Introducer (00:02): Welcome to the Conversations on Healing podcast, where host Shay speaks with renowned healthcare leaders, practitioners, and thought leaders to explore the world of wellness, the incredible powers of self-care and what it truly means to heal today. Join us on this journey to become more whole, healed and connected.
Shay Beider (00:31): Hello everyone. This is Shay Beider, and I’m so happy to introduce you to my guest today, Dr. Wendy Suzuki. Dr. is a professor of neuroscience and psychology at New York University, and she is the author of two notable books, Healthy Brain, Healthy Life and Good Anxiety. Her main research focus has been on brain plasticity and she has explored how exercise can improve an individual’s cognitive abilities. In today’s conversation, Dr. discusses what anxiety is and the positive effects that exercise can have on the brain. She also shares her own personal journey and lived experiences, which played a huge role in writing both of her books. Dr. further explores how we can start to harness and utilize anxiety to achieve very positive results in our life and this is really one of the key points and takeaways in her new book, Good Anxiety. I’m looking forward to sharing this conversation with you because I feel like it will really change your understanding of how you deal and cope in your own life with anxious feelings. So let’s go ahead and get this conversation on healing started. Well, Wendy I’m so happy to be here with you today. I feel like there’s such incredible content and conversation we can have around anxiety, around healing, around wellness, around the value of movement and exercise. I think there’s also these wonderful like tools and tips and skills that you’ve put in your new book, Good Anxiety that are incredibly practical, valuable sort of assets for our listeners to really take hold of their own lives in such an empowering way. I feel like your work is incredibly empowering. So I want to acknowledge that and welcome you to the Conversations on Healing podcast.
Dr. Wendy Suzuki (02:47): Thank you so much, Shay. It is such a pleasure to be here. Thank you for the opportunity to come and I’m really looking forward to this conversation.
Shay (02:54): Good. So I was reading your book, Good Anxiety and I was looking at the prevalence of anxiety and I was really stunned to see that in the United States, about 28% of people or roughly 90 million are diagnosed with some form of an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. That if you look beyond that at more kind of generalized anxiety, sort of non-clinical that it’s about 90% of people that are experiencing anxiety on a regular basis. I had to start by asking you, why do you feel that’s so prevalent in our culture?
Wendy (03:33): Yeah, that’s a great place to start and what I would say is that we are in a unique time in a bad way, unfortunately, because my simple definition of what anxiety is, is that feeling of fear or worry associated with uncertain situations. We live in an uncertain time, whether it be because of the pandemic, because of political reasons, because of shifts in racial, the way that we’re viewing race and racial tensions and all of this is neither good nor bad in terms of what we’re dealing with, but it does cause so much anxiety. Add that on top of the competition that we already see, for example, my own students at New York University, they and other university students already felt a high level of anxiety. So add those, all those other levels of anxiety, or I forgot to mention global warming as an uncertain element. So all of these things add up together that increase our sense of uncertainty and thereby increase our sense of anxiety.
Shay (04:56): Yeah. To your point, we are certainly living in very uncertain times. There’s no doubt about that. One of the components of your work that I really adore is that you have such a unique spin on anxiety. I mean, first of all, the name of your recent book is called Good Anxiety and the way that you see anxiety is that it’s dynamic, that it’s changeable. Also that it’s a protect of emotion and so I’d love to hear how you would describe anxiety as a protective emotion for our listeners.
Wendy (05:30): Yeah, that’s a great point. So I say that anxiety is good because from an evolutionary standpoint, the emotion of anxiety and that underline stress response that comes with it evolved to protect us. There’s no question about that. Anxiety evolved as an emotion that is actually critical for our survival. Remember this is 2.5 million years ago when our main danger was external. We had to run away from those lions and tigers and bears. So that response that if a twig cracked that you make quickly make that decision, am I going to fight the bear or I’m going to run away. That was essential for our species survival and that same response is in us today. The big difference is we have the equivalent of twigs cracking 24/7 all around us on our right on our left in front of us. So it’s lost its protective element because the volume of our anxiety has simply turned up too high. A main thesis of my book is that its still is protective. It can be a great warning signal, but step one to get back to that good protective, valuable aspect of anxiety is to learn how to turn volume down so that our anxiety isn’t being triggered by so many different things. So that’s kind of the start, the premise of the book and why I do say, and I stand by this, that anxiety is good.
