We often break the topic of "Resilience" down into 3 categories: financial, physical and emotional. The first two are much more tangible and more frequently and easily discussed. But it's the last that likely matters most.
No matter how large your bank account or how well-stocked your homestead, no one can be completely prepared for every potential eventuality. And nothing ever goes 100% according to plan. In the times when it doesn't, it's our emotional fortitude that determines how well we fare.
As we often observe: it's not the specific insult that determines our fate. It's our reaction to it.
So how does one go about cultivating a higher degree of emotional resilience? To address that important question, Chris welcomes psychologist, mental health specialist and author John Arden to the program, for a neuroscience-heavy exploration of how to do just that.
Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with John Arden (58m:03s)
Chris Martenson: Welcome to this Peak Prosperity podcast. I am your host Chris Martenson. Today we’re going to talk about emotional health and resilience. Times are uncertain, adding to the ordinary stresses of everyday modern life. And very few of us though are trained to improve our mental conditioning. Now during the real crisis people tend to either shut down or overreact. Heck, people sometimes come unhinged when a cut price TV is on the line during a Black Friday shopping special. But how will you react if another 2008 style financial ordeal comes along? More importantly, how can each of us optimize our chances of being happy and whole now as well as throughout whichever future arrives?
We’ve covered the importance of eating well and the role of nutrition and exercise as a foundational set of practices for good health. To help us slap the brain and our emotional health securely into the spectrum of things which we can control, we’ve invited a special guest today. Author and psychologist Dr. John Arden has over 35 years of experience providing psychological services and directing mental health programs. Since 1999, he has served as the director of training for mental health for the Northern California region. He has developed one of the largest mental health training programs in the United States. And in this capacity, he oversees more than a hundred interns and postdoctoral psychology residents in 22 medical centers. A prolific author of some 14 books, his most recent two are Rewire Your Brain, published in 2010 and The Brain Bible, which just came out in 2014. His approach combines neuroscience and psychotherapy synthesizing the biological and psychological into a new vision for psychotherapy, brain-based therapy. His work incorporates what is currently known about the brain and its capacities including neuroplasticity and neurogenesis with psychotherapy research, mindfulness, nutritional neuroscience, and social intelligence. Welcome John.
John Arden: Well, thank you Chris. It's a pleasure to be with you today.
Chris Martenson: Oh, it's a real pleasure. That list of things that your work incorporates— this is exactly up our alley here at Peak Prosperity because it's cross discipline and it pulls in a lot of pieces, which is something we certainly believe in.
So let’s begin here. I grew up with this idea that the brain is degrading almost from the moment I become aware of it, right? I was taught that my brain cells don’t regrow and that I’m pretty much just losing them from early adulthood on. What do we know about brain plasticity now? Is it really hardwire with irreplaceable components or is there a new view coming around?
John Arden: Well, there certainly is a new view and you noted that when you and I were both in graduate school studying neuroscience and all that, that we were told that you’ll have as many neurons as you’ll ever have the day you were born. And then it's all downhill from there. And if you want to slow down the loss, then don’t get a head injury, drink a beer, or get a fever. But that was 35 years ago or whatever. And now we know that actually new neurons can develop under certain conditions in the brain in key areas of the brain, in fact. And this is--technically the term is called neurogenesis but essentially, what that means is the birth of new neurons. And that can take place in a couple areas, one called the hippocampus—means seahorse. And that’s an area of the brain that lays down new memories and a critical area for us as we age because we want to make sure our hippocampus is in great shape or we’re going to have memory problems. So what are the factors that help us develop neurogenesis?
Well, I think that all of us ought to be trying to stimulate as much neurogenesis as possible because we know that blocking the neurogenesis actually results in not only dementia but also depression. So what do you do to help neurogenesis along? And you said in your introduction that you talked about diet and exercise in previous podcasts.
Chris Martenson: Uh-huh.
John Arden: And I really applaud you. Those two factors are absolutely critical and it turns out that aerobic exercise is probably one of the best ways to stimulate the release of this neurotropic factor called "brain derived neurotropic factor" or you could just call it "miracle grow." So aerobic exercise is absolutely critical and you got to have a little bit each day. Call it your dose. And your diet is absolutely important too because we know now that we’ve got this plague that’s occurring in the western world, diabetes II. And many neurologists are now calling Alzheimer’s disease diabetes III. So if you want to block neurogenesis, if you want to accelerate the degenerative processes in the brain then don’t exercise much and eat a lot of junk. And a lot of—what is a lot of junk? Well, simple carbohydrates and fried foods. I mean eat a donut, for example. There you go. But on the other hand, if you have a really good diet and good exercise that’s real important but let’s add in some other factors here. So you might say, well god, jocks are doing that, aren’t they? And why aren’t they Rhodes Scholars and all that? Well, I don’t mean to be putting down jocks. Some of them are really bright. Bill Bradley, for example, was a basketball player and a Rhodes Scholar. And so what he did was not only did the aerobic exercising and good diet but he did cognitive exercise as well, meaning that he learned. And so you mentioned neuroplasticity. And so what is neuroplasticity? That’s the brain rewiring as a result of learning. And so should I hum a few bars about that what neuro…
Chris Martenson: Absolutely!
