Welcome to Pushing the Limits, the show that helps you reach your full potential with your host Lisa Tamati, brought to you by lisatamati.com.
Lisa Tamati: Well, hi, everyone, and welcome back to Pushing the Limits. I’m your host, Lisa Tamati. Today I have the legend Paul Taylor. Now Paul is a former British Royal Navy air crew officer. He's also a neuroscientist and exercise physiologist and a nutritionist. And he's currently completing a PhD in Applied Psychology, where he's developing and testing resilience strategies with the Australian Defence Science Technology Group and the University of Tasmania. This guy is an overachiever. He's done a whole lot of stuff in his life.
In 2010, Paul created and co-hosted the Channel One TV series Body & Brain Overhaul. And in 2015, he was voted Australian Fitness Industry presenter of the year. This guy has been there, done that, and you're going to really enjoy the conversation today—all around resilience. He has so much knowledge, and he is with us all today. So I hope you really enjoy this episode with Paul Taylor.
Now before we head over and talk to Paul, I just want to remind you, if you're wanting to check out our epigenetics, what we do with our gene testing program that we have, where you look at your genes, understand your genes and how to optimise your genes, and how they are being influenced by the environment and how to optimise your environment, then please head over to my website, lisatamati.com. Hit the Work with Us button. Then you'll see peak epigenetics, peak epigenetics and click that button and find out all about it. Every second week, we have a live webinar where we actually take you through what it's all about, what's involved and how it all works. So if you want to find out about that, just reach out to me. You can reach me at any time and the email@example.com. If you've got questions around in the episodes, if you want to know a little bit more about any other guests, or you want to find out about anything that we do, please reach out to us there.
I also want to let you know about the new anti-ageing and longevity supplement NMN that I'm importing. I had a couple of episodes with Dr. Elena Seranova, who's a molecular biologist who shares all the information about this incredible supplement and how it upregulates the sirtuin genes in the body and helps create more NAD. Lots of big words but very incredible. The information in those episodes is really incredible. And if you want to try out this longevity and anti-ageing supplement, have more energy, it helps with cardiovascular health, there's even some evidence now starting to looking into fertility. It works on a very deep level in the body and helps upregulate the sirtuin genes which are longevity genes, helps with DNA repair mitochondrial biogenesis, lots of really good stuff. You probably didn't catch all those words, but go and listen to those episodes.
The product is called Nicotinamide Mononucleotide. It’s fully natural, there’s no downside to this. Very safe to take and will slow the ageing process. If you want to find out a little bit more head on over to nmnbio.nz, that's nmnbio.nz. Right, enough for today. I'm going to send you right now over to Paul Taylor who's sitting in south of Melbourne.
Lisa: Well, hi everybody, Lisa Tamati here at Pushing The Limits. Super excited to have you. I'm just jumping out of my skin for excitement because today I have the legendary, Paul Taylor with me. Paul, how are you doing?
Paul Taylor: Hi, I'm bloody awesome. How the devil are you?
Lisa: Very excited to meet you. Paul is sitting in south of Melbourne, he tells me, in Wine Country. Is that right?
Paul: That's correct. Like any self-respecting Irishman, I moved to where they make the wine.
Lisa: An Irishman who lives in Australia, who is ex-British Royal Navy e-crew, neuroscientist, nutritionist, exercise physiologist—a bit of an overachiever, Paul. Crikey, could you do a little bit more, please? You're not doing enough.
Paul: Well, I’m currently doing a PhD in Applied Psychology, just to sort of finish it—round it all out. And I need to keep myself out of mischief.
Lisa: Crikey. I feel very intimidated right now. But I am very excited to have you on the show. Because I have come across you from our mutual friend Craig Harper, he is awesome. And I've been listening to your lectures and your work and your learnings, and just going, ‘Wow, this guy puts everything into such a lovely way - with stories and good analogies’. And so, I wanted to share you with my world, over here with my audience. So today, I wanted to do a bit of a deep dive.
But before we get into it, so you are doing a PhD in resilience. So, can you elaborate a little bit on the PhD you’re doing?
Paul: Yeah, so what I'm looking at is psychophysiological resilience, because I'm just bloody sick to the back teeth, hearing that resilience is all about gratitude, empathy, and mindfulness. And that stuff, it's important. But as I say, it's necessary, but it's not sufficient. And there is a large component of resilience that has to be earned. And that's the sort of stuff that I realized from my time in the armed forces.So, the positive side stuck is important. But there is a lot more to it. And I actually wanted to explore it and do the research on it.
And I'm very lucky that one of my supervisors, Eugene, is the principal scientist at Defence Science Technology Group. So, they work a lot with the military. And I'm actually doing—I'm just finishing off my first study with the military. So, it's pretty cool for me, having left the British military 16 years ago. Now, I’m doing resilience interventions with the Australian military.
Lisa: Wow, I mean, it just sounds absolutely amazing. What sort of things are you—because I agree, like, the gratitude and all that very, very important—but it is, you can't just decide. Like, positive thinking, ‘I'm going to be positive thinking’. It's like a little bit more complicated than that. We need to look at things at a deeper level. What is it that your PhD is actually researching? So, what is the study that you've just done, for example?
Paul: Yeah, so the one that we're doing, we basically—it's a pilot study. So, what we call a proof of concept. So, taking a bunch of military guys, and they've gone through training, so I did a full day's workshop, 34 hours with the guys. And then they went on to my app, to be able to sort of track behaviours and log habits and interact with each other and put the tools to the test. And so they did—they've done a survey on mental well-being, another survey on resilience, and another survey on burnout. So I'm actually looking at the interaction between your resilience levels, your mental well-being and your burnout, or risk of burnout in the workplace.
And what I'm hoping to do in further research is to develop further the model or the measurement criteria of resilience. Because at the minute, in the literature, it's just measured through a questionnaire, and it's pretty poor, really.
Lisa: Wow, yeah. Very subjective.