Shay (07:12): That turning the anxiety down, so I want to actually read something from an early section in your book you wrote “When I started making changes to my lifestyle and began to meditate, eat healthy and exercise regularly, my brain, body adjusted and adapted the neural pathways associated with anxiety recalibrated and I felt awesome. Did my anxiety go away? No, but it showed up differently because I was responding to stress in more positive ways.” So I love that. I think that’s so lovely. How you describe that and in that you described some very important sort of tools that you using to help kind of manage anxiety. So I’d love for you to share with everyone who’s listening, what you see as some of the key strategies for working with your anxiety in a positive way?
Wendy (08:12): Yeah. So my number one and number two go to in terms of what do I do right now? I know I have a lot of anxiety, what can you do to help me are two that you mentioned in that quote. My number one is meditation and I love to recommend breathwork as the subpart of meditation. Why is that? Because we just said that anxiety evokes that stress response, that fight or flight response, everybody’s heard of that, but more people should realize that we have a part of our nervous system that counteracts that fight or flight response it’s called the rest and digest part of our nervous system. But somehow many fewer people have heard of it and it is designed it’s in everybody. It’s not that only some people have it, we all have it and it evolved and developed in parallel with that fight or flight system to bring us back down into a calm state. So it is our natural de-stressing system and so back to what we can do that breathwork is actually activating that natural de-stressing part of our nervous system that naturally decreases our heart rate, decreases our respiration rate and pushes blood from our muscles to our digestive and reproductive organs. So think about this hundreds of years ago, those monks turned to breathwork as one of the most ancient forms of meditation to calm ourselves down. They didn’t know about the parasympathetic nervous system. They just knew that breathing deeply could really calm us down quickly and efficiently. So that’s why I recommend breathwork and I specifically recommend a box breathing technique. I have no doubt that you’ve talked about this before in this podcast, which is inhaling for four, holding the top for four, exhaling deeply for four counts and holding at the bottom for four counts. So easy to do. It can quickly bring you down into a calmer state. I like to remind people, you can do this as an anxiety invoking or provoking person is talking at you. You could already start using this approach to start calming yourself down. So, that’s my number one. My number two approach to either immediately in the long-term, decrease that anxiety volume in you is moving your body, physical activity is one of the most powerful things that you can do to decrease your levels of negative affect anxiety, stress, depression, and why is it doing that? Well, every single time you move your body, you are stimulating the release of a whole bunch of neurochemicals in your brain. I’m not saying you have to go out and run a marathon. I’m saying, go out, take a walk outside, walk around your dining room table, or take your pet for a walk that is releasing these neurochemicals. I like to call it a neurochemical bubble bath for your brain. In that bubble bath are neurotransmitters that you’ve heard of serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline, endorphins. That is why we feel better when we move our bodies. It has not only an immediate effect, but you do it regularly and you give your brain this wonderful bubble bath regularly, and you start to affect long term affect levels by increasing positive affect levels at the baseline and decreasing negative affect levels. So those are my number one and number two.
Shay (12:15): I love that. So practical, so simple and free. You can do both of those with no expense whatsoever, if you would like. It made me think, I don’t know if Dr. Herbert Benson’s work on eliciting the relaxation response, but it’s such beautiful work about how much conscious control we can actually have for countering that fight or flight response and actually instead intentionally eliciting the relaxation response in our bodies.
Wendy (12:44): I think that’s so important. A concept that I advocate a lot is the concept of self experimentation. You don’t have to be a big scientist to explore this on your own. Self experimentation is the act of trying things out, be curious about whether this activity, this show on Netflix, this friend is really relaxing and engaging for me, or maybe stress inducing and you don’t need a study to show you and to kind of notice how that happens. A lot of the content of my first book and my second book came from this self observation that I went on to look at the actual neurobiological studies of, but everybody talking about free stuff, here’s another great free stuff, little gift. Start to notice what is affecting your mood and write that down. That is one of the most powerful things that you can do to learn how to shape your own mood.
