Andrew Huberman: How stress affects the mind — and how to relieve it
Today on the future of everything. The future, of stress, and your mind. Well, 2020. Has been without, a doubt, one of the most stressful periods, for humanity. In in any kind of recent memory, we've had covet 19, we've had social unrest. We've had political, discord. Economic. Tumult. Health, safety, security, risks. Immediately, impacting, millions of people and guess what, this leads, to stress. There are many ways to experience, stress, and it impacts, all your senses, hearing, touch. Smell, and most definitely. Vision. Ever since humans were living in small bands. Combating, predators. And running away from them, they have developed a keen sense of their environment, that's why we have our senses. It was critical for their survival, to perceive, threats and respond. Now this innate wired system for sensing threats and responding. Remains. Even as our need to combat, predators. On a daily basis, is reduced. You know i've been sitting at the same desk for six months now and there's just not been a lot of predators. Nonetheless. Uh, these sense, sensory, systems in particular, the visual system, plays a huge role in our perception of the world, how we process it and, ultimately, how our minds, and our bodies. Determine, the levels of anxiety, versus, calm. That's that is appropriate, for us. Professor, andrew, huberman. Is a professor of neurobiology. And ophthalmology. At stanford university. He studies how the brain works, how it can be repaired. And has a special focus on the visual system. He has studied how the visual system recognizes. Stressful. Or threatening, situations. And how the brain then goes on to process these signals. And figure out how to respond. Andrew. I think most of us can understand, how a visual, threat like a lion. Running at us. Would be triggered by our visual system and lead to a response. But you have found. That the vision system may be involved in much more subtle ways. In detecting, and responding, to situations. That are perhaps much less. Uh, immediately, dangerous. Can you tell me about that and thanks for being here. Well, delighted, to be here. The, visual, system is really interesting. In terms of the senses and how it interacts, with the. Thing that we call stress. Um i should just, right off the bat, i should, mention that you know the distinction, between stress, anxiety. Fear. And trauma. There's a lot of overlap, between those uh so just to define our terms. You know you can't, have fear without stress and anxiety, but you can have anxiety. And stress without fear. Uh you don't necessarily, have trauma, so i'm gonna. Refer to stress, as. A sort of catch-all, for. Daily, stress. Long term stress short stress i'll try and distinguish, between the various, types of stress as we go forward but just to make that clear at the outset, great yes, to avoid any confusion. So, a couple things about the visual system, we all think about. Vision, as foreseeing. And of course. We see with our eyes. Um but we forget. Often. That. The eyes, in particular, the neural retina which is these three thin. Three layers of cells at the back of the eye are actually part of the brain. They're the only part of the brain that's outside, the skull. They're literally part of the central nervous system, and there's a genetic, program that pushed them out of the skull. Around the end of the first trimester, of life. And you might ask well why would the brain put a piece of itself outside. The skull and it's because. By being able to look at light energy photons. From afar. We place our whole body. Because our brain and nervous system can control our body, in a much better position to respond, to things in our environment, without having to interact, with them directly, through touch. Other animals are more dependent, on smell humans are very strongly visual dependent now we also do this with our hearing of course, but vision is the dominant sense that humans use to navigate, the world and survive. And. There are. Very, interesting, interactions, between, how we see and how we feel internally. Stress. And as well as how stress impacts, the visual system so it's bidirectional.
