talk about, which is part of how one can take advantage of this emotion that we all have of anxiety. It relates to this idea of mindset and reframing, because mindset, another way to think about mindset, is a form of creativity. How many different ways can I look at this situation? One of the most common anxiety-provoking situations is public speaking. One way to look at public speaking is, I'm going to be out there all alone, naked, there's nothing to help me, and I'm going to humiliate myself because I'm going to forget all my words and I'm not going to know what to say, and everybody's going to hate me. That is one way to think about public speaking.
Another way to think about public speaking is it is an opportunity for me to show myself. It is an opportunity for me to share what I know very well with more than a handful of people because I've practiced really well and I know my stuff better than anybody in the audience. This is an opportunity. It's still scary, it's still bit scary. It's always a little scary, but it is an opportunity to share. How many different scenarios can you come up with? Once you come up with those scenarios, which one are you going to take to heart? Which one are you going to use? It takes some practice and it takes preparation. But there are absolutely many different ways to address many of these most common forms of anxiety. Difficult conversations you're going to have, interviews that you're going to have. What are all the different ways that you can approach these? What I talk about are part of the brain areas that we know are involved in creativity and how creativity works kind of psychologically, but also the brain circuits that are involved.
Melanie Avalon: I love that whole section of the book because I had never with creativity, you don't really like or I don't really think about it intensely. I just thought, "Oh, you know, you're creative or you're not." I hadn't really thought about it as, like, its evolutionary purpose and traits involved and are there creative personalities or not. Are there creative personalities or not?
Wendy Suzuki: I mean, in the popular literature, there's always been this idea, are you a creative or you're not creative? I am a student of brain plasticity and I say that while I might not be the best singer in the world, I can learn. I can learn musicality, I can learn the exercises, I can learn sight reading music and if I practice, I will be better in three months than I am today. I think everybody has the capacity to learn new things and look at the world in the way that they choose. That is really at the core of both my books and what I try and how I try and live my life.
Melanie Avalon: Didn't you do a singing class or a cabaret?
Wendy Suzuki: I did, I did. That was one of the most scary thing-- I mean, I give thousands, at least hundreds of talks, but singing in front of that three-piece band, solo, that was very scary.
Melanie Avalon: Now, that stuck with me. I was like, "That's impressive," because you talk about how you're not like a singer. That's not your "Thing." I don't know, I've always found that to be a terrifying concept, so super amazing. Some of the other superpowers. You talk a lot about a concept I'm fascinated with, which is flow. So, what is flow?
Wendy Suzuki: Yeah. Flow is a psychological concept that was described by a Czechoslovakian neuroscientist named Csikszentmihalyi. His last name is Csikszentmihalyi, and its classical definition is "Flow doesn't come all the time. It comes when you're performing at a very high level. You've practiced something. I always think of Yo-Yo Ma because I'm a student of the Cello, a very beginner student of the Cello. I think that not every single time he plays his favorite piece, he's in flow but certain moments, it's the perfect audience, the perfect situation, and it's that feeling when time slows down. And you have a heightened awareness of the beauty of this process that you're involved in, that is when you're in flow. The other thing that we know about flow is that if you have anxiety, flow disappears. You cannot get into flow if you have anxiety. You have to be free, you have to be open, you have to be ready to play the best that you've ever played in your whole life. I really wanted to talk about this concept in this book on anxiety, and I absolutely didn't want to say "Sorry. With anxiety, no Flow." And so, I can't remember what I talked about this explicitly in the book, but this is exactly what happened. I was really struggling with what am I going to say about flow. There's a chapter on flow. I can talk about what flow is, who discovered it, and what the definition is, but what am I going to say in the book? What is my angle going to be?
I was stuck, completely just stuck in this idea. I decided to go to yoga class. I go to yoga class and I'm feeling good, and I'm flowing in yoga, kind of yoga flow. Not perhaps chick sent me high in flow, but I'm flowing in yoga, and I'm doing my up dogs and my down dogs, and I flip the dog, and I do all the things, and I'm feeling really good. And then finally I get to the end of class and we go into savasana, corpse pose. And I think, "You know what? I am flowing in savasana. I don't care what the classic definition is. Maybe it's not classic flow. Maybe this is microflow. But boy, I feel good. I am laying on the ground so well. There's nobody that's laying on the ground better than me." I was in a playful mood. I come home and I'm like, why do I have to be so strict about my definition of flow? I'm going to redefine flow. I'm going to call it microflow.