Shay (13:57): That’s so true. I love that conscious awareness to our states of being that right there can elicit so much positive change cause we just start to notice when I do that or when I go there, I always feel worse. Maybe I don’t want to do that or maybe I don’t want to go there. There’s choice. Well, I feel like it’s, a lovely piece to add to our conversation today is the impetus for kind of the creation of this book, Good Anxiety that we’re talking quite a bit about today. It was two really significant losses in your life. You’ve dedicated the book in loving memory of both your father and your brother, who you lost in a very short period of time, only in three months of one another. You share that loss really allowed you to frame the book in a very different way because of that experience. So I’d like for you to talk about what you learned from that grieving process that helped you to understand anxiety in a different way.
Wendy (15:05): Yeah, sure. So, when these two losses happened I was in the middle of writing the book, exploring anxiety, doing the research and exploring this uncomfortable emotion. So was knee deep in this one uncomfortable emotion that we are all experiencing a lot of anxiety. Then, my father passed away suddenly he was in his eighties, he had dementia and he had a heart condition. So it was so sad as it always is, but not completely unexpected. But then three months later, my younger brother who is the most, who was the most fit person that I knew for my whole life also suddenly passed away of a heart attack and that was just such a devastating loss. I found myself unable to work on the book on anxiety because I was dealing with some of the most difficult emotions that we go through as humans deep, deep grief. I felt in a sense that I was unfortunately going through this kind of masterclass of the most uncomfortable, difficult emotions that humans have. It took a while to come out of it. When I started to use some of the tools that I was already talking about in anxiety, meditation, reaching out to friends and exercise of course, all of that was helping, but there was this one moment, as I was kind of coming out of that grieving process when I was doing a workout and the trainer it was a video workout and the trainer on this video workout said in the context of working out and pushing yourself and pushing your muscles, pushing your body in new ways, she said “with great pain comes great wisdom”. I thought, oh my God, that is the message of this whole book with great pain and I was experiencing and coming through the pain of deep grief comes great wisdom. What was that wisdom? I suddenly realized that wisdom was what I was noticing happening that I had this whole new appreciation of life that I was lucky that I was lucky that I was still here, that I was lucky that all the other members of my family that are still here are still here, that there was this kind of wave of gratitude for all the friends that helped me get through it. I describe it in the book as it felt like that moment in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy went from black and white Kansas to the technicolor of Oz. It was a realization of gratitude and joy. It made me realize that that grief was telling me about how much I missed and I loved my father, my brother. It’s a hard emotion, but it was based in love and being able to appreciate that really helped me get through it. Then as I turned back to it made me ask, well, if I can get this level of wisdom and understanding from this most difficult emotion that I’ve ever gone through, what can I learn and get out of the uncomfortable emotion of anxiety? Are there gifts there? Are there superpowers there? What I found was there were, there were a lot of them. With this new mindset, I went back to the anxiety book and I said, I need, I needed gifts, I needed superpowers, I needed all the positivity to come out of these negative emotions. I found them and I wrote about them. As I say in the book this the book would not have been the same if I hadn’t gone through this experience.
Shay (19:18): Yeah and it’s so clear in the book, how you’re taking what you’ve learned in real life and applying it and really also using it to enhance your understanding of some of the science and what we do know about how the brain functions. There are a number of things that we have a pretty deep understanding of, in terms of the relationship between brain functioning and anxiety. So you really clarify in such a beautiful way, like how the brain works, but then also you weave it into your personal life experience, which I think is so lovely. I can share my father passed away three weeks ago, very unexpectedly.
Wendy (19:59): Oh, I’m so sorry.