So For instance. Let's say i'm. Uh you know moving through my morning and i make a cup of coffee. And then all of a sudden, i hear something on the radio or i look at my phone and i get a troubling, text message, something really alarming, to me. It could be about a family member it could be about a world event. The stress of these in the last seven months. Right i think we're all familiar, with getting these on a daily basis, many times. Per day. All of a sudden. Everything, has changed, and we normally think of the heart rate quickens, breathing, quickens, we perspire, you know the stress response, the so-called fight-or-flight, response. But one of the most powerful, things that happens to us that we don't realize because it happens subconsciously. Is our pupils, dilate, and there's actually a change in the optics, of the eye. Movement of the lens and so forth, that brings. That text message. Or that thing that we're. Even hearing. It brings it into sharper relief we see it more clearly and everything else kind of fades away and it's not, a purely cognitive thing this is actually like changing. Your phone's, camera, to portrait, mode if you've ever taken right portrait mode, one thing is in very bold relief and everything else is kind of blurry in the background so let me ask you, yeah so. Will that response, happen, even if the initial, insult, was not through the visual system so i'm what i'm asking is, i get a text, that's a fundamentally. Visual experience, but i hear something on the radio that's equally, stressful. Am i still going to get that visual, change. Yes. And it's because. The stress response. Deploys. A huge number of things in the brain and body i won't list them all but, um just to kind of capture the essence of it, there are two signals, that run in parallel. For the aficionados. One from the hypothalamus. One from the amygdala. Parts of the brain. Parts of the brain. Um. That to a set of neurons, that runs from about your clavicles, down to your belly button, and all those neurons. Deploy, neurotransmitter. They dump chemicals, into the body. All at once actually the reason this system is called the sympathetic, nervous system is not because it makes you feel sympathetic, in the emotional, sense, it's because simpa means together. And all of those neurons, act together as a chain. And they deploy, these chemicals, into the body, the adrenal, glands which sit right above your kidneys in your lower back, they deploy. Adrenaline. Also called epinephrine. Your brain stem deploys, epinephrine. And, all of that epinephrine. And acetylcholine. And other things create, these responses, in the body like the quicken heart rate and breathing etc, and the dilation, of the pupils and the change of the optics, all subconsciously. And all within.
500, Milliseconds. Half a second. Okay meaning, it's going to be very hard. To prevent the stress response from happening and as we go along we can talk about some of the tools perhaps that my lab and other labs are developing, to learn to push back on the stress response. Almost as quickly as it engages. But i mentioned that because i think a lot of people, feel this kind of what i call meta stress. They feel stressed, that they're stressed and they feel like oh well i'm doing my meditation, and i'm sleeping well i'm eating well and you know why am i so stressed well you're stressed because this system was designed. To be very fast. Half a second. Recruit, almost all of your, being, mind body eyes, everything. And. Fundamentally. It was designed to agitate, you, so that you move, it was designed, to move you from one location, to another, physical, movement like let's run let's let's uh reposition. So so that's interesting because i you you made a comment a moment ago that indicated that these responses. May not be the best thing, for you to to be having, on the other hand it's what it's how we've evolved, and it's part of our system so, tell me how should i think about, uh this you've. Described this great sympathetic, reaction, i get my text message, is that reaction, going to help me, do a better job at triaging. Whatever the situation, is that i just heard about, or is it actually. More of a hindrance, to the um appropriate, response, and something that i need to combat, you you kind of made a reference that we might want to like suppress, it or combat it and i was wondering well maybe this is part of how i'm going to have a good successful, day dealing with life. Yeah um great questions, so the stress response, was, first of all was designed to be generic. We often hear oh you know this was designed to keep us safe from, large predators, and it was, but it was also designed. To allow us to process. Information, of any kind. Very quickly. To bring our focus to that information. And. Deal with it so the the ways in which stress serves us adaptively. Is. Two ways first of all this, changing the optics of the eyes, and it also even happens with our hearing. We sort of uh get a tunnel vision we also get tunnel hearing, for the thing that is most important. The. All of that was designed. To do a couple things, but one of the more interesting ones that isn't discussed, very often, is, the relationship, to how we, process, time what happens when, that stress reports, response. Occurs. Is that we start fine slicing. Time, it's as if we have a metronome, inside of us that's that normally if we're very relaxed is going tick. Tock, tick tock but all of a sudden it's, more units. Per unit, time for overall unit times, yes and people have described, this like time slowed. Down or stuff like that. Yes, time is sped up. Right so and then we can get right to that because i think it's one of the more interesting features but, um, i'll just say that it's a, three things happen that are very useful, about, when stress occurs first of all we start, slicing time more finely. Which as, i'll describe in a moment gives you more control, over your external, environment, not less. Second of all and a lot of people, don't know this but the stress response deploys, the immune response. In the short term. Nerve fibers. That connect, to the organs of the body that deploy killer cells. Those. Liberate. Killer cells to combat, infections, and so we always think about how stress makes us sick actually, if you've ever worked for a long period of time or studied for finals or taking care of a loved one go go go go and then you rest, it's during the immediate, rest that you crash.