John Arden: Oh, okay. So we have roughly about a hundred billion neurons in the brain. That’s as many neurons as there are stars in our galaxy. And each neuron has roughly about, oh, ten thousand connections with other neurons. It's these gaps that you well know about having studied neuropharmacology earlier—these gaps between the neurons called synapses. And so, let’s say a hundred billion neurons with about ten thousand gaps, these connections with other neurons. That’s a lot of connectivity. And the more you exercise your brain, the more connectivity to support these new thoughts. And so, what we know about with regard to aging is that people that study a lot—and I don’t mean getting fancy degrees and so on, but just learning—especially late in life have more of what we call "cognitive reserve." So putting a sports analogy this, they have a bigger bench to work with. So if they lose some neurons for whatever reason they have more to work with on the bench. So the more they can lose without looking like they lost much, so to speak. And so, cognitive exercise is a critical part of this diet and physical exercise part of it that you were talking about earlier.
And if I may sort of expand it even further, I have this pneumonic that I use. And you mentioned The Brain Bible book earlier. There’s this pneumonic of planting seeds. And if you plant and cultivate seeds for your entire life, you’ll actually have a much better thriving brain that’s capable of withstanding insult and so on.
And so what are the seeds factors? Well, you in your prior podcast mentioned two of them and those are first E of seeds and the D of seeds. But what we have remaining, we have another E, which I just mentioned earlier with cognitive exercise. We call that education. So there you got two Es and a D. And now what are the two S’s? Well, sleep—sleep is absolutely critical and unfortunately, in our really fast paced and frankly superficial society we have come to regard sleep as just one thing. Like, if I’m knocked out it's okay as long as I don’t wake up in the middle of the night everything is fine. Well, frankly that’s wrong. We know that actually drugged sleep, for example, is bad sleep and results in impaired cognition the next day, higher levels of a variety of different stress hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine and so on, and impaired ability to control your emotions and all that. So in other words, you’re more stressed out the next day if you get drugged sleep. You go to the pharmacy and get Sominex or something. I don’t mean to be putting down any product, but—or you go to your primary care physician and he gives you some benzodiazepine, which basically is garbage. And now you snow yourself and you think you’re getting good sleep but actually, if you look at the brain images of drugged sleep versus healthy sleep, drugged sleep is not very healthy, let’s say. And as a result of it, you have higher levels of the stress hormones, impaired cognition, and even down to your chromosomal level we know that the caps on the ends of your chromosomes, which are telomeres, shrink with poor sleep.
So the last S of seeds is critically important and that’s sleep, good, quality sleep. And we roughly need I’d say about seven hours or whatever of good, quality sleep. Now what’s the first S or the other S?
Chris Martenson: John before you talk about that S I just want to reiterate something because we talked about this with a functional nutritionist a while back and he said that when he gets people with sleep problems, he says nine out of ten times he can fix it by getting people amber glasses. And the idea there is that the blue glow from our screens, he talks to people who have bad sleep. And he’s like "are you texting regularly? Are you looking at your phone at night? Do you have your computer running?" And that the blue glow from that interrupts our melatonin and so that something in that blue light just basically interrupts our natural patterns and causes us to have trouble falling asleep and degrades the quality of sleep so people will wear these amber sunglasses for the last two hours before they go to bed. And he said, nine out of ten times he can fix people’s longstanding sleep problems, which they’ve remedied with drugs, with that one simple thing. And I don't know if you’ve heard of that or had otherwise success like that but…
John Arden: Oh sure, yeah. And that’s a great point. And there are other products out there. I don’t mean to be pushing products. But you can download various ways of changing the light pattern. You don’t want a full spectrum light from your computer. Frankly, you shouldn’t be using your computer at night looking at email anyway. Because what he or she was noting was that your retina picks up that light, signals eventually your pineal gland not to secret melatonin, in other words, tricking your brain to think that it's daytime outside. And melatonin, if you don’t mind me mentioning, is not like a magic potion to go to sleep. It's really a circadian rhythm normalizer. So some people out there are thinking that, well, if I have bad sleep what I’m going to do is just take—go to the Whole-Wallet Foods and get a bottle of melatonin. And frankly, that’s not a good idea because that then competes with serotonin. And we know that the result of too much melatonin, meaning too much dark, results in seasonal effective disorder. So people in the higher latitudes, for example, get depressed. Some people get depressed during the wintertime because there’s not enough full spectrum light during the daytime. So really, what we want is a good balance between light and dark. And in the evening, you want to have as much low light as possible. And your previous guest was really right on about trying to limit the amount of full spectrum light.
Chris Martenson: Fantastic! Alright. I’m glad to have that confirmed. Alright, so we have one S left right at the beginning.
John Arden: And that’s social connectedness.
Chris Martenson: Oh, interesting.
John Arden: We are a social species. And there are many social species out there but we adapted through our connectivity and we were hunter-gatherers up until about 11 thousand years ago. And the way we moved was a coordinated movement. We moved, by the way, about ten miles a day, which is another support of the concept of exercise. It's an evolutionary imperative that we move. But back to the social cohesiveness in our movement. We depended upon one another to find foodstuff. We depended upon one another to ensure our own safety. And also, we are the species that are born most premature over all other species. In other words, we’re born premature and then we spend the next, what, 30 years of our lives with our principle caregivers. I’m joking, of course. But hopefully you’re launched earlier. But think of that. We’re born premature. A baby cannot survive like other species. They don’t fly out of the nest a week later or something. So we have all these social brain networks that thrive on social connectivity. And we know that severe deprivation, meaning severe social deprivation as was illustrated by the Romanian orphans and other characterological descriptions. It has noting to do with Romanians. But severe social deprivation results in cognitive impairment and higher incidence of cognitive disabilities like ADD and other problems by latency age.