Shay (20:00): Thank you. One of the gifts or superpowers as you describe it that already has come from that experience for me it’s really helped me to recognize the preciousness of my own life and the time that I have. It almost jumpstarted me to want to be even more conscientious and aware that all of my actions and choices and values are like 100% aligned. So that the quality of my life and the time that I do have however long or short that is, can be well spent. That is a huge gift of his passing for me. It’s helping me to reframe my life in a way that’s more on point that’s more deeply connected to what feels the most achievable in the best possible way in my own lived experience.
Wendy (21:07): Yeah, that’s beautiful. I feel that same way and that same growth of knowledge that you just expressed so beautifully. Your sharing just reminded me of another piece of information that and growth that came from that, which is I always before this happened, always had such a hard time in knowing what to say when somebody shared that there was a loss in the family and you don’t know, I hadn’t gone through that in this way and always felt so awkward and never knew whether I was doing it right. Or, you want to say exactly the right thing. As I’m sure you’ve learned as you go through it, you realize that just being there and being able to say, I’m just truly sorry, that’s all you need to do. It sounds like a little thing, but it happens a lot because this is something that every single one of us will very likely go through perhaps multiple times in our life. As you get older, maybe not when you’re teenagers, but when you get older, it will happen. This is such a beautiful life lesson that also came not that I wish that this would happen to more people. So they would know that, but there are life lessons to learn and that’s just one that I was reminded of that it puts me at ease in a relatively common kind of situation that I’m in.
Shay (22:48): Yeah, no I so appreciate what you’re sharing and I resonate with that because in my own experience, probably the most valuable insider perspective that people have offered to me is simply their authenticity. When they were authentic and just shared, however this impacted them, however, my loss impacted them. Like that was what mattered. It was just the authentic expression of it that has really resonated for me.
Wendy (23:19): Yeah, that’s beautiful.
Shay (23:21): So I would love to touch on the ways that people deal with difficult emotions and one of the things that I love in your book is you discuss kind of cognitive flexibility and reappraisal, and again, to me, this is the empowerment piece. This is how we can make choices. We are going to have hard things that happen in life. That’s part of a human experience, but we are not simply at the mercy of that. We have choices about how we cognitively look at the things that happen to us. I see in the foundation of the way you’ve written the book, you’re using words like gifts and superpowers, so how we take these difficult, challenging emotions and things, and turn them into gifts and superpowers. So I’d like for you to talk a little bit about how things like cognitive flexibility and reappraisal are fundamental aspects of emotional regulation and can be really beneficial on a day to day basis.
Wendy (24:24): That is really a very powerful key and I describe it as one of the gifts that does come from having anxiety or higher levels of anxiety, because basically that affords you lots and lots of different possibilities to practice cognitive reappraisal and to get better at it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, that’s how learning works. So what is that? That is in the simplest of terms, it’s looking at a glass as half full instead of half empty, which okay, I’ve always heard about that, but then you try and apply it to that person that is always just anxiety provoking in you, you think no, that glass is always half empty. There’s no way that I could think of this any other way and that is where I try and come in with the book and say, actually, what if that’s not the case? What if you could see this person that for years and years that has caused you anxiety in a particular way, whether it’s a family member or a person at work, or even a friend or a frenemy, and just say that’s just person X, that’s how they are. They’ll always be that way and I’m not going to change it. I will just accept it instead of having this whole drama come up. Somebody asked me the other day what is the most valuable piece of advice somebody gave you to help to deal with an anxiety provoking situation. I went back to this situation of anxiety provoking person. The vision I was given is that if you work on yourself appraisal, reappraisal, that you’re going to be able to look at that person and say, it’s just them. That’s fine. Somehow that was just so appealing to me. It’s like, yeah, I want to be able to do that. How can I practice that? It really is about practicing that thought for yourself. Everybody has a person like that. What if, and it also reminds me of the beautiful practice of loving kindness meditation. I was taught the very first time I got to do a kind of a quote, unquote, real loving kindness meditation. It was with the meditation expert Richard Davidson and Robert Thurman, the Buddhist scholar at Columbia, they were giving a great presentation at NYU. So the way it was described to me, I loved it. So they said, here’s the easy version, think about puppies and kittens, and that love or babies, and think about that love that you have, okay, that’s your easy version next, try and bring that same, like love, and you want to protect them that same feeling, but just to the people that you know, people that you know around you, that’s a little bit harder, but that’s the next step. Then the hardest part is try and look at your worst frenemies in that same loving way. It’s the same practice is the same process of seeing a new reality and practicing kind of believing that it’s a practice of mindset shifting and reappraisal. So it’s very, very powerful and is a powerful way to decrease our stress levels.
