Welcome to Joy Lab!: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Joy Lab podcast, where we help you uncover and foster your most joyful self. Your hosts, Dr. Henry Emmons and Dr. Aimee Prasek, bring you the ideal mix of soulful and scientifically sound tools to spark your joy, even when it feels dark. When you're ready to experiment with more joy, combine this podcast with the full Joy Lab program over at JoyLab.coach
Henry: Hello, I'm Henry Emmons and welcome to Joy Lab
Aimee: And I'm Aimee Prasek. I'm also here with the fruit fly that I keep swiping at. We'll try to keep that quiet. Uh, but welcome, yes to Joy Lab. We infuse science with soul over here to help you uncover joy. We do that by building the elements of joy, the positive emotions and inner states that become the building blacks for a joyful life.
So the element for this episode is equanimity. In last episode, we talked about those, two key [00:01:00] strategies to build up your baseline, which were grounding and non-attachment. Now we wanna talk about equanimity when stress hits. And we're pulling from, a talk from Pema Chodron that Henry noted last episode.
Uh, she laid out this process of laying still like a log, amidst an emotional storm.
Henry: Right, and also in the last episode we talked about three different ways to experience equanimity. There is stage of calm waters where life is just going along quite smoothly and it's easy and natural to feel calm and steady. We don't have to do anything about this, except enjoy it. And then there are the days with choppy waters, which frankly is most of the time.
That's when life is stressful, but it's not overwhelming, and it's then that we can train ourselves a bit, we can get more skilled at [00:02:00] holding ourselves steady, even when we're jostled about, and it gives us a chance as well to prepare for the third and most challenging phase, which is what we're calling emotional storms. If we wait until life becomes overwhelming, we can't expect to navigate it with very much skill or grace. It is much more likely to take us down. Now we can still get up again, and we all do that to one degree or another. But it's just a lot less hard and it's a lot less painful to prepare ahead of time and to learn how to keep ourselves steady even during the worst of the emotional storms.
And that's what we want to start talking about today.
Aimee: Yeah, I feel like we're pilots or captains in a simulation. Now we can prepare for a storm. So a stressor, something terrible, maybe something just irritating or that last straw, whatever it [00:03:00] is, we don't like it, and so an initial surge of emotion rises up. I think the first thing to notice here is that, based on some theories of emotion, like somatic marker theory and embodied cognition, the physiological markers that we associate with things, like anxiety, stress, you know, heart racing, tension, getting flush, stuff like that; these things can move faster than our conscious awareness of what's actually happening.
So it's may seem like we get hit with these sensations out of nowhere. They're faster than our understanding of the situation. I think that's really important to know because when we don't have that understanding, those surges can more easily knock us down before our wise mind can even chime in.
Or those surges may be rising up for no good reason. And if we don't give it a beat, you know, stop to pause [00:04:00] to assess what's actually happening, then we can get totally swept up in the sensation, which amplifies those physical responses even more.
Henry: I think what you just described, Aimee, happens because we're kind of built for it to happen. It's just reactive and it's automatic. And like you said, the body moves faster than our ability even to think about it. So if we perceive something as an emotional emergency, the body reacts in a split second. There's a a saying that you can't fight your physiology, it's going to win. So we want to talk about how to approach it wisely, not try to suppress it or ignore it or push it away, but just work with it as skillfully as we possibly can.
Aimee: Sorry, REO [00:05:00] Speedwagon lyrics are going through my head right now. I just can't fight this feeling anymore. Okay. We'll
try to get
Henry: talking about a different feeling,
Henry: could be wrong.
Aimee: We can maybe apply it here. Okay so we can't control it. We can't fight it. What can we do? Right? So Henry, can you explain more on how the work we do here at Joy Lab, uh, and how working to build equanimity how can this help with this initial surge of emotion?
Henry: Sure. So as we all know from experience, these emotional storms can leave some damage in their wake. If they're really strong, cleanup can pretty long and expensive, so to speak. So over the next few episodes, we wanna talk more about how to minimize that damage. But for now, let's stay with prevention. We still have a chance to dodge the [00:06:00] storm. It's still possible not to take that hook. So something, we don't know what, but something has triggered this wave of emotion. It might be related to some earlier trauma or just the result of our conditioning, and it's almost always unconscious. But when the storm is brewing, we don't really have time to figure this out.
Later on when things have calmed down again, we might want to take a look at it, if we feel it would be helpful. But right now, at this stage, you don't need to figure out what's causing this in order to avert the storm. Really the only thing that need to do is to notice the earliest possible sign that something is wrong, and then, give it your attention. Now these signs that something's going wrong can be subtle.