Paul: Yes, it just gets very subjective. And it's also influenced by—if you're doing a resilient survey, it's influenced by who is actually going to see that right. So, if you're doing it for your employer, a lot of people will actually think, ‘Oh, I better not answer this in a certain way, because there may be ramifications’. So there are limitations with any self-reported questionnaire.
But more lately, there's been some biological measures of resilience that have come out of University of Newcastle, which I'm actually going to be working with that group.
So, they've actually lived in something called an acoustic startle response, which is basically you'd be sitting with your headphones on, doing some sort of task. And every now and then there'd be this light noise going off in your headphones, and you'd be all wired up. And they'd look at your heart rate, your blood pressure, your galvanic skin response. And you see there's a spike from your autonomic nervous system, right?
And what they have actually shown is that people who have higher levels of resilience on these self-reported questionnaires, they actually—they acclimatized or they adapt quite quickly to that noise, whereas those who have got lower resilience or who maybe have PTSD or anxiety or depression, they don't habituate to it. So, they're still getting that response, right. So, and this is about what is actually going on in the brain, and particularly an area called the amygdala, that I'm sure we'll get into.
So, I'm looking at a sit back and develop a triangulated measure of resilience. We're taking that maybe acoustic startle and some of the self-reports stuff, and then performance on a cognitive battery when you're under pressure, right? So, trying to then get a triangulated measure or a new measure of resilience. That’s a very long winded—yeah, so we can measure it a bit more objectively.
Lisa: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And like, because you're working with, like, in Special Forces, I think, in the military. So these are guys that are under immense pressure situations. And looking at our military and vets and stuff, and a lot of them come back with PTSD, and all sorts of mental health issues. And these guys that are coming into this are tough characters, these are not—and then they're coming out with problems. And even not in military, but just in things like my husband's a firefighter. The stuff that they get to see every day. Like he's a really strong, resilient, resourceful human being, but I'm seeing the load, the PTSD sort of load that's coming up over years and years and years are starting to have some bigger ramifications.
Do you see that people that are like super hardcore tough, amazing, but when they are going into these repeated situations and being because usually like exposure therapy is one of the things we do to lower our stress response. If you don't like spiders, and you have to hold a spider every five minutes, you're going to get used to holding a spider, and it no longer will cause a response. By the same token, are you seeing this going flip the other way? Where you're actually getting worse from exposure?
Paul: Yeah, so there's a lot of academic research in this area, looking at not just PTSD, but also burnout. So, for me, there's that, there's a continuum of workplace burnout is linked in a way to post traumatic stress disorder, right? It's just that the exposure isn't as extreme. There's not that trauma, but it's the insidious, consistent exposure to stress that actually changes the brain. It changes the brain both structurally and functionally.
So what I mean by that is what we're seeing in both PTSD and anxiety and depression, by the way, and workplace burnout, with the advent of brain scanners, they're able to take a bunch of people and follow them for a long period of time—six months, a year, two years. Ask them about their stress levels, and then look and see, does the brain change over time? And what they're actually seeing in that people who are suffering from burnout or anxiety or depression or PTSD, there are significant, as I said, structural and functional changes in the brain.
So what I mean by that from a structural perspective, the amygdala, the part of the brain, one of its job is to sense and respond to stress, and it actually becomes bigger. And so there's increased cells, increased connections and hypertrophy, it's just like your muscles with hypertrophy. And I'll come back to that in a second why this is, right. But in concert with that, areas of their prefrontal cortex, that rational planning judgment part of the brain, and also, another area called the anterior cingulate cortex—they're actually shrinking. There’s damage to those neurons and there's less activity in those areas.
And what this means functionally, is it means it's a less-connected brain. And it means it's a brain that is less able to control emotional responses. So basically, the amygdala is starting to hijack the brain. The neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio, he's the first to show in his lab that with that repeated— if your amygdala becomes sufficiently activated, it can actually secrete chemicals to block your frontal lobes. Basically, it says, ‘Talk to the hand. I’m in control of this brain’. Right now we all know that as losing our shit, right? Things are hijacked. But when this is happening repeatedly, what's happening is that there are neuroplastic changes in the brain. Right? And we know that this even happens in unborn children, in fetuses, that if they're exposed to chronic stress in the third trimester, the amygdala will grow bigger and more sensitive. And if we think about it, it's an amazing adaptive response. Because it's basically, they're getting inputs through the placenta and stress hormones. If we're adults, we're getting input saying, ‘This is a dangerous word’. Right?
Lisa: Got to be vigilant.
Paul: Yeah, the brain is all about survival first, right? It's all about survival. So, and sometimes that adaptive response is maladaptive. Right? In that there are changes that no longer serve us, right? And so this is what happens with people get burnout, or anxiety, depression, PTSD, is that there are adaptive changes that turn maladaptive. And it's basically because the brain is being overwhelmed with stress, either way too much stress, in the case of trauma, or just bombardment. Daily bombardment with stress, and not enough recovery. And I know as a lead athlete, you know about the balance between stress and recovery and just dealing with what you’ve got.
Lisa: Never got it right.
Paul: And then you don’t, right?
Lisa: Burnout was my best friend. Yeah, there's a huge—because I studied genetics, there’s a huge genetic component to this as well.
Paul: There is, yeah.
Lisa: When you're looking at how long your adrenal, your stress hormones, for example, stay in the body, your COMT gene, your—the RD2 gene, the RD2B gene. Once they actually get the adrenaline, is it going to stay here in the body very long? Or is it going to be out? And they call it like the warrior gene and the worrier.
Paul: Worrier and warrior. When I say it, people go, ‘What’s the difference’? I go...
Lisa: Warrior as in a Maori warrior, and the other one as in worrying, worrying yourself to death. And there’s a genetic predisposition. And then you couple that with environmental, being overwhelmed with either an event or a series of events, or like you say, the constant bombardment. Because there's a question in my head, like, you and I, there’s history, we've both been in some pretty freakin’ scary situations in life. And those are certain traumas that you've been through and you've carried. But then there is a daily shit that goes on.