Shay (28:25): Similarly, one of the practices that I’ve developed over time, because like you said, we all have people in our lives who will trigger anxiety or trigger a response that we’d rather not have. I’ve learned to look at those individuals as my teachers and to really embrace this idea of what are you offering as an opportunity for me to really receive so that I can grow and expand my capacity to love. In viewing it, from that perspective, I find I can slow myself down a little and not come kind of hastily from as reactive of a place, but pause a little bit and recognize that even in this too, there is value, there is a teaching, there is a beautiful lesson if again the same concept, if I choose to see it and seek it as such. That is a conscious decision and choice, like no one gets to do that for you. You get to do that for yourself.
Wendy (29:41): Exactly. I love that way of approaching it. You remind me of one of the things that I was most surprised at as I was writing this book, which is I’m writing it, I’m trying out all the practices myself and realizing how anxious I actually am. I’m an anxiety hider, but one of the things that, that most surprised me is through the course of writing this book, I found myself making friends with my own anxiety. It’s like it’s useful. It’s not that thing that I want to kick out the door, which I’ve had thoughts in that direction, but it is a warning system. It’s kind of like a prickly friend, not a warm and cuddly friend so much, but a friend it’s that same kind of, what can I learn from these uncomfortable emotions that make us human. We’re not, human is not happy all the time. Human is from happy to grief, to sadness, to anxiety, everything in the middle. Those uncomfortable emotions are there to teach us things to be our teachers, as you were saying, these uncomfortable people can also become our teachers. So that is kind of when I stepped up to a different level of my own relationship with my anxiety when I was like, okay you’re there, you’re there you are my friend, lead me to understand myself better.
Shay (31:15): It’s a great approach. Love that strategy. Well, I feel Wendy, like I would be remiss if I didn’t speak with you also about exercise and the brain and the relationship there between moods and emotions and everything that we go through. Because your first book was really focused on that body of work that you pioneered as a neuroscientist and the other research in the field. So I’d love for you to talk about kind of your groundbreaking research on movement and the brain and the effects of exercise on the brain.
Wendy (31:52): Yeah, sure. So, I already highlighted exercises one of the best go to kind of activities. If you need to decrease your anxiety levels because of that bubble bath of neurochemicals, it has an immediate effect to lower anxiety levels, lower depression levels, lower hostility levels, but that’s just the first step. There are more and more in fact, even more amazing effects of exercise on our brain. So not only can you invoke it? Can you use it to have an immediate effect on your mood, but again, think about what you are doing to your brain long-term with that bubble bath of neurochemicals, you are making yourself happier, less anxious for the long-term. That’s absolutely the case, but another key neurochemical that comes with that neurochemical bubble bath is something called a growth factor. In fact, it’s called BDNF, Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor. You don’t have to know that name, it’s a growth factor. Every time you move your body, it is being released and what does that do? Well, it’s really good for one particular brain area called the hippocampus that is critical for our ability to form and retain new long-term memories for facts and events. This is a brain structure. It’s my favorite brain structure to tell you the truth. I’ve studied it for many, many, many years. There’s lots of evidence in experimental studies, as well as in human studies that long-term increases in exercise where you’re giving your brain, this regular bubble bath of now growth factors can increase the size and the number of cells in your hippocampus and make your hippocampus work better. So I want to ask all the listeners out there, how many of you want a better memory, long-term memory part, your brain. Yes, I could already feel you everybody’s raising their hands because I am raising my hand. That is my, as a nerdy neuroscientist, that is my number one, motivation to get up every morning and do my workout every single morning, seven days a week. Because I want the biggest, fattest , fluffiest hippocampus that I could have all so long-term, you get benefits and functional improvements in another key brain area, the prefrontal cortex, right behind your forehead, that helps with focus, attention, decision-making, all good things. Do