And social impairment, let me just take it all the way to the chromosome level, and these are some studies that grew out of the UK. We know that people that are lonely late in life actually have shrunken telomeres. So again, back down to the caps on the ends of the chromosomes. Social deprivation results in actual chromosomal damage. That’s how key social connectivity is. So we also know that people that are socially deprived late in life get dementia symptoms earlier. They’re more depressed. They get ill more often. You’d say "ill more often? I thought staying away from people would keep you healthier." Actually, it's the opposite. I mean certainly we want to be washing our hands and everything else. But what we find is that people that are isolated socially don’t do so well as they age. That’s the bottom line.
So the five factors again are social connectivity, physical exercise, cognitive exercise, education, diet, and sleep. So if you plant seeds throughout your life, cultivate those on a regular basis, and not just pick three of them, let’s say, "well you know, I’m kind of into the two Es and the D. I won’t do the other ones." No, you need them all. And in fact, they work together. So we were talking about sleep, for example. We also know that if you get your exercise three to six hours before you go to sleep, let’s say you go to sleep around 11:00 at night, and you finish by let’s say 8:00, if you get a cognitive boost like a brisk walk after dinner it’ll help you sleep. So what you do is you burn off excess stress hormones and all of that. And then also you actually help your body drop your body temperature because you want low body temperature at night. So here, you have sleep and exercise kind of working together. They all work together actually. So planting seeds on a regular basis is great for your brain.
Chris Martenson: Fantastic! I’m wondering if maybe there’s room to slip the word "play" into exercise. I’ve been reading more and more about—you watch kids. We’re built to play. And we sort of socialize ourselves out of that later on, but play is just a creative use of your body and the things around you. So that form of stimulation—here’s what my grandfather who lived to be 96. I think he stopped playing tennis when he was 94.
John Arden: Oh wonderful.
Chris Martenson: And I think that the stopping playing tennis hastened the end point of his life because it was—there’s something about eye-hand coordination and tennis. It's just a very different thing from a more sedentary form of exercise like just maybe walking on a treadmill. That might be good too but I felt like…
John Arden: Oh absolutely.
Chris Martenson: I credited that with keeping him young late in life.
John Arden: Oh boy! I imagine it was a profound influence on him. And playing tennis, it's a social activity too. And you’re getting out there. You’re talking between you. "Well, that was a great serve Jim, oh, you know…" and tennis teams and everything else. So you get a couple of different aspects in there. You get one of the E and the—two Es. No, the E and the S there, and then he goes and reads something perhaps after the exercise. So yeah. And then also the other aspect of play, and we know this from not only being children but also being parents, that play is a very important experience for us. It helps us develop social connectivity. It helps us have joy in our lives. It helps us stimulate our brains and it helps us keep things light. And we really need to keep things light and laugh about what we’re doing. So playful activity is critically important. And so I think that the play certainly works with all the seeds factors that I try to describe in The Brain Bible book. So, good point.
Chris Martenson: Well, thanks for that. So now that we know that the brain is plastic, that it's forming new connections all the time that we can—it sounds like—if I was going to summarize it, it sounds a little bit like "use it or lose it." Like, if you’re not using those connections the body says "I guess you don’t need them." I know that that’s what my body does with my muscles at any rate. It's like "are you using them? No. Let me put them away." Right, so.
John Arden: Oh yeah. That’s a great way to put it. I mean let’s face it. Your muscles atrophy. And so not using your brain—it's a process of pruning. So you can build new connections or you can prune connections. So one way of pruning connections is to listen to, let’s say, angry talk radio and just solidify your negative, angry beliefs, and you can prune out all these connections. So that’s not using it too. So what you’re doing is you’re using overused, angry connections, and then you can prune by disuse of those connections that require you to think in more complex ways. Like in other words, consider some ideas and concepts that maybe you’re not familiar with. That’s where you build new neurons. You don’t build new neurons—I don’t mean new neurons only but also connectivity between neurons, so both neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. But you build this larger, more connected brain by considering things that you hadn’t thought about before.
Chris Martenson: Connecting new dots.
John Arden: And if all you do is go over stuff that you’ve already thought about and just rigidify yourself, that’s not building. That’s actually pruning.
Chris Martenson: That makes a lot of sense. So we’ve got a brain. We can solidify. We can prune. We can add new connections. So there’s—what am I thinking of here? It's like the infrastructure of the brain. I’m getting this sense of it's got a wiring and boy we can influence it. And we can influence it positively or negatively. And the positive influences would be we would make it more robust, more resilient, healthy, and hearty. It's able to form lots of new connections. I’ll bet you the more new connections you form the more you’re able to form probably over time, that that sort of grows on itself.
John Arden: Oh right, very much so.