So I want to remind us [00:07:00] about a cornerstone of mindfulness practice, which is the ability to have a visceral experience. And what that means is to be able to tune into the background of sensations that are happening within your body. And it's especially around the midsection, like the, the chest and in abdomen.
So here's how it works for me, at least. Before my heart starts racing or the breathing gets tight or my skin gets flushed, there is a vague sense that something is wrong. Now, this usually just comes outta nowhere. I might be going about my business, feeling neutral or even feeling good, and then all of a sudden there's a noticeable feeling in my chest or belly. And for me at least, it's often like a tightening or a constriction, and I feel like I either [00:08:00] want to withdraw I want to push it away. It's just kind of like there's this sense of foreboding.
Now if I'm paying attention to it, I know, now, that this is an early warning sign. I also know that if I don't deal with it, it's going to accelerate pretty quickly. Now, how I deal with it might depend on the circumstances, but if I can catch it early enough, and if I have the good sense to turn my attention toward it, usually it's gonna dissipate. Now I recognize that this is a practice. This takes time to learn we actually give a lot more guidance, uh, about how to do this in the full Joy Lab program.
For now, suffice it to say that there is something powerful in being present. At this early stage, being present to your own [00:09:00] emotional vulnerability. It's like it, it softens the experience somehow. And it gives you a real chance of not escalating the whole thing. Because after that initial surge has come most of the escalating happens because we do it to ourselves.
Aimee: Oof. Yeah. , even just, giving it some gentle, self-compassionate awareness we can buffer what comes next or maybe stop the storm altogether. Let's keep going with the storm so we can understand each phase and how we can navigate through. So the next phase that likely comes in are the entering of thoughts and generally not optimistic, motivating thoughts about how we'll get through this storm, unscarred.
Uh, you just referred to it Henry when you noted that most of the escalation after that initial surge is something we do to [00:10:00] ourselves. So this is where a lot of that negative self-taught comes in, or judgment of the people around us blame us versus them. Thoughts start shouting.
Henry: Yeah. You know, you said something earlier, Aimee, and I wanted to come back to this. You were talking about embodied cognition. and how our physical experience moves faster than our conscious awareness. I think that there's just a really important distinction to make between conscious awareness and unconscious thoughts.
So, I think of the brain in pretty simple terms. I think of there being three layers, the lower, the middle, and then the outer cortex. The lower brain, often called the brain stem, its job is to gather all of the sensory inputs from the rest of the body then send them upward for the rest of the brain to [00:11:00] process, and so it goes to the mid-brain. Now if that brainstem thinks that there's an emergency, it can create an automatic, knee-jerk reaction to try to deal with it right off the bat immediately. And that's what is usually happening at the very beginning of these emotional storms.
So the next stage in this, the mid-brain is kind of like a relay station, and it just is collecting a lot of input from both above and below, and then it sends that input along to the other brain centers.
Now, it also can set off the alarm bells if it decides that this is a really big threat, it can create a sense of crisis, even panic.
You know, it doesn't actually matter if the threat is real or not. It just matters that there's a perception of threat and this, emotional part of our brain [00:12:00] has decided that it's an emergency. The third layer then is the cortex. The thinking part of our brain. The rational part. Its job is to make sense of all this and then decide what to do next. Is this really an emergency? If not, tell your whole stress system to stand down. But if it decides that this is really serious, then we make the best decisions we can for how to deal with that based on all of this input.
But when our negative, intrusive thoughts come up, which they do automatically, they bypass this whole elegant system and they muck up the works.
Those thoughts fan the flames of this supposed crisis. They add fuel to the fire, and it's these unconscious thoughts that can turn a little smoke into a five alarm [00:13:00] emergency.
Aimee: I think it's so important to know too that these unconscious intrusive thoughts are so common.
I think it's really helpful as you made that distinction, Henry between conscious thoughts or unconscious thoughts, excuse me, and conscious awareness. Um, so in the research they call this is how normal they are, right? They're called normal, intrusive thoughts. They're so common. There was a study of 777 college students, uh, that I liked,
it, looked into these thoughts, and 97% of participants reported that they had an intrusive thought in the last three months. I think the other 3% lied. I'll say that. I think the 97% were honest and they probably happened more than every three months. Research has also looked at the actual content of intrusive thoughts and if they're associated with worse outcomes or particular diagnoses, and they're not generally, it's really about how often they come up and how [00:14:00] often we latch onto them.