I want better focus, attention and decision making? Yes, I do. So that’s kind of step two. You get immediate benefits. You get long-term benefits in the prefrontal cortex, in the hippocampus, as well as in long-term mood. Then the kind of cherry on top is that with long-term regular moving your body, a long-term regular bubble bath of these neurochemicals and growth factors and dopamine and serotonin, what you are doing for the long term is literally helping to protect your brain from aging and neurodegenerative disease states because the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex are two of the brain regions that are most susceptible to both aging and neurodegenerative disease states. So you’re not curing those diseases. We still don’t have a cure for dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. For example, Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia but what we are doing with regular exercise is staving off both normal aging and neurodegenerative disease states because we’re making our hippocampus and prefrontal cortex bigger and fatter and fluffier, and it simply takes longer for either the normal aging process or dementia and the disease states associated with dementia to damage enough of these brain areas so that we start to have those memory and focus impairments. So, a win, win situation. I call exercise a supercharged 401k for your brain for the long-term. I think that it is again, it’s free as we started out with talking about it and again, you don’t have to become a marathoner, regular walking has been shown to have significant protective elements, protective value for your brain function. So that is my best pitch for why you want to think about moving your body as much as you can, as fun ways you can today.
Shay (36:48): Well, I love how passionate you are about this subject. It’s so fun to hear you talking about this and, it really comes across and it’s so obvious how important exercise is on so many levels. We see it with the centenarians. We see that there are people who are moving every day throughout their day, and so it’s a beautiful gift to be able to encourage people to move. Like you said, it’s as simple as walking. It’s not like, it’s exactly what you said. It’s not that you have to run a marathon or do something elaborate. So I’m really glad we got to share that piece because you can never be reminded too much of the value of movement. There was a study you conducted this pilot study that I had learned a little bit about during the pandemic on mindful conversations with college students, and you found that deep listening helped to decrease anxiety. I’m so curious about that, finding what do you think is that relationship between listening and anxiety?
Wendy (37:56): Well, first this is a preliminary study. It hasn’t been published yet, but we were so fascinated with these initial results and it also needs to be emphasized the moment at which these experiments were done. We were in the heart of the fall and the spring semester of this first full semester where everybody went online and everybody was struggling. Oh my God, I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know how to use zoom and students went from in-person classrooms. Actually that’s not true. They had partially in-person classrooms this semester before to everything, 100% zoom. There’s a lot of isolation that happened at that moment for these college students and in the heart of that isolation and uncertainty and anxiety. We gave them an opportunity to share and be listened to deeply. We found that was a really helpful thing for them. We suspected it would be, and we found that absolutely it was. I think that I just go back to some of the comments that we heard from our subjects that it was our subject said it was just so nice to be not just talked at, okay, do this assignment, please give this big term paper in one month and this huge term paper in two months, but to be listened to about an engaging topic, which happened to be vacation, favorite vacations. So, we were going for this anxiety, reducing and enhancing modality of social interaction. We, as humans are very social people. I knew we were in a situation of heightened insolation and so in this situation, it clearly that deep listening was very, very helpful.
Shay (40:04): It makes me wonder for our listeners if just knowing the possibility of this, can we listen deeply to the people in our lives who are experiencing anxiety and might that be helpful to them. That obviously is a possible takeaway from this preliminary research.
Wendy (40:22): Yes. We’re exploring it in lots of different ways and trying to bring it out and explore it not just in the single way that we got this first preliminary data, but doing variations of it. So I’m excited to be able to share that a little bit later once we gather a little bit more data.