Like something that I'm dealing with currently is like, I don't know, but the level of anxiety sometimes is like as high just because I feel like a computer with a million windows open. And it's got inputs coming up. And there's so many—you're trying not to drop the ball, and you're wearing so many hats on so many levels. So that's a different type of anxiety. And it's—and that one that like the big, major ones that you've been through, they sort of self-explanatory that you've got problems with those. But these little ones can be quite damaging too, daily on the mind.
Paul: Absolutely. And I like your analogy about having a million windows open. And that's really modern life, is it's just input overload for a lot of people. And it's, even we know that reading the news a lot, and the negativity particularly around COVID is just bad juju, right? Particularly if you are predisposed, or you have underlying anxiety. Then we've got kids, we got that juggle, we got kids and parents, right? And we got work stresses, we got money worries, we got relationship issues. These are all things that our ancestors didn't really have to deal with. Right? And our stress response system has evolved over the last 2 million years in our ancestors in response to certain challenges. Right, so three minutes of screaming terror on the African savanna when you're being chased by a lion—that's your fight or flight mechanism. And then longer term or really traumatic stress, but mostly longer term stress, like famine. And that's the HPA axis and cortisol.
And as you rightly said, different people are different. There's genetic predispositions to which one is dominant, how quick the clearing is. But there's also that, as you rightly say, and a lot of people don't understand this, is that the interaction between nature and nurture. That just because you have a certain variant of a gene, it predisposes you—it doesn't mean you're going to develop that, there needs to be that event. And then we know that those events, when they happen early in life, tend to have a bigger impact. Right?
Lisa: So children exposed to trauma are in much deeper in the shit than others
Paul: Can be. Unless they have the presence of a caring, supportive adult, often, they can get through it and end up being more resilient. Or they've got a certain variant of a gene, that when they're exposed to stress as a kid, they end up more resilient as an adult. So, it's a really complicated thing.
And the thing that I also talk about a lot of people don't, is it also depends on other environmental factors going on. Like what's your nutrition like? Like, what's your sleep like? What's your exercise like? All of those things are hugely, hugely important. It’s a really complicated story, as to whether someone and develop some psychopathology because of exposure to either trauma, or just that insidious day to day stress—what we call de-stress versus used stress, which I'm sure we'll get into.
Lisa: Yeah, now that's absolutely exciting because I mean, I preach a lot about doing the fundamentals right. Getting a sleep—at the basis of everything is good quality sleep. And that's not easy. It's not always an easy simple thing.
Paul: But check if you're under stress, right?
Lisa: Yeah, yeah, because your brain won't bloody turn off. And studying the gamma and dopamine and adrenaline and norepinephrine and all these chemicals that are running out and they're actually controlling us to a large degree, or at least when we're unaware of their influence on the body. But there are things that we can actually do to actually help regulate our own physiology.
So I mean, guys and girls in the armies, in the military, have to do this. Or even like I watch my husband and my brother—they’re firefighters—when they're under an emergency situation, three o'clock in the morning, called to a bloody accident, someone's trapped in a burning car type of situation. Like, my husband's just so cool and calm and collected in that moment, like he's completely present. And in daily life, he's quite a shy, introverted dude, right. But when the shit hits the fan, I've seen his like, he doesn't put on a cabbage head. When I looked at his genetics, he doesn't have that predisposition to having adrenaline much. He doesn't have much of an adrenal response. So he'll come up for a minute, and then he'll be back down very quickly, and he’ll be able to control it. And he also understands, I've taught him more about breathing and all that sort of jazz to help regulate your cortisol and all of that sort of stuff. But it is a predisposition.
My predisposition, I have a hell of a lot of adrenaline, testosterone up the wazoo, dopamine. I tend to start really responding and taking action. But I have to actually turn on the prefrontal cortex. I have to really focus on that and not just fly around like a blue ass fly going just running into the burning building without thinking about what the hell I'm doing. So, two different responses—and both are very good responses in a way, if you can learn to manage them and control them and bring them on at the right time.
Paul: Yeah, and look, that's where the training element comes into, right? And so, irrespective of what your underlying genetics are, through military training or police or firefighters, they are trained in these situations routinely. And the brain sort of habituates to it and you learn strategies to be effective under that pressure, what we call arousal control strategies, right. So, whether that is—an arousal control can be both ways can be—for people who are generally low, can be getting them up to the right level of arousal. And for people who are a bit too overactive, bringing their arousal down, so they're in that peak performance zone.
Let's say the neuroscientist Amy Ornstein talked about Goldilocks and the Goldilocks effect of stress in the brain. That it can't be too little, because when you're bored or you're under arousal, your performance is just not going to be optimal. But also it can’t be too much. And everybody's got a level of arousal that is too much.
Lisa: Wow. That's a cool analogy. I like that, Goldilocks.
Paul: It's a wonderful analogy. And she's shown, looks at the neurotransmitters that are involved in that—and particularly looking at dopamine and noradrenaline, or norepinephrine, as some people call it, how they're really important in that regulation. But as I say, training, specific training and repetition, can really help people just to get into an automated response. And no matter what their genetic predisposition.
Lisa: So if someone is prone to a lot of anxiety, and maybe depression, what are some of the practical—like, if we start talking a few practical strategies now for people dealing with different issues — and let's start with anxiety and maybe depression—what are some of the things that they can do when their amygdala hijacks you? How do you get a grip on yourself and actually change the physiology? Because you feel some big noise happens, or an earthquake happens, or something and you've got that adrenaline just poured out and you’ve got all this stress cortisol and all that, how do you bring yourself down quickly, get yourself under control? So you don't end up in a panic attack, for example?
Paul: Yeah, so there's both short-term strategies and there's long term adaptive strategies, right? So, and I'll go into both of those things. First of all, it's important to understand what's going on, right? So this is about the autonomic nervous system. And there are—some of your listeners will be aware of this, but there's two branches of the autonomic nervous system. There's the sympathetic nervous system, and the parasympathetic. And the sympathetic is probably badly labelled because it's not very sympathetic, right? It's the one that increases stress, right?