And It's because the sympathetic, nervous system, also controls, the immune response, it actually makes you less susceptible. To bacterial, and viral infections. In the short term, in the long term, once the, system moves from the acute stress response of adrenaline. To more of a cortisol, response which kind of sits in the deep layers of the of the adrenals. And, that's when you start running into immune compromised. Situations, so it helps us in the short term and the third thing that it does, is it really heightens, all our senses. It really, you know the whole prick up uh you pick up our ears kind of thing it really. Allows us to process information, not just more finally in time but also in space. And. So. That's powerful. Now the what you mentioned. In terms of, time slows down there's a theory out there and my lab's studying this and so this is still preliminary, but it makes a lot of sense. That, if our internal, metronome, our level of stress is high, and the external, world. Um let's say you're in line at the airport we used to go to airports but something over those. You're late for your plane. Or, for to pick up your child or a spouse, or something like that, and you're you're stressed, it seems like things outside you are moving, more slowly, and it's because your internal metronome, is not matched by your perception, of what's happening in the outside, world. That's why, we believe. And this is work that i'm doing with david spiegel's, lab in psychiatry, as well. We believe, that. The perception, for instance in extreme, traumas, extreme, stress that time slows down like in a car crash, and you actually see events moving very slowly is because your internal metronome, the stress response is so high that everything outside, you, perceptually. Seems to be moving, more slowly, yeah it's like you you're getting more frames per second, and it's like super slow-mo. Right and when we hear slow-mo, we think of longer, time business but as you said, it's more frames per second. Take the opposite which is the kind of um more chronic stress response when we're overwhelmed, and exhausted. We get up we look at our phone we sit and the world just seems like it's going extremely. Fast. And that's because. Our internal, state. Has isn't matched to that i always say you know i'm a pretty high energy guy i love new york city, i get off the subway in new york city and i feel like finally, calm because i feel like that the pace of things around me is finally matched to the, um, the chaos, in my mind if i, some of you may be able to relate to this some of you more mellow types, might feel like why is everybody, rushing about you know what's the what's the hurry. So, we all have differences, in our kind of baseline what's called autonomic, arousal, and that brings me to the other side of the coin with stress which is. I believe in a lot of the effort in my lab, is focused around. How to teach people well first to discover, tools but how to teach, people. To recognize. That this system that we call the autonomic, nervous system the one that brings us from sympathetic, arousal, of stress, to what's called parasympathetic. Which is, really just because the neurons that control it are on the neck and in the pelvis they are para, around, the sympathetic. Chain neurons. So the parasympathetic. Neurons associated, with rest and digest. And, typically the way people calm themselves, with these. Uh, is well first of all it's never autonomic. Because. It's just very indirect, the most common. Way that we've learned to turn off the stress response. But is very slow. Is to ingest, food carbohydrates. In particular. The distension, of the belly because of the vagus, nerve is a big the 10th cranial nerve called the vagus nerve is a big part of this when our belly is distended. It sends a signal to the brain, that counters. The stress response, and this is the the essence of the parasympathetic. Response. Now, the fact that food can do that. Or, for instance slowing, our breathing. Just merely shifting to nasal breathing, slowing, our breathing there's a beautiful book that was written by our colleagues paul ehrlich sandra khan, called jaws. Which is really about the benefits of nasal breathing versus mouth breathing, the the introduction was written by another colleague bob sapolsky.