Chris Martenson: Oh, that’s good to hear. So our audience is—if somebody said I’ll give you one word, our audience I would use the word "curious." So we’re just exploring everything and trying to make sense of the world and doing all of that. And I’ll tell you John, the older I get the less certain I am about anything because…
John Arden: Well, that’s called wisdom [laughter]. Remember the oracle of Delphi with Socrates, he was told that he was the wisest man in Athens. He says "ah get out of town. No way." And he went around Athens and he found all these people that thought they were so wise and everything. And he was the only one that recognized his own ignorance, which we now understand as wisdom because we’re learning all the time. You’re never going to get it all. In fact, it’d be a pretty boring world if you did.
Chris Martenson: Absolutely! So I want to switch gears here slightly now and talk about the importance of emotional resilience if we can connect the brain to our emotional state, emotional resilience in weathering the unexpected and/or unpleasant things that life does offer us from time to time.
John Arden: Sure. Yeah. That’s an area that I’ve been spending a lot of time with my training program and seminars in writings and all that. And it's certainly an area that’s growing significantly in terms of our understanding. What is it about our brain and resilience and helping other people become less anxious and less depressed?
Chris Martenson: And how would you define emotional resilience then?
John Arden: Well, it's kind of a word that’s being used quite a lot in so many different areas. So let’s just say that in many ways it's durability, the ability to bounce back, the ability to kind of have shock absorbers, the ability to have sort of a positive outlook. And there’s a lot of hoopla about positive psychology, and all that like it's a new invention or something. But generally speaking, to have a glass that’s half full kind of view of life, and what are the possibilities out there instead of, "oh my god, I had another loss." So it's really about attitude. It's about durability. It's about kind of a sense that life is uncertain. And what’s wonderful about it is its uncertainty, instead of, "oh my god, if I only knew everything I would be really comfortable." And in fact, what we know about is those people that get hyper concerned about wanting to know everything and to make sure that there’s no shoe that’s going to drop—those are the people with anxiety disorders.
And so, in my life and in the world of Vendoring Mental Healthcare and the training program and all that, we’re trying to help a lot of people, thousands of people, with various types of anxiety disorders. And those people that can’t embrace uncertainty, that want to be in super control, are the least resilient and the more anxious. And so, it's really the opposite of that. It’s acceptance. There’s a lot of hoopla and kind of a lot of new age silliness around everything’s got to be mindful. But it's a good thing in general. And what we I guess mean about that is being able to kind of be present and be accepting and non-critical about what we might be experiencing at any one time. Because generally speaking it's rare that we are where we are when we’re there. Meaning that it's really hard to be present in any kind of situation.
So what we find is that people that have better attentional skills, that are better able to be present and kind of role with things in the present moment instead of being anxious about the future or ruminate about the past—those are the people that are more resilient. And so teaching you could say prefrontal cortex skills, because that’s what this mindfulness is sort of about. How to be present and how to be really focused on the so-called now is part of the whole resilient ability because it's your prefrontal cortex that is the part of the brain that we can call the CEO of the brain that can control the over activity of the amygdala. The amygdala is like the panic button, the smoke alarm in your brain and all that. We need it certainly when there is danger out there but too often it's reacting to things that aren’t dangerous. And the prefrontal cortex has to come into play to calm it down and tell it essentially, "hey, this isn’t really dangerous. Calm down now."
Chris Martenson: And I’ll tell you my personal approach, my strategy around all of that is that I’ve developed a set of techniques that I use with myself. One is to distance myself from the emotional reaction, which is very real. I’ll have an emotional reaction. It's visceral. It's in my body. I can feel my heart rate, my breathing, and all sorts of things. It's very body—it's an amygdala driven response, right? Things are dumping into my bloodstream and my body is reacting. And I used to say, "oh, this is truth. This is how I am reacting." But now I have this little part maybe in my prefrontal cortex that can go, "hey, look at that. Look what’s happening over there." And then I can consciously flip the stories that are creating that response in me and achieve a complete reversal of everything, right? So that’s to me what mindfulness is. It's just separating my higher self from my reactions to things. And then being able to flip things around mentally is one way that I can do things. It's just taking—for instance, take the opposite of a story. Like, this person just did this to me. Am I sure that’s true? What if that was a good thing? What if—and just start looking at it from different angles. It blunts the razor edge of that response for me big time.
John Arden: Very good. Well put, well put. And in fact, what you illustrated is how the slow track has to help calm down the fast track to the amygdala. So if I can describe two tracks to the amygdala—and the amygdala again is the so-called panic button and all that. And there’s a fast track and a slow track to the amygdala. And people with anger problems, people that get too anxious too quickly have their fast track on too often and their slow track hardly works. And what you just illustrated was that you have a pause. You reflect. Now what is that pause and reflect? That’s your cortex and really your prefrontal cortex going "hold it a second here. Let me think about this a little minute before I react emotionally" and then you give your slow track an opportunity to kind of put things in a realistic perspective rather than knee jerk immediately. So great.
Chris Martenson: So let's talk then about what are the strategies for developing healthy emotional resilience within ourselves? Like are there a set of practices or does everybody sort of have to figure it out on their own or what do we know about how to really go about doing that now?
John Arden: Well, we’ve actually been talking about it right now. What you just talked about was the ability—let's take anger management, for example. And what you described to some degree is a like what people learn about in Anger Management 101. The first class they teach time out. So what is time out? Well, time out is, well, pause a second and reflect on that. Don’t react immediately. And so what I tried to do was put a neuroscience spin on it. What were you just talking about? Well, you’re talking about the prefrontal cortex and calming down the amygdala and all that. So let’s sort of build on that. And so in recent years I’ve found that now being in the mental health field for about 40 years I’ve seen so many different fads. I mean Chris it's—every year there’s a new club that’s more popular than the last club. And then there’s card-carrying members and secret handshakes, and language that’s really indicative of magic words like "mindfulness" or whatever that everybody thinks is the greatest word on the planet. And then five years later, there’s a whole new vocabulary.