So, and if we think about the response that's going on—so in the brain, the amygdala senses a threat, it sets off a general alarm. And then, the hypothalamus is involved in this, the sympathetic branches is fired up. And for some people, it fires up more than others. But for everybody, when that's fired up, and the vagus nerve is really quite important in this, that's the nerve that connects the brain to the heart, the lungs and all the visceral organs, right? So and the blood pressure goes up, heart rate goes up in order to pump blood to the muscles to give you the fight and runaway, right. And additionally, breathing gets faster and shallower. And then, we know your digestive system is affected and all the blood that is in your digestive system, digesting your food...
Lisa: Your peristalsis.
Paul: It’s shunted away. It’s shunted away to the working muscles, right, we know the immune system is temporarily switched off, the reproductive system’s temporarily switched off because there's no point in ovulating or creating sperm when you're being chased by a lion. It’s a waste of energy, right?
If we think for a second about the long-term consequences when people are in a chronic state of overarousal, even if that's just low baseline overarousal. So, I have a suppressed reproductive system. This is why people who are chronically stressed, and they become infertile. Right? Boom. And this is why they develop digestive system issues like irritable bowel syndrome and stuff like that, which we know can change your microbiome. And then there's a two-way interaction, which we'll talk about later. And the immune system becomes suppressed. That's why people develop—they get sick, and they take longer to recover, whether it's from a wound, whether it's from training load, or whether it's from any type of illness or injury. And then heart damage can happen, right, and with that chronic stress. So that's over activation of the sympathetic branch, and particularly the vagus nerve, right?
What we now know is it's only taken our scientists about 3,000 years to catch up with the knowledge of Yogi's, right? Yeah, exactly. Certain breathing patterns can affect your heart and your brain. And I used to think, all that breathing, I used to think it was fluffy bullshit. Until I get into the science—and Jesus, how wrong was I?
Lisa: Me, too. I must admit, and now I'm doing it 100 times a day.
Paul: Yeah, exactly. So, techniques like box breathing. I'm sure your listeners have probably heard you talk about it.
Paul: Yeah, breathe in like the sides of a box. Breathe in for four or five seconds, hold for four or five, out for four or five, hold for four or five. And you can also do a modified box breathe, which is in for four, hold for four, out for six, hold for two. And I'll talk about that in a second. There's also something called resonant frequency breathing, which is also really, really beneficial and can actually enhance your what's called heart rate variability, which is a kind of a window into overall stress on the body.
So, reso-frequency being—you need some equipment to measure it effectively. But generally, everybody listening is probably between four and a half, five breaths and seven breaths a minute. And it's been shown that if you get within one of that, then you could. So I teach people, just generally six breaths a minute, right? So that's 10-second breath cycle, but breathe in for four and out for six. Because the longer breath out—when you breathe in, you are up regulating your sympathetic nervous branch, right? When you breathe out, you're activating the parasympathetic nervous branch. So, the long breath out is really, really key, which is why I talk about the modified box breathing as well. So that resonant frequency breathing, or box breathing can be really, really useful to deal with stuff in and of the moment. Just—it's basically autonomic nervous system controlled through breathing, that’s it.
Lisa: Control your physiology in seconds.
Paul: And the other thing that goes in concert with that, and my wife uses a lot of this, she's qualified in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in Japanese psychology. And we're both fans of stoic philosophy. And it is about attention, and all three of these great agree that attention is key. So if we take a step back, people who have anxiety or depression, or just have a beasty mind, they've got a lot of negative self-talk going on, they want to get rid of it, right? But these three approaches, and as they say, look, getting rid of it, it's not really the objective. It's really about where you focus your attention.
So, if you think of your attention, like a light, and when you're in that stress response, your attention, and it is very internal focused, if you're anxious or depressed, or you're stressed about something that's on that particular thing. But it's an internal experience that you're having. So just shifting your attention outward. If you're not in danger, this is—you just have an anxiety, depression, whatever, just look for the colour blue. That's one thing. Just shine the light of your attention somewhere else.
Lisa: Like a naughty kid who’s having a tantrum. Just distract them.
Paul: Yeah, absolutely. And I call that part of the brain your inner gremlin, that’s responsible for anxiety, depression. And but also just negative self-talk and self-criticism, and anger — all of these things. And the key thing to understand is your gremlin’s like a chameleon, right? It can take many guises. But it's like, if you remember the movie Gremlins, when you feed Mogwai after midnight, it becomes energised and turns into the Gremlin. So, when you shine the light of your attention on the gremlin, it becomes energised. So this is where you just shift your attention either to where's the colour blue or what can I smell?
Lisa: Or breathing.
Paul: Or we like to—or your breathing—yeah, that's another great combination. And I like to talk about shifting your attention to the concept of your inner siege, which is what the Stoic philosophers talked about. That's the optimal version of you. And that's either my best self, me at my best, or some sort of other character that I'm consulting.
Lisa: Ah, yes, I heard you talk about this on Craig’s show. And I was like, that analogy that you use, like there was one with your son, Oscar. And him talk, having Derek, I think it was...
Paul: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, Derek. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Lisa: So creating a character around these two polarizing figures. I’m always talking about the lion and the snake in my head. Or Wonder Woman in this chicken shit, who’s me. And we all have this positive, amazing self. And we have the self that's full of self-doubt and imposter syndrome, and I can't do this, and angry, and negative, and cynical. And so it's creating a character. So tell that story a little bit.
Paul: Yeah. So the character thing is really, really powerful. And so I get people to—you've got to bring this character to life, right? So there's a little exercise, which I'll share with you. And you can share with your listeners where, so I call them your inner Gremlin and your inner siege, right? Or you can say whatever you want. So, what do they say first thing in the morning, right? You write that down. Generally your inner Gremlin is the one that says, ‘Press snooze’ or ‘Not another bloody day’, right? But then you go, what do they say when they're faced with a challenge? And then you write down their character strengths and particularly, you focus on your inner siege, what are the character strengths that you have when you're at your best?
And then I like to do a thing called plus ones. Like what are ones that you'd like to develop or have more of? And you write down. So, if it's calm under pressure or being more empathetic, I'm going to write down that my inner siege is calm under pressure, is more empathetic, right?