When We shift to nasal, breathing. And we slow our breathing, we naturally engage the parasympathetic. Response because of the way that the diaphragm, this muscle in our body. Is linked, to some of the other circuitry, in the brain that controls stress, so all of this is to say. That, the stress response, is good it allows us to react it liberates, the immune system it it does all these things in the short term but i think everybody. Starting from a very young age and until, really, until our last days of life. Could benefit, from having, tools. That allow us to, push back on that stress response, when we're not able to process, information. In the way that is most adaptive, whatever that situation, is. This is the future of everything i'm russ altman i'm speaking with professor, andrew huberman, about our, uh stress responses, and ways that we can learn to modulate, it and i did want to get into, two ideas. Um, both really compelling, but you have started to deploy, uh interesting, technologies. I think in pursuit of these ideas of training, people. To kind of um. Sense their their levels of stress or not stress, and adjust them, and can you tell us about some of the more kind of avant-garde. Technologies, that you guys are using. Sure, so my lab, we work on mice, and we do studies on mice and we try and identify, brain areas that are involved in the kind of things that i've been talking about up until now. We also have a human lab. And i should mention that the work that i'm about to describe is done in close collaboration, with david spiegel who's the associate chair of psychiatry, at stanford world expert in medical hypnosis. He hypnotized, me once we can talk about that on another show but i had a fear of um. Planes, that he wiped out with his hypnotism. Hypnotism, gets, an interesting. And kind of bad rap from the stage hypnosis, world of like swinging pendants, and things but, david has brought the medical hypnosis, technology. To a whole other level, and it's really interesting because. Hypnosis. Invokes the visual system in some very powerful ways and the respiration. System so, the work in my lab and the work with david has been focused on a couple things but the thing we did about four years ago. People in my lab were studying fear and stress in mice, but of course we could ask the mice what they're feeling but, if they tell us we don't understand. And they probably don't understand what we're saying so we shift it to humans. And so we have a lab where people come in they they do virtual reality. Which is like the goggles, the uh, goggles.
Very In-depth, what our other colleague jeremy balinson, communications. Has, really built up over a decade or more. Um. This idea of creating, presence, in the vr, you know people know it's not real when they put the goggles, on, if you come into my lab, you might put on those goggles and swim with great white sharks or give a public lecture, or, be in a claustrophobic. Environment, or a, heights, experience. And of course you, at first you realize, that you're not under water with sharks but there's something about the sensory, inputs, when you start to combine, vision, and, hearing, in very. Robust, ways. That you get what jeremy has described as presence where the nervous system. Flips into these states where it actually thinks it's in that environment. So. We put people into these environments. We do a number of different things we record from a lot of areas in the body so we're recording. Um, for instance i mentioned the eyes are part of the brain not the body but we're measuring, pupil. Size changes to measure these changes in autonomic, arousal which is the fastest, readout. Of the stress response, that we can get from the periphery. We're looking at things like respiration. Heart rate, etc. And so we're trying to get a signature, of the stress response, in some people. Because we have access to neurosurgery. Patients. We have. People come do this who have electrodes. Embedded, in the fear centers of the brain, so we're getting recordings. What are called local field potentials, so a lot of different action potential. Activity electrical activity from neurons. In the amygdala, in the insulin in the orbital frontal cortex, from all over the brain. While they're in these equivalent, experiences, so we do both kinds of things. And then. What we've done is we've, found some. Very robust. Readouts, of the stress response, and we do this in people also i should mention that generalized, anxiety, versus what we call typicals, although everyone, anxiety, and stress of course is normal. So what we found, i can just mention a couple highlights that we found and then i can talk about some of the interventions, that we've developed based on those findings. First of all, and this is a manuscript, that should soon be out. We found that there's a particular, pattern of visual, search. That, people who have generalized, anxiety. Invoke when they're in an environment that they don't understand or that makes so you literally, mean the way their eyeballs, are moving around, scanning, the environment. Is different, right. It's more what we call sakad, so more eye movements that probably doesn't surprise, people, but we controlled for this very carefully, by, putting them in equivalent, environments, where only a few. Select, experiences. Were missing so we can control for things like, luminance, and we can control, for depth in the environment and these kinds of things you could only do in vr you couldn't do this in it i couldn't imagine doing it in any kind of other experiment. It's also, based on, the. Velocity. Of those eye movements. So this again just speaks to how, closely tied the visual system is to the stress system, and then we've identified, particular, patterns of breathing associated, with the stress response, as well as patterns, of breathing. That are associated, with people's attempt, to calm themselves. And that's where it starts to get interesting because work from yet another colleague of ours, um, so blessed, right to be at stanford this work really i'm not, biased towards stanford, in this discussion, at all uh, except, for the fact that. You know this work really was done there by not my group by mark krasnow's, group. Um in genetics, as and it was in collaboration. With jack feldman at ucla. They discovered, a particular, class of neurons, in the brain stem that control what are called physiological. Size. You do these in sleep. Size. S-i-g-h-s. That's ighs. You do these, in sleep and you do these, in claustrophobic. Environments, subconsciously. Animals do this before they go down for a nap. And it's a pattern of breathing in which there's two inhales. Followed by an extended, exhale and typically the inhales are through the nose and the exhale is through the mouth. This is not, a breathing, technique we invented this is a breathing technique that evolution, and mother nature invented. And what it does is very interesting, it, you have these you have the two big lungs but you have all these little sacks of air in the lungs which increases the volume of air that you can bring in, those sacs.