So I’ve been on this campaign and I’m certainly not the only person. I mean it's really an international effort. I’ve been participating in this campaign to kind of boil it all down to some common denominators here. Let’s kind of find what the common factors are of all these therapy types, instead of, "hey, this is a cool one. Let’s go with this one for a while." Well, what we’re going to do is run that out. It's like planned obsolescence. And there’s going to be a new one down the line. So that’s why I’ve been getting a little bit more brain based, so to speak. So I’ve been talking to my clients about their brains. And in fact, next week I’m going to India to New Delhi and they’re actually flying out some—this university that I’m going to speak in is going to host actually some Afghani civil service workers. And what I’m going to be doing, my job is to teach them stress management from a brain based perspective. Then the next month I’ll be in Jordon and we’re going to be trying to help the aid workers of the Syrian refugees. There’s about a million…
Chris Martenson: Oh yeah.
John Arden: …Syrian refugees on the northern Jordanian border, and from a brain based perspective. And a friend of mine who runs around the world helping the victims of human trafficking, these are these girls that have been kidnapped at age 11 and the older ones are 16. And she’s using the same literature base. In other words, brain based. So with that all being said, what I’m attempting to do—and again I don’t mean to say it's about me, I’m just a part of the big group. There’s no gurus to this club, which is a really good thing.
Chris Martenson: Yeah, that’s great.
John Arden: It's an international thing. And as soon as there has to be a guru then you kill the whole thing, the whole movement.
Chris Martenson: Amen!
John Arden: So what are we talking about? Well, just as we were talking about the fast and slow track to the amygdala, well, how can we boil this down to let's say a 12-year-old that had been kidnapped a year before and used as a sex slave? How can we help her understand that she’s a little jumpy now but we’re going to help her sort of adapt to living in the safe house, and people that care for you don’t want to have sex with you, and all that. Well, you don’t use the word "amygdala." You might use "Amy." That’s easier to remember. But you might say "there’s this lower part of your brain that is going to take a little while to kind of calm down. And it's this more advanced part of your brain that’s going to help you adjust. So just stay with what we’re working with here. And it's like the end of the tail of the caterpillar." Emotions change more slowly than your thoughts or your behaviors. So in other words, what we know about these emotions are that they are kind of ways that we sort of adjust in a body like way, in a feeling sort of way. And they sort of adjust over a period of time. But thoughts and behaviors can change more quickly. So what we’ve got to do is stay with these thoughts and behaviors while we’re staying close with one another, and there you’re really dealing with the emotional part too. Because it's really that connectivity that we were talking about earlier, that first S of seeds, and giving them a sense of what Fritz Pearls used to call back in 1951, a safe emergency, which means a sense there’s the safety of that helping relationship. But the emergency is, "wow, you’re asking me to try these new behaviors and I don’t really know if I feel right about it." Well, that’s the emergency feeling.
And what we know about neuroplasticity is the brain cannot change without a sense of discomfort. So you’ve got to be a little uncomfortable to actually create the neurochemistry in your brain to create neuroplasticity. It's all about the level of glutamate, which is the principle workhorse neurotransmitter in the brain, and the norepinephrine, and some other things that may be a little too technical for our discussion now. Nevertheless, you need that moderate level of activation. In fact, in the learning world it's called the Yerkes–Dodson curve identified a hundred years ago by these two educational psychologists, Yerkes and Dodson. So, what they identified was you’ve got to get out of your comfort zone, not be in the middle of a panic attack, but be in the middle of the bell curve. So it's called the inverse U. So if you can imagine a bell curve you got to be a little out of your comfort zone. So how does this relate to talking to people about changing their brain?
Well, describing neuroplasticity, perhaps not even using the word neuroplasticity, but just saying rewiring your brain requires some discomfort. So they might say to you, "god doc, I don’t really feel comfortable about doing that." And you go, "well, let’s not lose that opportunity because you’re saying you don’t feel comfortable. That’s when we want to do it because that’s when the brain can change, when you don’t feel comfortable. If we wait for you to be comfortable we may wait a lifetime. So we really want to rewire your brain. So don’t worry, I’m here. I’m your partner and I’m going to walk you through it." So one great analogy is—I don't know Chris. Are you a parent?
Chris Martenson: I am. We have three.
John Arden: Yeah. And so both of us are parents and your listeners, many of them are parents too. And if our kids were to come to us during elementary school and say something like "Dad/Mom I don’t want to go to school today because there was a guy on the playground that looked mean at me." We’re not going to say, "hey, why don’t you stay home until you feel comfortable." We’re going to say "no, no, no Johnny. I know you can go. Just don’t let him ruffle your feathers." So in other words, we’re actually helping the kid get into the discomfort area so that he can make going to school more comfortable but he has to get through the discomfort to get comfortable.