And then drawing the characters is a brilliant thing because it brings it to life. And Oscar when he drew the characters, he drew Derek and he drew Flash, who has now actually being replaced with Richie. A little side story. I actually bought a book called The Real McCaw from Richie McCaw because I am a big fan of the All Blacks, and particularly Richie McCaw. And I bought his book, and I was wanting to read it, and it friggin’, it disappeared, and I couldn't find where it was. And one night, I went down to Oscar’s room. He was supposed to be asleep, and he's there reading. And he's reading that book. He'd nicked it from me, and he had a highlighter. He's 10 years old, and he's highlighting stuff what Richie McCaw said, right. So now, his inner siege is called Richie, right?
But when he drew these original ones, he actually did a speech bubble for Derek and it said, ‘I will crush the good ones and I will be the king of Oscar’s head’. How cool is that?
Lisa: And he’s 5 or something.
Paul: No, he was seven at a time.
Lisa: 7. Oh my god. But I mean, the hard cold, maybe 6, actually. But sometimes kids are so insightful. Because that's what happens, right, is that when that negative character takes a hold of the negative self-talk, it does crush the good self-talk, kind of becomes the king of your head. If you choose to let it, right?
Paul: So my inner siege is called, Jeff. So when I'm struggling, or I need to get myself up, I just go ‘What would Jeff do right now’? Right? And so this is a process in psychology called self-distancing, where you're taking yourself out of the emotional state, and you consult a character or my best friend or whatever, and it actually shows it reduces the emotional intensity. And research shows that people make better choices. They're more courageous, and they make better choices, right. And so that's one, I think, really useful way to shine the light of your attention. So, the process that I use, depending on who's around, right, if someone's having a bit of an anxiety or just a bit of negative stuff, I like discharge, recharge, reframe. So think about it, it’s stress hormones, right? If somebody’s having an anxiety, get it out. You got to discharge those stress hormones. When you run away...
Lisa: Go for a run.
Paul: ...you come back to homeostasis, right. And I find, even 30 seconds of intense activity is enough. So, you discharge the stress hormones, then you recharge by your breathing, right. So you're doing that breathing and you're focusing on your breathing. And then, so your amygdala hijack is gone now. Use you're focusing on the breathing, and then you reframe and you go, ‘Okay, what would Jeff do right now’? Or ‘What would my character do right now’? Or, if I've written down all my character strengths, what action do I need to take right now to display those characteristics? Right? So the Japanese psychology, Morita Therapy, there's this beautiful term called, arugamama, right? It is what it is. And then they say, ‘What needs to be done’? And the stoics are very much like that — what do we need to do right now? So it's very action focused. Right? And so that is something that I think works for me well.
Lisa: Yeah. Because it sort of removes yourself so that you're looking—it's like looking down on yourself. Because this brain of ours is like a thought factory, it just keeps going and talking and chattering and go, go, go, go. And yeah, emotions take over, amygdala often is in control of our prefrontal cortex. And if we can separate ourselves and sort of hover over ourselves—and I've been looking into stuff like what happens after death because I just recently lost my dad and all those questions. ‘How do I connect to my dad on the other side’? All of that sort of jazz that nobody can bloody answer, really.
Paul: Yeah, if you get the answer, let me know.
Lisa: Yeah, I’m working on it. I'm really trying to get it out. But a lot of talking about the connection to the other side and opening up those channels, and to me, it's like, okay. So just from a brain point of view, if I just separate myself out from my brain, like, if you believe that we are a spiritual being and so our brain, our body, we're just walking around in this earthly body, but we have a higher self, if you like. So, it’s this higher self looking at that brain going, ‘Oh she's running that stupid program again that she learned when she was seven. It's no longer relevant here, I need to change the recording, and I need to change up’.
So it's just giving yourself a way of separating yourself from the actual emotions that your body is feeling, your physiology is feeling like now. And for me, a lot of it is, when I get anxious and stuff, I will just go and sprint for 50 metres. Like you say, it doesn't have to be long, it might be 2 minutes. It just comes back, reset myself. Sometimes if it's a really bad situation or whatever, I'll have a little cry that discharges more energy. And then I pick myself up and we'll get on with it, and we'll do a breathing, and we'll get back into gear. And just having those little tools in your toolbox can really help you manage the day-to-day crap that comes at us. And even in the big situations, the really traumatic ones, I've used those situations regularly—just remove myself for a minute from the situation, go and get my shit together. And then come back into the situation. And that can really help if you have the luxury of doing that.
So, I think these are really, really important because people often think, well, they look at someone like you and all your achievements and all stuff that you've done—or even in all the races that I've done. ‘No, never. I could never do that’. And that's your automatic negative thoughts coming in, your angst, as Dr. Daniel Amen talks about, they just pop up. And you need to realize that that isn't you, that's just your brain doing its thing. And you can choose not to believe that brain when it tells you you're not good enough, or you're not sexy enough, or you're not pretty enough, you're not strong enough, whatever the case may be. You can go, ‘No, I'm not listening to that’. And I'm diverting, and what you're saying, is divert your attention.
Paul: Yeah, absolutely. And those answers are automatic negative thoughts. In Morita Therapy, Japanese psychology, it's basically, it’s a story. It's a story that we tell ourselves, and there are a number of different stories. And it depends what story we pay attention to. And because when you pay attention to a particular story, when we think about what's happening in the brain, that self-concept, or that idea that ‘I'm not good enough’, is basically what we call a neural net in the brain, right? It's a bunch of neurons that are firing together for a concept or a thought or a particular line of thinking.
And the Scottish neuroscientist Donald Hebb showed in the 1950s, it's called Hebbian Learning. And it's a well-accepted way of the brain works, nerve cells that fire together, wire together. Right? So every time you're repeating that thought, or paying attention to it, you're strengthening it. And he showed that eventually, after a certain amount of repetitions—and we don't know the magic number—but that circuit becomes what's called long-term potentiation. This means that this circuit is primed for firing. And it means that then even neutral information is more likely to fire off that circuit, right? And every time you're paying attention to it, you're strengthening it.