My best example is my two minutes in savasana. I was flowing in savasana, and I started thinking about it, and I started paying attention to all the other moments. Do I have other moments of microflow in my life? Yes, I do. I make a smoothie in the morning for myself, and I love making it because I created this recipe myself with taking hints from the Internet. I kind of created it and I found the proportions that I loved. I make it every morning and I drink it and I was like, "Yeah, this is a moment of microflow, I love, it feels so healthy. I feel like I'm starting my day off right. I do a meditation in the morning, a tea meditation. I love that. I feel like that is absolutely a moment of flow." Even great conversations during the day, moments of flow. I thought, okay, "I like this idea of microflow just appreciating all the smaller moments of flow. It's kind of a different category of flow, but then everybody can have that. That's not special or superpower of anybody with anxiety. Until I remembered this talk it was the very first science presentation that I ever gave as a graduate student. And it was a big deal, we had to go to this big center for learning and memory at UC Irvine.
I was in the graduate student presentation group and I practiced, and there were all the famous neuroscientists that studied memory that were there. And, "Oh I wanted to do really well." I remember it was my session and waiting to go on. There was only one more person before me. So, the guy goes, he was awful. He didn't know his data. He didn't know what his slide said. He didn't know what to say. It was just painful, painful to watch him. Everybody, you could tell everybody was like, just end, just end, you don't know what you're talking about, you didn't practice enough. But then I got to go and I had practiced, but because he was so bad, I looked even better. I got so many compliments and it shifted my mindset to this day because of that talk. I think of myself as an excellent speaker, but it was partially because the poor guy before me was so bad that my good talk was elevated to superior and that's called the negative contrast effect.
Then I realized that is how I want to describe microflow. Flow, that savasana felt so good to me and flowy, because I had anxiety about what the heck I was going to write in this chapter about flow. It kind of elevated the highs or higher because we all have everyday anxiety and we all go through anxiety. In that sense, our appreciation of these moments of microflow are even heightened because we have everyday anxiety and we have those uncomfortable conversations. And we have those worries about whether our presentation or our talk or our report is good enough. It really becomes playing the good off the bad, but appreciating the good even more. That is what became my superpower of flow that comes from our own forms of anxiety.
Melanie Avalon: Well, you know what's really interesting about that? I first learned about flow when I read a book called The Rise of Superman. It's all about flow. Well, the tagline is Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance. That's where I first learned about it. It was at the time that I was a server in LA at a fine dining steakhouse in Beverly Hills, which was very stressful. What's really interesting is, that's when I was reading about flow and that's when I first started realizing when I would enter flow, which was when I was serving and waiting tables. It was during really high-stress moments, but I would get into this flow state and it's funny, one of my fellow servers and I, we would check in and be like, are you in flow? Yeah. We're in flow. I mean, it was a very high perceivably anxiety moment or stressful moment at least. But I found that it fit all the characteristics of flow, which was that you have the skill set to be doing it, but then there's still effort involved and you can't do it perfectly effortlessly. There's still a challenge aspect to it. It really did create that state. I feel like stress and anxiety could definitely play a role if you're like in the right zone.
Wendy Suzuki: Yeah, absolutely. I have that same feeling when I give talks. If I'm not worried at least a little bit before the talk. It's never my best talk. My best talks have been kind of high-stakes talk. Lots of people in the audience or really important people that I want to do really well for, that fear always gets me into a state of flow, giving my talk, and just in the moment, the words come, the stories come, the jokes come. But I needed that boost of anxiety, that stress to push me there because if I was in the kind of Sunday Netflix-watching mode, I would never give a good talk.
Melanie Avalon: Like, when I first started the job, I would not have been able to be in this flow state, like when I was still learning all the skills I needed. Then in retrospect, I feel like I could characterize states as being in flow if there was a change in time perception. I just lost track of time. So, yeah, I'm just fascinated by all of this. Another one of the topics that you talk about. Okay, so I'm really, really interested in stress and anxiety's role in social relations. What part of our brain or parts of our brain are involved in social interactions? People talk about social anxiety and experience that all the time. Yeah, just what are your thoughts on social anxiety and social reactions?