Shay (40:45): Exciting. There’s always more to learn there always, always is. So I wanted to ask you, Wendy these are conversations on healing. We love to look at health and wellness and how we heal and, what are all the things that we can do to live happier, healthier lives. When you think of some of the milestones in your own life, around your personal healing journey, what do you see as some of the milestones? Or you could define it as like the key takeaways, however, it best sits with you.
Wendy (41:18): There were clearly, milestones or big blockages that when I got over them, they became that was a milestone. The first one was the one that really my first book, Healthy Brain, Happy Life was focused around, which was this midlife crisis that I had gaining twenty-five pounds as I tried really, really, really hard to do something that I always wanted, which was to get tenure at my university at NYU, very difficult process, stressed myself out. I did not go about it in the most mindful or thoughtful way, but I mean, I was successful, but I ended up with twenty-five more pounds and kind of isolated myself with no strong friend, social network and, just many, many, many hours of work all alone work all alone. So that’s what drove me that was my wake up call to do something about that. As I say in the book, I didn’t know how to make more friends, but I could go to the gym. It’s like, okay, let’s just go to the gym. Let’s just try and get the weight issue out. It was going to the gym taking out all the carbs that I had. Some miraculously had appeared in my diet and rebalance my diet. Oh my gosh, how that shifted the way I felt it was a little bit like night and day, and it didn’t happen overnight, but I had a wake up call. I went on this river rafting trip and I went by myself because as I said, I had no friends and I didn’t have a big social network, but I wanted to give myself a vacation. So that was a good thing. I went on this river rafting trip and I felt that I was the weakest one on the whole trip. I was in my late thirties. I should not be the weakest one on this whole trip. So I came home saying, I’m never going to feel like the weakest one on the whole trip. Something has to happen. I have to get this weight off. So that was my motivating experience and I started to feel better after every class and a year and a half later, I had lost that twenty-five pounds, felt great. I remember the first day I went into that dance class that I went to all the time and somebody said, oh my God, I didn’t even recognize you because you had lost so much weight. I thought thank you so much. That was such a great compliment, but it was the fact that with that weight loss and that came with lots of regular physical activity. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was benefiting from a major bubble bath infusion of all those neurochemicals that I was talking about that improved my memory improved my focus, way improve my mood. And that is what inspired me to start studying the effects of exercise in my lab. I wasn’t studying that before I studied memory. So I know a lot about memory in the hippocampus, but, it was a turning point for me, kind of my physical nature for my mind, for my entire neuroscience research. It started me on a journey of self exploration using the tool of, Hey, I’m a neuroscientist. I know how to study the brain. I know how to do research. Let’s just try studying things that I’m really, really interested in that I think could have such amazing benefits for people. So that started with Healthy Brain, Happy Life, the effects of exercise on the brain, and then it moved to anxiety. I don’t know what it’s going to be next, but it’s going to be something in that same direction.
Shay (45:11): We’ll see where the road takes you. Well, I love in your book you talk about SQ about sometimes we can get very isolated and not be socially connected and obviously during the pandemic, it’s been much easier for people to fall into that. Yet we’re social beings, we need social support, we need social connection. So I’d love for you to share a little bit about what about SQ and its value.
Wendy (45:43): So, I mean again, from an evolutionary standpoint humans are very social animals. We have large parts of our brain that have evolved to process and focus on social interactions, social relationships, brain area specific for faces because recognition of human faces and the emotions that they carry are so important for our social potent or our SQ. I think that you see this in the kind of evolving area of social neuroscience that social stimuli are rewarding, social interactions release dopamine, and make us feel good, but all of us, well, all of us, me, I absolutely have had the experience where I may know theoretically, academically that social interaction is so good, but I’ve decided that I’m just going to isolate myself and work really hard, because that is the best way to get my goal done. Then it’s hard to kind of reconnect with people and I think that actually is one of our big challenges. Literally right now in our society, all of us have been isolated because of the pandemic and it is harder to know how to interact in society and to do it in a mindful and gracious way and activities that promote that. I’m going to include zoom like activities or zoom based activities and face to face. I think it’s really important for us as a society to think about how to bring ourselves back into a social world in a beautiful, graceful, easy way. I think that bringing people together around topics like this beautiful topic that you have developed this podcast on is a great way to start, but we need all those creative minds out there to start helping us think about this. This is something that I’m thinking about deeply for my NYU students and how to bring them back in and promote a positive perhaps a new kind of social interaction. One that takes into account that there is this virus among us now and maybe we need to think about it differently, but I think that’s a really important, current topic of the day.