So, the other approach is to go, ‘Thanks, Gremlin’, or ‘Thanks, brain. Thanks for that story that you're telling me. But it's not helpful right now’. Right. And that's where you focus on another story, or a particular affirmation that people might have. A different story, I've got this, whatever, it's another neural net. And every time you're focusing on it, and paying attention to it, you're strengthening it, right? So it's about interrupting the old and maladaptive, unhelpful thought patterns...
Lisa: That we all have.
Paul: ...and actually creating new ones. And every time you catch yourself—this is why the first part of all of this is about being the watcher. It's about being the watcher in your own brain. And for lots of people, this is a frigging revelation, that they can actually watch their thoughts, and do it with curiosity. And go, ‘Wow, there's an interesting negative thought. And that's an interesting negative’...
Lisa: Great example!
Paul: Yeah. And then be curious and go, ‘Well, what would a more positive thought actually be’? Right? So you can trick yourself into having these positive thoughts and every time you're doing it, you're laying down and strengthening those networks in the brain, right? So like anything, like you didn't become awesome at what you did by doing it once and then boom, that's it. It's about repetition, repetition, repetition.
So, really the first step is being the watcher, and then just repeatedly intervening, and going, ‘Actually, I have a choice’, right? And what's called in Acceptance Commitment Therapy, the choice point. And Viktor Frankl talked about it, the Jewish psychiatrist who was imprisoned in Auschwitz. And I read his book as a 17-year-old, had a pretty profound effect on me. He said, in between stimulus and response, is the space where we have the ability to choose. And he talked about the last of human freedoms, is your ability to choose how you react to your circumstances, whether they be external circumstances or circumstances in your head, we all have that ability to choose how we're reacting, right. And choosing what we actually focus on. And it's this light of attention, that I think is really, really powerful.
So when we wrap it all up in those characters, and then we're repeatedly doing it, and then people are waking up in the morning, and actually spending a few minutes saying, ‘Okay, who am I going to be today? What version of me is going to interact with the world’? And every time they observe negativity going, ‘Well, I say I've got a choice right now. What would Jeff do right now’? Right? Before they walk into their office, and just before you walk in the door, just think, ‘What do I need to do to express those characteristics of my best self’? And especially when you come home, particularly if you've had a shitty day, you just spend 10 or 15 seconds going, ‘Okay, there's a choice here and what version of me, do my partner, my little kids want to see walk into the room’? Right?
And it's just that little mental rehearsal, as you'll have done hundreds of thousands of times as an athlete and every world class athlete does this mental rehearsal because that shit works. Get your game face on.
Lisa: Get your game face. I have this analogy and I've told this story before on the podcast but when I was doing this race in the Himalayas and absolutely terrified, 222 K's of extreme altitude...
Paul: Jesus Christ!
Lisa: And I’m an asthmatic with a small set of lungs, who did mostly deserts for a particular reason. And I was absolutely packing myself, and I got my crew together like two days before and I said, ‘You have to protect me, my brain. You have to like tell me how amazing I am. Every time a negative thought comes up, I want you to sort of shout it down for me and protect me from everyone else’.
And on the day of the actual event, they did that and they really helped me get my shit under control because I was really losing it. Like I was just terrified I'd had a concussion in the build-up, I'd had to rip some ligaments, so I hadn't had a good build up. And it was the scariest thing I've done at the time. And I've done some other scary crazier shit but that was pretty up there.
And on race day, you wake up and you have that moment for a second where you go, ‘Oh shit. It’s that day’. That day you've been preparing for, for a year and a half, but it's that day and you've got to get up and face down 222Ks in the mountains in extreme temperature, extreme altitude, and no air and things. And I'm putting on my gear, and then that person changes. When I put on my running gear...
Paul: That’s your thing. Right.
Lisa: It’s my thing. That's my ritual.
Paul: That’s your siege.
Lisa: When I put on a number, there's a different person in front of you. And that person is a freaking warrior.
Paul: Machine, yeah.
Lisa: Yeah, in my head. I’m not, but I am in my head, in that moment, I am Wonder Woman. I'm Gal Gadot. I can do any freaking thing and I’m telling myself the story, I'm telling myself the story in order to create the chemicals in my body that I need just to get to the freaking start line and not run the other way because I'm terrified.
And then, once you start and you're in the battle, you're in the battle. You're in it. There's no way out but through. And then you have to bring in all the guns. Over the period of the next 53 hours, I had to bring out all of the stock, sort of things, to get through every crisis that came. And these voices in your head are pretty freaking loud after 50 something hours out there.
Paul: That they bloody well are, yeah.
Lisa: Yeah, but when you go—because one of the other analogies that I wanted to bring up that you talked so well about in one of the interviews was the small circle and the big circle. And the small circle is your comfort zone. That's you, that's the life that you're living when you're in your comfy world and you're not pushing outside the zone. And you’re staying safe because you're too frightened to jump out into the big circle is what you can be, and your potential.
But out there, in that big circle, it's freaking scary, it's hard work, it's terrifying, there’s risk of failure, there's all sorts of things. And everybody wants to be that big person that does these, lives this full life, that reaches their—none of us will reach our full potential, but we're reaching a heck of a lot of potential. And not living in the safe, little comfortable, ‘I'm scared’ world. And pushing yourself every single today to do shit that hurts, that’s hard, scares the crap out of you. And then coming back and recovering.
Paul: It’s critical, right? And I called that big circle, our scientists will refer to that as the zone of productive disequilibrium, right?
Lisa: Those are scientists’ words?
Paul: Yeah, exactly. So you're out of balance, you're out of whack. But it is where adaptation happens. And this is the problem. So we are by our very nature, we are comfort seekers, right. And just because all of our history has been of discomfort, and so it's pretty natural that we're comfort seekers. The problem is that we have an ancient genome in a modern world. Our genome hasn't changed in 45,000 years, right. And for the vast majority of our human history, we had lots of discomfort, life was uncomfortable, and we became the dominant species on Earth, largely because we adapted better to environmental stressors and pressures than other species right.