Wendy Suzuki: Yeah, so there are so many different parts of the brain that are involved in social reactions. These whole circuits, I mean, we have to go beyond part of the brain. There are social circuits of brain areas that are so highly evolved in humans because we and other primates are social animals. There're the parts of the brain that perceive faces and facial expressions. When those parts of the brain are damaged, for whatever reason, you get prosopagnosia, which is the inability to recognize faces. Very, very difficult for social interactions if you can't recognize individual faces. There are neurotransmitters that are associated with social interactions of many different kinds. Oxytocin is a famous one that people talk about a lot for mother-child interactions, but also friendship kinds of interactions involve oxytocin, so many different neurotransmitter systems and brain areas, yet at the same time there can be a lot of anxiety around social interactions.
I experienced that myself personally as somebody who grew up very, very shy when I was a young child and spent many years definitely on the introverted, shy end of the spectrum before I decided to be an academic and I had to lecture to people, but then kind of changed and not nearly as shy as I used to be. I still have those same fears that come up, like, I hope they don't think I'm stupid or I hope I don't say the wrong thing or I hope I answer the question right in front of people that I don't know. Everybody has those kinds of interactions. It's this double-edged sword of-- because social connections are so important to us generally as a species, then being rejected from those social interactions and social acceptance can be really, really devastating and fear evoking. It's like you're anxious about being anxious. You're anxious about just the devastation that could come from not being accepted in your social circles.
I don't have an end all and be all solution for social anxiety, but here's something going to help me. It's just the realization of what I just said that part of why I get nervous and scared and anxious is because those social connections are so valuable to me. They are and so I kind of have anticipatory anxiety. What if this person doesn't become a really good friend? I think that I might want to be really good friends with this person. It puts it in a different light for me that I like the idea that I'm a person that truly values strong social connections and I just have to tell myself, "Yeah, that can be a great thing, but it might not work out with this person." There are many people in my life that I do have strong social connections for and it just kind of motivates me to continue to strengthen those and appreciate and kind of recognize all the great things that exist in my current social interactions and not be as afraid of failure for current social interactions, which was part of the core of my fear in social situations for many, many years.
Melanie Avalon: The book I'm reading right now actually is called Status Games, it's by Dr. Loretta Breuning. It's been really interesting because she talks all about how we judge this idea of wanting to be liked or wanting status or wanting relations and hierarchies in society. But she talks about how that's completely just an evolutionary drive and it's in all species because what it results in, like you're mentioning, is fears and insecurities about not forming these different social connections and everything. I find it really interesting because I feel like there's a level of judgment to it where we judge our interactions with others and we judge wanting to have certain interactions with others as like a good or a bad thing from a morality perspective. But she just makes the case that evolutionarily, we seek status. It's kind of like we seek food, sex, it's like with those levels. I found that really, really interesting like a nice reframe.
How about empathy? I'm so fascinated by empathy. Are people naturally more empathetic than others and why might that be? I'm very fascinated by people that seem to have no empathy, for example. Does everybody have mirror neurons or like psychopaths? Do they not have that? What's going on?
Wendy Suzuki: I don't think we know the answer to that last question. Do psychopaths have mirror neurons? I'm sure that the empathy circuits again, another circuit, the circuit for social interactions in the brain goes well beyond these mirror neurons and includes neurotransmitter systems, I'm sure it includes oxytocin, It includes reward systems. Those circuits in the brain that get activated when something rewarding to you happens. Studies have shown that that piece of music that gives you the shivers every single time you listen to it will activate reward systems, for example. And also it's the act of compassion. So, empathy is a feeling. You can feel the situation of somebody else. In this study that was published, it was shown that people given the opportunity to be compassionate to others, giving them a tax rebate, something very tangible, you get more money back on your taxes. That is very delightful. And they're not getting the money back. They're letting somebody else get that tax rebate back that activates their reward system.
I thought about this a lot when I was thinking about the benefits, the gifts, or the superpowers that come from anxiety. Because I told myself that if I'm going to tell people that anxiety is good, I can't simply give a book that just tells you how to get rid of it. That's not good. You better give some benefit, right? Or else you can't call it good anxiety. The gift or superpower that is my favorite, that comes from your own particular form of anxiety, is the superpower of empathy. And here's how it works. This came to me as I was thinking about my own historic anxiety. So, as I mentioned, I was a very shy young girl, always was interested in academics and learning in class, but always had this fear of speaking up, asking the question because, of course, I thought I would say something stupid and then I would look stupid in front of the whole class. This is a very common fear.