Shay (48:35): There’s this element to your work. I don’t know how I see this exactly, but it feels thematic to me where in your work, there’s a deep level of acceptance. I very clearly feel that in your work on anxiety, that it’s not something you push away, that your approach is very much that you receive it and feel it, and then you have possibilities for how you can transform it and utilize the gifts contained within it. So there’s something foundationally in the way that you’re approaching neuroscience and kind of the applicability of it in the day to day lives of people everywhere. That’s very much about a receptivity and an acceptance of who we are and our strengths and vulnerabilities as people. So I really appreciate that. I want to thank you for that perspective and lens through which you’re doing your academic work.
Wendy (49:30): Thank you so much. I acknowledge that that is what I wanted this book to be. An invitation, if you will, to accept your own anxiety, it’s human, it evolved, it didn’t evolve to annoy us and to be kicked out the door. It did evolve to protect us and to warn us. It’s in that perspective that I wrote the whole book. It is part of us. I think that is, and people have said that that is the unique way that I talk about it. Others are like, let’s get rid of it, 10 ways to eliminate anxiety from your life that is absolutely not what my book is about. I see that could be helpful as a way to turn the volume down, but in the end, you’re never going to get rid of it. It is useful. It is informative. It gives you more wisdom if you listen to it about your own values. So that’s why you would never want to kick it out the door and you want to accept it and make friends with it.
Shay (50:47): That’s great. Well, one of the questions that I ask all of our guests, because everyone has such a unique perspective is how you would define or describe what healing is to you.
Wendy (51:02): What an interesting question. So healing to me is a very self reflective process that allows you to learn more about yourself and to explore ways to evolve yourself, hopefully in the direction that you want to go. I think it is healing is part of our life’s journey to become the person that we want to be and I see it as part of everybody’s life journey. So it is informative. It is educational and it helps shape who we become as people.
Shay (51:48): That’s great. I love some of the ideas that you presented there. It’s so great. It’s so fun. I’m constantly learning from every guest not only like all of the incredible insights that you’ve shared and that are contained in your book, and I do highly recommend, Good Anxiety. I think it’s a fabulously well written and content-rich book. So I want to say it’s great. I really love it.
Wendy (52:13): Thank you so much.
Shay (52:15): Also just how wonderful to hear your insights, cause we each have these, unique human experiences that carry so much wisdom with them. I really appreciate hearing and listening to your wisdom and what you have to offer. So thank you for that, Wendy, as we bring our conversation to a close, I just want to see if there’s anything else that feels important to you to share I just want to give you an opportunity to do that.
Wendy (52:45): Well thank you so much. I think the last thought that I would share is that is a thought of my wish for all the readers of Good Anxiety and that is if you take the time to turn the volume down on your anxiety and turn in onto your emotions and start to think about what those uncomfortable emotions like anxiety can teach you about yourself, you will start to reap the gifts or superpowers that I talk about and lead you to a more fulfilling, a more creative and an overall less stressful life. That is why I wrote the book and that is what I wish for all the readers and followers of the book. So thank you so much for that opportunity.
Shay (53:41): Well, fantastic. Keep up the good work. I’ll be looking for your next book, whatever topic that will be on.
Wendy (53:48): Thank you. I’m curious too.
Shay (53:50): That’s right. To be determined. All right. Thanks for having this conversation on healing with me.
Wendy (53:57): Thank you, Shay.
Closer (54:01): We hope you enjoyed this episode of the Conversations on Healing Podcast. If you haven’t yet, please go to Apple Podcast, Spotify or your preferred podcast platform and subscribe, rate and review this podcast. It helps so you won’t miss an episode. See you next time.