Now, what's happened in the last 100 years since the Industrial Revolution, particularly in the last 30 years, is that we have stopped adapting to our environment, and we've started changing it. And recently, we've changed our environment to such a level that we're no longer optimally matched to it genetically, right. So when we seek comfort, we get soft, we develop a soft underbelly. And this is what a lot of the positive psychology people do not talk about, is that getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.
And you can just do this, quite simply, if you're sitting listening to this, think of your biggest achievement in your life, something that you are most proud of. And I guarantee you, for almost every listener, it will involve stress and being out of your comfort zone. But we need to hang with the tension long enough for adaptation to happen. And lots of people spend most of their life in that little small circle, the comfort zone, and they dip their toe into the uncomfortable zone of productive disequilibrium. They go, ‘This is uncomfortable. I'm getting right out of here’. No good shit ever happened in your comfort zone. Right?
Lisa: It’s a quote from Paul Taylor, ‘No good shit ever happens in your comfort zone’. You gotta put that one on the wall.
Paul: It’s like past 2am. Right? That's the thing, no good shit happens there. So, it is about seeking discomfort. And one of my things, which you actually exemplify much better than me, but it’s that get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Right? Yeah, that's really key. And I think we have, as a generation, particularly in the West, we have got comfortable with being comfortable. And we are comfort seekers.
Lisa: Getting cosy all the time.
Paul: It's all, it's served up to us everywhere. And we're prompted to buy things and do things that make us comfortable. And it's natural to want to go there. But it's not self-serving.
Lisa: But our biology isn't, our epi genome isn't suited.
Paul: Absolutely not.
Lisa: Getting out of that thermoneutral zone, for example, like cold showers, cold water, hot. All of these things that are outside the neutral zone are where the change happens, from a physiological point of view. If I hop into a sauna, I'm going to create heat-shock proteins, I’m gonna sweat. That's going to cause all this cascade of events in my body that will make me stronger. The next time when I go to the gym and I work out with weights, then I'm going to be sore and I'm going to be breaking down the tissues. What happens is a cascade of events that makes me stronger for next week.
Paul: And here's the thing, right, that if somebody wants, if somebody goes one, if someone hasn’t been trained for ages and particularly, they’re bloke. And they go riding got to get back and then they go to a CrossFit class or F 45 hard core. And they go, ‘Jesus. That was ridiculous. I'm never doing that again’. But then you're not going to adapt, right? You only get bigger, faster, stronger, because you hang with the tension long enough for adaptation to happen right.
Now, seeking comfort, we should do that when we're in recovery, right? But a lot of people, and we should really define the difference between recovery and relaxation. Right? Recovery isn't sitting with your feet up with a bottle of wine watching Netflix, right? Recovery is stuff that is actually energising you, right? It’s doing the breathing stuff, it’s doing the meditation, doing the tai chi, the qi gong, those sorts of things, yoga. Or for some people, it's drawing, it's reading a book, it's connecting with others, it's gardening, it's spending time in nature. These are all things that really help us with that balance between stress and recovery. And when, if we get that right, the stress becomes used stress. And if we are just exposed to that too much or don't get the recovery, right, it's de stress. And then we can go into burnout/overtraining syndrome, which then when you look at the physiology between overtrained athletes and burnt out executives and depressed people, it’s almost identical.
Lisa: Yeah. And like, I've had to try to get my head around this because when you're an athlete—and I grew up in a household where being tough was cool. And physical toughness and mental toughness were what was valued and what was rewarded in my family. So therefore, I have this complete construct in my head that if you're not tough, and you're not hard ass all the time, then you're useless. And I had to deconstruct that a little bit because that lead me to burnout, that broke me, that lead to hell of a lot of pain in sickness and all sorts of things.
Now, as I'm hopefully older and wiser, I know that my body also has a full on and it has to have a full off. And that recovery is really important. And that recovery can be cuddling the cat, it can be going to the beach with my husband and just staring at the waves for half an hour to recover. It doesn't have to be something epic, and it can be something like the sauna or your hyperbaric over the air, or something like that, that's physically going to help me recover or mentally help me recover. And those are as important—and not feeling guilty for not being hard ass all of the time. Because a lot of my listeners are athletes and people that like to push hard all the time, type A personalities. And that can be, have the flip side, when you're just outside your comfort zone all the time you’re pushing too hard for too long without any recovery as well.
Paul: And you know, there’s some interesting emerging neuroscience in this area is that people who are like that, who are those type A personalities, who are very goal driven, they tend to be very dopamine driven. Whereas when you get that out of whack, that balance between dopamine and serotonin, and it's not good, and it leads to risk of burnout. So serotonin, to simplify things really, dopamine is all about achievement. It's about goal directed behaviour and motivation. So it's pushing you to do, do, achieve, achieve, in that context, right?
Lisa: Get that reward.
Paul: But then, there is this whole serotonin driven system, which is more about contentment, relaxation and connection, that sort of stuff. And I find that there are a lot of high achievers who are at risk of burnout because they're just on, on, on. And not enough serotonin focus stuff, but just contentment, relaxation, connection with others, time in nature, all of that sort of stuff.
Lisa: And that can be genetic, too.
Paul: Absolutely. There are genes that will influence where your brain is wired. And then there's upbringing as well, that goes into it. And so, it's really about trying to discover that balance. And that balance is different for different people. Right? That’s the thing, that we all need to find our own. But it's just—it is getting the understanding that proper active recovery is not about sitting, drinking wine watching Netflix, right? That's relaxation, there's a place for it.
Lisa: There's a place for that, too.
Paul: And I’m not saying you don't do it. But I'm saying, we need to think about recovery. We need to think particularly around sleep hygiene, you mentioned that earlier on, how crucial that is. You need to think about exercise. I mean, you mentioned heat shock proteins, which I'm in love with heat and cold shock proteins.
Lisa: Yeah. Me, too.