Collapse, Over time, and as a result. Oxygen, levels start to go down and carbon dioxide levels go up in the bloodstream, and body. And that is the big part of the signaling of the stress response, in fact we breathe because carbon dioxide, gets too high and neurons sense that carbon dioxide. So what happens is these little sacs. Um deflate. And a physiological. Side the double inhale is like if you've ever been to a, party a kid's birthday party you're trying to blow up a balloony blow once and it doesn't inflate, you blow it twice. And it pops open, right and it doesn't explode, but it pops open and then you can inflate it the rest of the way so physiological. Size. Expand, the avioli, of the lungs, allow oxygen, back in and allow you to offload, more, carbon dioxide, in the long side. People do this. Yeah it's really cool and people, we all do this and animals, do this now humans. There's been a lot of discussion, in the last. 2000, years about how to calm the self. Um. There's a lot of interest in meditation, and mindfulness, practices, which of course always incorporate, some breathing, if people do yoga or they go for a run, there's all sorts of activities, that we stress, associate, with stress relief. One of the things that david spiegel and i decided to ask was well what role are specific patterns of breathing playing in this and can people export, those spontaneous, patterns of breathing to deliberate, practices. That allow them to push back on stress at any point, so, before we get to that i just want to say that this is the future of everything i'm russ altman and we're going to return, in a moment, to find out how your breathing. Can affect, and impact your stress levels, on siriusxm. Welcome back to the future of everything i'm russ solman i'm speaking with andrew huberman and we were just discussing. How. There are all these, uh through the virtual reality, experiments, that you and your colleagues have done you've discovered all of these natural behaviors about breathing. Eye motions. Many different things that are both signal, the onset, and also may modulate, the level of stress, in a human, and you were just getting to this idea, that we might be able to harness, that, for in a more intentional, manipulation. Of our stress levels, so what if what did you learn and and what and what did you find. Yeah so we discovered that there are two main. Features, of the attempt, to calm oneself.
Response, Let's call it that, and these again are, features that were built into our neurology, and the connections, between the brain and the body physiological. Size that double inhale followed by an extended exhale. Done just one or three times. Seems to be nature's, way of taking that sympathetic, stress response. And balancing, it, with a more parasympathetic. Relaxing, response. The advice we hear out in the world take a deep breath, turns out, that's not the, quite right it's taking two breaths. Ideally. Through the nose. And then the, just exhale, that's not quite right because the exhale has to follow the two deep breaths so, um. What david spiegel and i have done is we've set up a very large. Experiment, now. Which. Because of covid and the situation with the pandemic, it makes it challenging to bring people to the lab. The timing couldn't have been better what we did is we we. Knew there was a lot of stress in the world, we partnered with a company that makes, um and i should say that they donated, and we didn't partner in a formal sense but they donated. Uh wristbands. That measure heart rate variability. Respiration. Sleep quality, sleep depth duration, and so forth. And we have now, 125. People, out there in the world. Who on a daily basis, are incorporating. One of four different kinds of breathing, protocols. And we're examining, in a hypothesis-driven. Way, how it affects their stress their sleep their heart rate variability. Heart rate variability, being good by the way, um you don't want your heart rate very high or very low throughout the day you want variability. A lot of people overlook that they think oh you're supposed to always be, 50 beats per minute or something we can get back to the relationship, between breathing and heart rate variability, later, but the four conditions, that we're exploring. Are. One. Physiological. Size. The other one is a dedicated. Minute, breath or you could call it breath work. Practice. Which is called super oxygenated. Breathing. Where people breathe, very intensely. 25, or 30 deep breaths it always looks funny to breathe on camera but i'll do it anyway. So i'm breathing in through my nose and then out through my mouth very vigorously, by the end of that 25 or 30 breaths, you feel agitated, and the reason is, it generates, the sympathetic, response you're self-inducing. The stress response. You say well why would you want to do that well it's immediately, followed by a long exhale. And then being, sitting, as calmly as possible. With adrenaline, in the body so it's a mild form of, self stress and it kind of rings a bell for some athletes, right before their events i mean i'm imagining. People may have discovered, this on their own it's i i think it's possible. Uh because you think of these athletes like before 100 yard dash, doing these little breathing things and maybe, maybe they figured this out. Yeah i'll so, i'll just spell out the logic for looking at physiological. Size a known approach, for calming the self, the reason for looking at those is it's what i call a real time tool, you know it's wonderful to have breath work, practices, exercise, meditation. Baths massages, vacations. But, we wanted to develop tools that people could use in the moment.