But it stuck with me for years and years and years, that it's a form of social anxiety. I didn't want to look stupid in front of my social group of classmates, but then one day I found myself teaching because I went into academia and I was a graduate student and I had to teach. I didn't realize it that first day that I taught, but later I realized that because I had spent so many years feeling fear about asking questions, that I naturally tried to come early, stay late, and answer everybody's questions. Because I knew there were 10 times as many people that had questions and the ones that actually raised their hands that were brave enough to raise their hands. That became my own superpower of teaching because I had the empathy to feel for all those people that I had the same anxiety with.
That's my superpower and how I used it. It works for everybody based on their own anxiety. So, here's how it works. Think about either your most common or your oldest form of anxiety. You know what it feels like, you know what it looks like. You know those situations where it comes up, and all you have to do is turn that awareness outside. When you see somebody else having that same form of anxiety, just give them a kind word, a smile, answer their question as I did to the students in my classroom. That gives you, I argue in the book, a wonderful superpower of empathy that the action is compassion. That's really based on your own form of anxiety. And what is that going to do? It is going to release the dopamine. Neurotransmitters is going to activate your reward system. I like to say "Come for the empathy, stay for the dopamine." It really is an antidote to your own anxiety. Help somebody else out in this kind of anxiety-specific way. That is my favorite superpower that comes from your own form of anxiety.
Melanie Avalon: I love that. That is right up my alley. It also sounds similar to the concepts of like a loving kindness meditation. I was reading about that last night as well. I have a big question about addressing anxiety and well, two big questions. One I mentioned earlier, so circling back to that, the bottom-up versus top-down approaches is one more effective for certain people than others. I think it's interesting because some people are all about breathing and meditation and all that, and then some people are more about cognitive reappraising it. What are your thoughts on those two approaches and like in animals? Well, I guess animals can't really reframe.
Wendy Suzuki: No, not really. [laughs] Well, I mean, part of behavioral training is actually is mindset shifting around fear for animals. They don't have the same ability to direct their own movements, but they can be trained just like we get trained. I mean, sometimes it's like I wish I had a trainer that would just train me not to be fearful in this direction or not respond in that direction. All those things can be learned to your question. I think that is another theme of both of my books, which is self-experimentation. Not everybody is different. Everybody has anxiety, but everybody has their particular form of anxiety in the way that they best deal with it. The answer for you is best sought out by you through self-experimentation. Try different things out, read different books, try different meditations, try different breath meditations. Try different forms of exercise or activity or social interaction that can be very rewarding and anxiety decreasing.
I guarantee you that my favorite forms of anxiety reduction will be very different from your favorite forms of anxiety reduction. So, are there differences? Absolutely. Part of what I try and teach, and in fact, I'm starting to teach a new freshman seminar class in a couple of weeks called "How to Build a Big, Fat, Fluffy Brain." Part of what I'm going to teach these 18 NYU freshmen is how to evaluate the literature and how to test it out on yourself, see if it works. What is a good general experiment? How do I do an experiment on myself and determine whether it's working or not? I think that's a very powerful tool.
Melanie Avalon: Also to that point, so when people are implementing the different coping strategies because you talk a lot in your book about different coping strategies. You talk, for example, about situation selection and situation modification and attention deployment. This comes back to what I was talking about with how we judge things that we do. I found with me. I've had certain things in my life that have been very anxiety provoking. I have come up with coping strategies that would fall under probably like situation selection and situation modification, where I would go to great lengths to either change the actual situation so I didn't have to engage in it or if I was engaging, I would put in all the things I need to do to make me be able to do it and not experience that incredible anxiety with it. For those-- Certain things like that would work. Here's a concrete example.
I have a lot of, actually still have anxiety surrounding traveling, and it has to do with how it affects my sleep and my digestion and all these different things. I will go to great lengths to, if I have to schedule a trip, I mean, great lengths [to schedule where I'm staying so that I know I can do all these things that will make me feel okay physically and even make sure I can get, like, a colonic for my digestion, like all of this stuff. If you're existing in that state and it's working for you, do you feel like that's okay? Or do people need to move beyond that where they don't need those coping strategies anymore?