Paul: Because they—not only do they drive stress adaptation. But there is some evidence and I see, there's going to be a shitload more right? Because in the military, the British military, British Navy has been training soldiers for over a thousand years, right. And they have just noticed that the fittest individuals seem to be able to handle greater amounts of emotional and psychological stress. So, it's no surprise that special forces guys are the fittest, right? And their training is more brutal physically.
But there's only been a few studies, actually. I thought there'd be a ton, and I'm mostly focusing on this in my PhD. It is that, what's called the cross stressor hypothesis, that when you become, expose yourself to more high intensity exercise, and high intensity interval training, that sort of stuff, and also called exposure and heat exposure. And not only do you become resistant—stress resistant in those areas, but there is a spill over into other areas of your life, right? There's this adaptive response that crosses over stressors. And I'm a massive fan of that.
And again, it's something that the positive psychology guys don't get, is that cross stressor and drive
Lisa: Of energy.
Paul: Of actually yeah, yeah, yeah, of doing that. But then as I said, again, we need to balance that out with recovery. We need to make sure that our nutrition is actually supporting us, right. And a lot of athletes, they are on two...
Lisa: I have to get you back on for a whole episode on nutrition…
Paul: Yeah. There is an absolute chasm when you get into but because a lot of your guys are athletes. A lot of those guys are too carbohydrate focused and that, that shit’s bad for your health in the long run. You look at what's called Professor Tim Noakes, who wrote the Lore of Running. And he said, ‘I got it wrong’, he said, ‘You cannot outrun a bad diet’. Right? Yeah, too much of that carbohydrates.
Lisa: Why? I started running, so I can eat more. Apparently that doesn’t work.
Paul: Yeah. But you get into glycation end products from carbohydrate metabolism. And particularly for athletes who are ultra guys, you’re looking at becoming fat adapted. And there's Professor Grant Schofield, I'm sure you know over there. He's a mega mind, who's done a lot of research in this area. Have you had Grant on your podcast?
Lisa: No, no.
Paul: You need to get Grant Schofield on your podcast. He’s an ex-triathlon and Ironman guy, and he's a professor at Auckland University of Technology.
Lisa: Yeah, I know who he is. But I haven't had him on so. So, hook me up then.
Paul: The dude is brilliant. But yeah, what I'm getting at is that the approach to peak performance needs to be a more holistic one, where you really—you're looking at your sleep, your sleep hygiene, you're looking at exposing yourself to manageable amounts of stress, and then recovery. You're doing those used stress activities, you're also fuelling yourself, right. And then you're doing a lot around your mind, your mindset, around optimising your thought processes, building those, reframing negative events.
But then there's other stuff around connecting to others, understanding your values, your virtues and connecting your behaviours to those. And then there's a whole heap of science around creating habits because there's lots of people listening, going, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. That's cool. I want to do all that’. And then they don't do shit, right?
Lisa: Everyone wants to be epic, and no one wants to do the hard work.
Paul: That's exactly right. But I mean, there's a lot of neuroscience behind that. To be epic, that's a long term response. And the brain—it’s just one more concept I want to introduce to your listeners is around temporal discounting, right? So the brain will discount and rewards and benefits that are far off in the future. Because we may not live, right?
Lisa: We want the immediate.
Paul: Yeah, when someone's sitting here going, ‘Yeah, I'm really motivated. I want to do all this, I want to become really fit and whatever’. And the brain is going, ‘Yes, yes, yes, I want that. But it's actually quite far away. It might be months or years away’. And then, they're presented later on with the glass of wine, the Krispy Kreme donut, and that's immediate. It's immediate, and we are driven around immediacy, and because that reward is right there, the brain will actually give extra value to it, and it will discount stuff in the future. So that is a reason why it's so hard. Then we know that if somebody becomes obese, because they're overeating, or somebody is a drug addict or an alcoholic or has taken drugs or alcohol—a lot of them. We know that that temporal discounting is actually accentuated in their brain, right? So they are less able to control at the moment and they discount stuff that's further in the future. So, it's even harder for those guys to make decisions, right?
And then there's a whole heap of habituation that goes on in the brain that we really don't have time to get into right now. But it's understanding this is complex, right? It's not just about the science, it's about how your brain actually works around that. So, I like to work with people around, let's identify your virtues and your values. And let's match the behaviours to those things, right? Because when you do that, you're much more likely to do it, and there’s a whole exercise.
Lisa: So, it’s looking at what's motivating you deeply.
Paul: It's yes, deeply the emotional connection. So not only that I do a lot of stuff on your why, Anthony Robbins said, ‘Find your why, you find your way’. But he stole it from Frederick Nietzsche, the German philosopher, who said, ‘He who has a why to live can bear almost any high’. Right? So I do a lot of stuff on finding your why. And it's got to be an emotional connection. But then it's about identifying what are your core virtues and your core values, and then matching that behaviour, right, to those values.
So, for instance, if somebody’s way of values is family, and they want to lose weight, I would be going, right, ‘Let's connect that with family’, right. How usefully you're going to be as a dad or as a mum to your kid, if you're dead or if you've got a heart attack, or if you have diabetes, and then you become a burden on your family? So, let's connect what you're doing on a daily basis to family. And let's get a way to remind you, when you're faced with that choice, this is about family, right?
So, there are a lot of things that people can do. Hopefully, there's a few little snippets there of how they can actually use neuroscience and psychology to help them to change those behaviours, or help them to get towards their goals.
Lisa: And understanding, like, the more I learn about the things, it takes away some of the guilt and shame that's associated. Because when we fail, ‘I'm going to do the diet, and I'm going to be good’. And then five minutes later, you bloody fall over and do something you shouldn't have done. And that's part of the human condition and understanding that it's very complex.
This is why I love having these conversations, because I learn obviously a ton from people like you, but it also just helps us have these conversations around removing the guilt and the shame associated with failing. Because if you understand that it's neurotransmitters at play, and then there's the way that you were conditioned, and there is a genetic component, the choices that you've made up to now, you may have made some bad choices, because of all this combination of things. It's not always 100% your fault, but that doesn't mean that it's not 100% your responsibility to do something about it fr