So just as you've described Henry, in the vast majority of cases, we're consciously fueling them after they automatically arise, those thoughts. And if we continue to give them power, then they can become a real problem. I am compelled to bring in a movie quote cuz I need to, uh, this is from, "This is 40."
I recently had a, a 40 something birthday, so I very much resonate with this movie, I think. so this is a conversation between Pete and Barry and they're at the coffee shop. Here it is: Pete: "this sounds horrible, but do you ever wonder what it would be like if you and your wife were separated by something bigger, like death, like her death." Barry: "I've given it a fair amount of thought." Pete, not in a painful way, but like a gentle floating off." Barry: "it's gotta be peaceful, man. I mean, this is the mother of your children." Pete: and the new wife would be great." [00:15:00] Barry: god, I can't wait to meet my second wife. I hope she likes me better than this one." I love that dialogue because it's all about these unconscious thoughts and how normal they are. And I'm thinking too about like how common intrusive threats are for postpartum women.
You know, we should acknowledge this. It just happens. And so, we need to be gentle with ourselves here and know that intrusive thoughts, even stuff that seems completely crazy or criminal, intrusive thoughts just happen. Sorry, random side note. I had a funny one last night. My earring back came off and then I, I was like, oh no, my earring back came off.
Then I imagined that my earring came off, during my sleep gave me a puncture wound in my neck . That was the first thought that came to my mind. I was where did that come from? I don't know anybody that's had like a serious earring, puncture wound. It was just a funny moment where a crazy thought just [00:16:00] rose up, you know, a death by earring. Anyway, I let it go. And when we take the judgment out of them, you know, like hating ourselves for having them or trying to fight with them to stay away, they lose power.
Henry: I agree with you. So like we were saying earlier, you know, you really can't suppress the initial surge of emotion that that unpleasant tightening up. It just comes out of your unconscious and you can't control it. It's the same way with intrusive thoughts. Can you tell me where your thought about your earring puncture came from?
Aimee: No clue
Henry: They just pop up on their own and you can't stop it.
Henry: If you try to stop it, the thought just gets stronger and more insistent. So we don't have much choice in that. However, once the thought has popped up, you do have choices. So do I believe it? [00:17:00] Or do I see it for what it is, just a thought that I made up. Do I reinforce it by repeating it again and again, or maybe even sharing it with a friend, like in the movie, uh, dialogue? Or do I ignore it as best I can?
Henry: If you grab onto that thought, you are giving it power. It feeds on itself, but if you can touch it lightly, "oh, I see you. You're just a weird little thought about my earring," and move on.
It will go back to wherever it is the thoughts come from.
So these unconscious, intrusive thoughts, I think of them like the wind that is disturbing the calm surface of our equanimity. But if you can just stay with your experience, your visceral, moment to moment experience, [00:18:00] you won't grab and hold onto that thought.
The wind will just die down and the surface of your equanimity will gradually return to its calm, placid, lovely baseline.
Aimee: I love your metaphor of the water, Henry. It reminds me as well that we can, you know, prep and weather for the storms as we're doing, navigate them better with equanimity and below the surface at our core there is stillness, there is calm. We all have that, as you said, I think in last episode, equanimity is our natural state.
I like to think of that with thoughts to these intrusive thoughts. There is this older article, um, on intrusive thoughts that's titled "They Scare because we care." I love that, our wise equanimous self is like, "Ooh, that's not true." we react to it because we care, because we know these random thoughts are inconsistent with our true self.
[00:19:00] And if they still rise up or become consuming or feel obsessive, when we're gentler on ourselves, we're more likely to seek help. And what we're saying here as well is that as we build up our equanimity baseline, as we tune into our bodies with more compassion, then these thoughts may not rise up so often, and when they do, we can come back to center more easily.
So we kind of paused our storm when these thoughts come in. And then the next phase is when we really start whipping up the storm. It's when our story kicks in. The stories we tell ourselves, mainly negative, mainly false. We're gonna wait until next episode to dig into that little teaser. In the meantime, let's all give some of these strategies we've discussed in this episode and last episode a try and just keep building up our equanimity baseline.
And I wanted to also leave you with a little bit of wisdom [00:20:00] from Arthur, Um, Arthur from author, Richard Yates. It's from his, uh, novel, "Revolutionary Road," and it's this wonderful little process I think illustrates what we talked about today, bit of Henry, your layers of the brain as well. So here it is:
"He took each fact as it came and let it slip, painlessly into the back of his mind, thinking 'okay, okay. I'll think about that one later. And that one and that one.' So that the alert, front part of his mind could remain free enough to keep him in command of the situation."
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