Right And this comes from a well-known, feature, of psychiatry. Which is even, for people who have panic attack who are prescribed. Um you know valium or something they feel great relief by knowing they even have it in their pocket, right. And, as well as the ability you know you don't want to have to necessarily put yourself into, a state go off and excuse yourself during a stressful event sometimes. Mid airport line mid public lecture, mid argument. Mid uh troubling text message, driving, you want to be able to calm yourself, you can't do breath work, you got kids in the car life's happening so this double inhale exhale was designed as a real-time, tool, to invoke, calm, in a self-directed. Way and to do it through neural circuits, it's not just about the lungs the diaphragm, and carbon dioxide, and oxygen. It doesn't require sitting in the lotus position or anything or lying down it's about. Capturing the neural circuits of the brainstem, that were designed to induce the parasympathetic. Calming response. Super oxygenation. Work was designed. By us and by others. To explore. Whether or not people could raise their threshold. For. What we would call a stress response, so by, inducing, adrenaline, in the body, at a low level, and self-inducing. It but then remaining, calm cognitively. You can potentially. Get your hands around, this, feeling that is normally, so agitating, that it troubles you that it you're comfortable there and again you know we, this comes from a statement that david, spiegel made which is. When it comes to stress and trauma, it's not just about the state that you end up in it's how you got there, and whether or not you had anything to do with it right when someone else or something else triggers your stress it's different so we're exploring, that we're also exploring. A. Pattern of breathing called box breathing. Where you inhale for about three seconds, hold your breath for about three seconds, exhale for about three seconds. And then hold your breath, after that exhale for about three seconds and then repeat. And, it's, a very unusual, pattern of breathing, one that we almost certainly never do spontaneously. But, it increases, what's called our carbon dioxide. Tolerance. Which is our ability to tolerate these low oxygen, states it's actually the one that free divers, use i was just going to say the guys holding the boulders. Underwater. Do this, right, something i do not recommend, as uh i have some friends who are expert free divers but even they would say, there are only two ways, out of that sport one is to resurface. Alive and the other is to resurface. Dead, please, please don't but box breathing is something, all these you do on land, not near water and i should just mention. Over time what we have people do is extend, the duration. Of those inhale, holds exhale holds. And people free divers and people who learn carbon dioxide tolerance, can over a series of days, can start to extend those inhales to eight seconds, in eight seconds hold eight second exhale eight second hold that's actually very challenging. Now, what we're finding and these findings are preliminary. Are that people are seeing, great. Improvements. In. And again preliminary. In, depth and quality of sleep ability to fall and stay asleep.
Ability To counter stress throughout the day feelings, of control, at a subjective, level. Over, life in general in their life and their, sort of uh. You know their agency, in life and i'm afraid i'm afraid we're gonna have to stop there just for time but this is unbelievable. Uh. Uh the uh the ability, to manipulate, these stress responses, with breathing. Uh, is something we need to learn more about and i wanna thank you i wanna thank you all for listening to the future of everything, i'm russ altman, if you missed any of this episode, listen, anytime, on demand, with the sirius, xm. App.