Well, the same thing with people with anxiety disorders or depression or PTSD or whatever, they have to go through a period of discomfort to feel comfortable. So let’s say somebody with a panic disorder gets really, really hyperreactive to any kind of physiological overreaction like tachycardia or whatever. Their heart just is pumping real quick. "Oh my god. I better go to the emergency room. My heart is going a mile a minute. I could have a heart attack." Well, it's actually learning to create the tachycardia, which we call interoceptive exposure that’s part of the evidence-based practice for getting over panic disorder. So in other words, we actually create the discomfort that they find so intolerable to help them find it tolerable. Do you follow what I mean?
Chris Martenson: I do.
John Arden: So in other words—oh go ahead.
Chris Martenson: There’s a very, very old story that comes out of Africa and it's called—it goes by the name Run Towards the Roar. And the story they would tell their children and tell each other is that there’s this old pride of lions. And in that pride there’s this really old male. In fact, he’s useless for hunting because he’s got no teeth. He’s just old. But he’s got this killer roar. And so they would set this older lion off in a certain spot and start running the gazelles. The pride would start working the gazelles in that direction and then he would roar and the gazelles would run the other direction right into the waiting pride of lions that were there to take them down. And so this is a metaphorical story that’s really talking about personal change and your personal development that if you—that many times your real safety, your real salvation lies in going towards the discomfort that you’re experiencing, not away from it, that the real danger lies in running away from it.
John Arden: Ah yeah, very good, very nice story too. And that’s so fundamental actually in the practice, the mental healthcare. So for the last 35 years it's been called "exposure paradigms." So if you have a bridge phobia it really doesn’t make much sense to do what we did 50 years and sit around and talk about the symbolic metaphors of bridges and stuff like that. I mean that’s interesting. But it really doesn’t help anybody. At some point you got to get across the bridge. And it's really what you’re telling yourself while you’re getting across the bridge that’s really important but you can’t sit there and wait until you feel comfortable. You got to face the lion. And it might be just a hollow roar.
Chris Martenson: Exactly! So this is—so then—and I’m all—I understand this that we really have to step into our discomfort zone, again the exercise metaphor, no pain, no gain. But to step into discomfort is something that I know personally in my life has been the place where I’ve made my largest and best advances. And I can tell you that my society, my culture, advertises vigorously and reinforces the narrative that I should never want to be uncomfortable. In fact, there would be something wrong with me if I chose that as a direction to go. In fact we have a medicine to prevent you from ever being uncomfortable.
John Arden: Exactly!
Chris Martenson: So I feel like there’s—I mean you must run into this all the time that people have been acculturated to not want to do exactly what you’re suggesting they should do.
John Arden: Absolutely! And we still have huge numbers of psychotherapists out there that come out with these fancy degrees that help their clients avoid the triggers to anxiety. Well actually, what we call that is malpractice.
Chris Martenson: Yeah.
John Arden: That at some point we ought to be pulling the licenses from these people because actually what they’re doing is creating an anxiety disorder instead of helping a person get over an anxiety disorder. And so just as you say we've got to pill for everything now. And you don’t want to have any kind of discomfort. And isn’t it kind of amazing that we’re the country with the highest drug consumption level? I mean it's astounding.
Chris Martenson: Yeah. Absolutely. What I’d like to talk about now is this is getting to a core of something that we work with a lot is this idea that’s it's really going to be our reaction to the challenges that define how they impact us as much as the event itself. So one of the narratives, the stories that we tell is the USSR is a major economic super power and it collapsed, right? In 1989 it started to shred. And in the next eight years after that moment in Russia 54 percent of all deaths recorded were due to alcohol in some way, shape, or form. So it's a heavy drinking country, and they’re off the charts percentage wise normally, but 54 even by their standards is way off the charts. And what happened was interesting because people lived in government housing, they had government food, and nobody is under a bridge starving, right? But what happened was mainly middle-aged men lost their narrative that said "I provide and protect. I’m a pipefitter. I am something." And when they lost that job, instead of having the plasticity to say, "wow, look at all this free time. I shall do something new with my life that will be really exciting," they just—they numbed themselves out to death in essence using alcohol. So that’s reinforcing the idea that it wasn’t the collapse of the economy that hurt people as bad as their reaction to it.
And it's our view at Peak Prosperity, we talk about how our reactions are really dictated by the beliefs that we hold, or the narrative. So if we find we’re holding onto unconstructed beliefs, how would you suggest people go about identifying them and then maybe replacing them with more useful ones?
John Arden: Well, boy, you described a pretty amazing sociopolitical adjustment that the then Soviet Union and now Russia have gone through. And by the way, the alcohol consumption during the Soviet Union was extraordinarily high as well. And so they’ve been having trouble for the longest while, but their adjustment has been pretty bad, big time. Well, let’s—if we could stay with the global and then we’ll get down to the personal if that’s okay. Let’s take climate change, for example.
Chris Martenson: Okay.
John Arden: Before we started the podcast you and I were talking about cognitive dissonance and some other factors. And denial is sometimes an effective way of adjusting to discomfort. But sometimes it creates so much havoc. And so down at the personal level—and I know that you and Adam are helping people understand the fluctuating economy and all that and there are a lot of people that are kind of in denial about it. It's better to not think about this kind of stuff they think. But unfortunately, it's to their peril.