Wendy Suzuki: Well, who defines whether you need it or not anymore? If you end up constipated for five days, are you going to just be happy with that? No, I think that's great. I think to me that sounds like identifying something that is uncomfortable and probably unhealthy and doing the work to actually get around it in a difficult situation, because that is very difficult in a time change situation, especially if you're traveling a long way. For this one, it's not got over it. I think other situations maybe you can modify after a while that you don't need any, but you may not need it anymore, but yours is a physical kind of change and need that as long as your approaches are helping and improve the situation, then I'd say that's great, continue doing it.
Melanie Avalon: Okay. Yeah. It's so interesting, I guess because I guess I'm always analyzing everything and I'm a perfectionist. I think, well, if I just had this complete mindset shift and I could just not have anxiety about travel, I feel like I haven't evolved my brain enough to not have the anxiety in the first place. I'm just really interested by coping mechanisms and their judgment of them. Then, of course, in the book you do talk about actual maladaptive coping mechanisms and how to identify that and when those are no longer working for you. I guess that would be things like alcohol and complete social withdrawal. So, yes, listeners will definitely have to get the book because there's a lot in there. One other question about addressing anxiety or experiencing it. You talk about the importance of experiencing your anxiety and sitting with it and realizing that it's okay. If you don't have the skills in place yet to deal with it, can you do more damage by just experiencing anxiety if you don't know what to do with that anxiety? Is there the issue of potentially just making those anxiety pathways more ingrained by sitting with it?
Wendy Suzuki: Yeah, if you kind of focus on the negative aspects of it. I think that part of the book was really to appreciate that life is not always happy and joyful. Everybody needs to be able to sit with uncomfortable emotions. In fact, another kind of corollary of the book is that not just anxiety, but all of those uncomfortable, difficult emotions are warning signals for something that are helping us steer away from negative things or fearful things or things that could be dangerous. It's a reframing of what those feelings really are, I think, yes, there is a danger to just sit with the feeling and just sit there and say, this is horrible, I hate it, versus this is a warning signal and kind of develop a deeper appreciation of what that might be. It's not obvious. They're not labeled. You have to kind of figure out what they are and I've used coaches and executive coaches to help me with particularly around my professional life.
But of course, it all kind of melds in there. These are social situations that are relevant for my work life, for also relevant for my personal life as well. There's a lot of learning that could happen there and a lot of reframing that's available. But I think everybody can benefit from learning to sit in those uncomfortable emotions and appreciate them as warning signals and just know that they're always going to be there, not as doom and gloom, you're relegated this for the rest of your life. This is part of this amazing kaleidoscope of emotions that we evolved as humans. There's beauty in that. I mean, that's part of the appreciation of being a neuroscientist. It's just amazing to appreciate all these different senses and cognitive and emotional functions that we have.
Melanie Avalon: I love the section in the book where you talked about emotions and in particular when you talked about all the different ones and their purpose and what they were giving you. I never really thought about it that way. It was very empowering. So, I definitely encourage listeners to get both of Dr. Suzuki's books. I mean it's really doing a service that I think is needed, especially in today's super, super stressed, anxious world. Are you working on any future books?
Wendy Suzuki: I am. I'm not talking about the final topic yet. We're just finalizing the proposal. But yes, at least the proposal is coming soon. It's going to take another year or so to write it up, but I'm excited. It's going to be a follow up to the general theme of Healthy Brain, Happy Life, followed by Good Anxiety and so in that same vein.
Melanie Avalon: Oh, awesome. Well, hopefully, you can come back on the show for that because I am eager about all of your future work.
Wendy Suzuki: Oh, thank you. I'd love to.
Melanie Avalon: How can people best follow your work? Where can they check you out?
Wendy Suzuki: Yeah, the best place to go is wendysuzuki.com. All of my information for all the books, lots of videos, my TED Talk, my classes, my work at NYU is all there in one place, so you can find out everything there.
Melanie Avalon: Awesome. Well, we will put links to all that in the show notes. Thank you so much for your work. I am just so, so appreciative. Like I said, it was a profound experience reading your book, and I can't wait for listeners to check it out. And congrats on being Dean, so amazing.
Wendy Suzuki: Oh, thank you so much, Melanie. I really appreciate it.
Melanie Avalon: All right, enjoy the rest of your day.
Wendy Suzuki: Okay, you too. Take care.
Melanie Avalon: Bye.
Wendy Suzuki: Bye, bye.
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