And frankly, it's been to mine too because I’ve been spending all this time reading all this neuroscience stuff and I haven’t been paying attention to my own 401K and portfolio and everything else. And you could say that I’ve been in denial. "Oh, things are going to be taken care of. I don’t want to have to think about that too! Oh my god!" So we always have these little pockets of you could say not only denial but avoidance.
Avoidance to some degree is useful only if it's avoiding something that is actually dangerous right in front of you. But what if you need to have some proactive behavior to help you avoid discomfort later? And so that’s why from an evolutionary perspective we have two sides of the brain. So the right prefrontal cortex and the left prefrontal cortex actually balance each other in terms of the approach and avoidance behaviors. So the right prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain that helps us avoid and passively withdraw. And the left does approach behaviors. And interestingly, when we avoid too much we activate the right prefrontal cortex too much and you know what we call that in neuroscience? Anxiety disorders. So people with a hyperactive right prefrontal cortex actually suffer from anxiety disorders. So too much avoidance actually creates anxiety and depression. And approach of behaviors is about, "hey, I know I got to do this…" but like we were talking about before with exposure and facing the lion’s roar and all that, well, that’s kind of activating the left prefrontal cortex.
But you don’t want to just jump off the Golden Gate Bridge just because you think you’re going to practice high diving or something. You need to be realistic about what you do. So that means you got to have a balance between the two hemispheres. So in the adaptation that any of us are trying to make in this complex world with major probably economic fluctuations in the years to come, based on climate change and political upheaval and everything else—we’ve got to be a little bit more nimble. We’ve got to be a little bit more balanced between the two approach/avoidance two sides, so to speak. So I think there’s a brain-based explanation for this pattern too. And you could say going back to your Soviet Union then Russia metaphor, well, to some degree those characters sitting around drinking bottles of vodka are really in a super avoidant mode. And what do they do? They created some more havoc. And now look at them. Man, the ruble has devalued. Putin’s, what, 80 percent popular. Well, I don't know if he is still two weeks later but they’re not in good shape right now to say the least, not blaming it all on vodka necessarily.
Chris Martenson: Well yeah. And the point there is that if, what I’ve learned in my own life, is that there’s this role of narratives in shaping our experience. So one example I use is like I’ll be walking down the street and somebody walks by me I don't know and they laugh just as they go by me. Now, one narrative I might run in my head is like, "oh, I love being around people who are happy. That just brightened my day. I am now going to carry that forward. That’s great. My day is now improved." I could have a different narrative that says, "wow, that person just laughed me. That was a crushing sort of a moment. How did they see through me and see this worthless person inside? And my day is destroyed." So that’s just a very gross example of these narratives.
We have a bunch of cultural narratives running that people are starting to really disconnect from and it creates profound senses of unease because we’re social creatures. But if your main narrative of your culture is, "oh, we’re just going to grow our economy forever." But you now are beholden—you’re a holder of information that says, "hey, wait a minute. You can’t grow anything forever without getting into trouble. Hey, I see signs of trouble of all around us. When are we going to face up to this?" And you discover that your dominant culture is refusing to even begin to face that conversation, but you’re holding this information yourself and it's a very awkward conversation to have because guess what? Not many people want to have it but you’re holding this information.
And so these narratives I’m finding more and more in our work where people’s individual narratives are starting to calve off and separate from the cultural narrative, which says "the Kardashians are the most important things, the Super Bowl is your equivalent of Easter now, and oh we happen to torture some folks from time to time." If you no longer believe in those things but believe instead that there’s a—that we can build a more prosperous future but the first thing we have to do is shift our story, right? And our story might be we are not consumers anymore. We’re stewards. That’s a pretty big narrative shift right there. So the question is around how would people begin to work with their own personal sense of separation from the dominant narrative and the discomfort that it causes if not dissonance at times?
John Arden: Well yeah. What you just described was kind of very neuroscience based too in that if they say, "oh my god, that guy is talking about me. I don't know. Geez. I feel really terrible." That’s a right prefrontal over activation, withdrawal, and negative thinking, and all that. Because what we know is the right prefrontal is all about withdrawal and negative thinking and avoidance. And on the other hand, the positive reaction was, "well hey, that’s great to be around all these positive people and all that." So you’re leaning into the world. Then you talked about how, well geez, there are all these fluctuating economic indicators out there. So what are you going to do? Are you going to hunker down and move to Northern Idaho and join the militia? Because the world and the government is heading for you or something like that? Well, that’s a right prefrontal reactive over activated amygdala mode. Well, that’s not too practical either. On the other hand, are you going to go, "well, the Kardashians are cool and I’m just going to throw my money and give all these Wall Street characters my money and everything?" No, you've got to be balanced in your reaction. And so you’ve got to be engaged in a practical sort of way. I mean from my point of view that hunkering down and just being into a total paranoia stance is I don’t think too practical.
On the other hand, this world ahead of us is far more complex than probably ever because so many more dynamics are—it's much more of a global world than it's ever been. So that means we got to be engaged but know when not to kind of be too trusting. Frankly, the people on Wall Street, I think Elizabeth Warren is right. I mean we just are a little bit too trusting. "Don’t touch them, too much government intervention." Wait a minute. Government has a place here. And I don’t trust them, no. So we need to balance the two hemispheres. And we all have a difference of opinions about all this from a political perspective. But I think from an individual perspective not being too reactive and too avoidant doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. And not being too trusting on the other hand makes a lot sense either but what you need is a balance between the two and be far more shrewd and engaged to be adaptive in the future.
Chris Martenson: And so what are the practices for engagement? I mean is this a matter of people deciding to become engaged and going out and maybe breaking some of their old patterns and trying new things? Or is there something more—how would people go about doing that?
John Arden: Well, let me just kind of talk in the world that I know less about and that you know far more about, the economic world. And so here I am some guy ready to retire from the Kaiser Permanente system. And I’m going to go on and hopefully keep on working in a different sort of way. Well, had I retired maybe 30—if I was a different generation, I probably would have been somebody that would have been a little bit more complacent about the way things are and "don’t worry about it. I don’t have to pay attention to what’s going on in Russia and the value of the ruble and all." Now it actually has an effect on me. The world is different. So I don’t want to approach my concern about the global economy from a paranoic perspective but rather a fascinating and engaging way. So it does have an effect on me in terms of what I have my 401K in by paying attention to what’s going on globally. And it's not because I'm super panicked about it but frankly it's fascinating. And at the same time it's practical. Do you see what I mean? So from my point of view as little as I know about the global economy, I am fascinated by it and learning about it from people like you and other people that know more about it because it's more relevant to me than it ever has been before. And that’s called engagement. But is it engaged like a super investor? No. I don’t have that kind of knowledge.
But I want to be a little bit more realistic about the way the world is unfolding. We’re touching on climate change, for example, big economic upheaval in the years to come. Well, maybe what I want to do is make sure that my portfolio, meaning my 401K and what I’m living on and all that, is positioned in such a way to kind of cushion any kind of weird fluctuations. We’re seeing the stock market fly all over the place and everything. Well, maybe I might want to learn a little bit more. That calls for engagement not by going off and getting an MBA like you and other people have done but maybe just paying attention a little bit more and being more receptive.
Chris Martenson: Absolutely! Well, by the way, you’re the perfect candidate. I’m going to send you the link to our accelerated crash course so you can watch all our whole framework of how we think about this. You’re the perfect candidate because when people say "how would you describe yourself?" because often I get this lead off question when I’m in the media or something like that. Because they want to say "are you a survivalist who lives in Idaho?" And I say "no, I’m a normal guy. I’ve got kids and I live in a suburban area. I’m a realistic optimist though." And so I’m still a very hopeful kind of a guy but I have a lot of realism injected in that because there’s a lot of things we have to be realistic about today. And so that’s been my own personal balancing act is how to live with all of this material and try and make sense of it, distill it down into things that are actionable. Because something that I found in my own life, and I’ve helped other people with this is, let’s say that with respect to your 401K, you’ve sort of been avoiding it. You know you probably should be looking at it more carefully but you haven’t done anything about it yet. And all of a sudden you start reading things about what Wall Street really does and that they’re crooks and that they just—every chance they get they steal stuff. And they’re scorpions in the scorpion and the frog metaphor, right? That’s just who they are, right?
So in that gap between what you know about Wall Street and the level of action that you have or haven’t taken in your 401K, if there’s a gap there, that’s where anxiety and fear actually live. And so when I counsel people, I say "the way you close—you can’t unlearn what you know. The only way that you can close that anxiety gap is by changing what you do. That’s where the action comes in." And so to me that’s where sort of the information, the education, and the action if it all comes together. That’s how we can go about starting to minimize our personal sense of anxiety about the situation by controlling what we can and then hopefully releasing whatever we can about the stuff we can’t control. Then that’s the balancing act right there.
John Arden: Very good. I think that was very well put.
Chris Martenson: Well, thank you.
John Arden: And certainly relevant to a person like me [laughter].
Chris Martenson: Well, excellent. Well listen, we’ve come up on our time here. And, I just want to make sure that people can find you and find your book and read more. So where would they go?
John Arden: Well, I guess you could go to my website, Dr. John Arden. That’s just DrJohnArden.com. And I don't know what else to say. I feel kind of like I’m promoting myself. But I guess you can do that.
Chris Martenson: Well, you can do that.
John Arden: Yeah.
Chris Martenson: So The Brain Bible is your most recent book. And I see it's…
John Arden: Actually, yeah, my new book that’s coming out this month is called Brain2Brain. So the word "brain" with the number two with no gaps and then the word "brain" again. So Brain2Brain. And actually is it's your colleague, Chris’s wife, who came up with that title. And it's a great title, Brain2Brain.
Chris Martenson: Well, fantastic! Okay. Well, very good. So we’ve got a connection. You’re talking Chris Kresser, right?
John Arden: Yes. No, Taggart.
Chris Martenson: Oh Adam.
John Arden: Adam, you’re Chris. I’m sorry, Adam Taggart.
Chris Martenson: Oh, so it was Ashley who came up with that. Oh, that’s fantastic.
John Arden: Yes.
Chris Martenson: Oh, that’s good. Oh, excellent. Well, fantastic. Alright, so that creates a good connection right there. We’re getting our social connection part. We got the first S and we’re working it here.
John Arden: Right. Exactly!
Chris Martenson: Excellent! Well John, thank you so much for your time. This has just been absolutely fascinating and I can’t wait to see how people react to it and I would advise anybody listening to look at The Brain Bible, it's out, and Brain2Brain coming out soon. So with that, John thank you so much.
John Arden: Oh, I enjoyed it. It's a lot of fun.
Chris Martenson: Thank you.