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Struggling With Stress: Why It’s So Prevalent + What You Can Do
With Henry Emmons, MD
More so than ever, rates of stress are high: Many of us are experiencing it at great intensities and for far too long. Henry Emmons, MD, talks about the impact of stress on the body, including how it influences our wired responses and how it can trigger mental-health issues like depression and anxiety — and shares tangible things we can do in the short- and long-term to support our bodies in and when recovering from times of stress.
Henry Emmons, MD, is an integrative psychiatrist and the author of several books including The Chemistry of Joy and The Chemistry of Calm. He hosts a monthly podcast with an accompanying program, called Joy Lab. He also has a regular column, “Natural Mental Health,” in Experience Life.
In this episode, Emmons shares what he refers to as “quick wins” — things anybody can do at virtually any time to soften the effects of stress when it hits you:
- Sleep. “I talk about it almost every chance I get because it’s such a key variable to mental health — and is really one of the prime things to go when stress becomes problematic,” says Emmons. Do what you can to keep your sleep on track, such as intentionally winding down an hour or two before bed and keeping your circadian rhythm intact with low light in the evening and bright light in the morning.
- Move. “The stress response is gearing you up for physical action and activity, so just by going with that and doing what your body is wanting you to do, you do quite a bit to let those stress hormones do their thing and then dissipate,” says Emmons.
- Stabilize. “Pay attention to stabilizing your blood sugar,” advises Emmons. “When you’re in fight-or-flight, you’re impacting the whole system that stabilizes blood sugar and keeps energy flowing, especially the energy to your brain.” Keep yourself satiated and aim for meals and snacks balanced with protein, healthy fats, fiber, and whole-food carbohydrates.
- Emmons’s Experience Life column “Natural Mental Health”
- Sleeping During Stressful Times With Henry Emmons, MD
- Why Sleep and Stress Management Are Non-Negotiables With Henry Emmons, MD
- Building Mental Health Through Nutrition
- Why Magnesium?
- How to Tame Your Monkey Mind
- Amino Acids for Anxiety
- Is CBD Effective?
- Joy Lab
- Joy Lab Podcast
- The Chemistry of Joy by Henry Emmons, MD
- The Chemistry of Calm by Henry Emmons, MD
- Staying Sharp by Henry Emmons, MD
- The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
- The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer
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Transcript: Struggling With Stress: Why It’s So Prevalent + What You Can Do
Season 8, Episode 8 | June 7, 2022
[MUSIC PLAYING] Welcome back to Life Time Talks. I’m Jamie Martin.
And I’m David Freeman.
And today we have Dr. Henry Emmons with us. Dr. Emmons is an integrative psychiatrist and the author of several books, including The Chemistry of Joy and The Chemistry of Calm. He hosts a monthly podcast with an accompanying program called Joy Lab. He also has a regular column in a magazine that I’m kind of partial to. It’s called Experience Life. And the column is Natural Mental Health. So Dr. Emmons, thanks so much for coming back on. It’s been a while.
Yes, it has. I’m very happy to be back with you.
All right. So let’s just dive right in. When we last talked to you, we talked to you about sleep. I think we were in the early days of the pandemic. We were trying to kind of help people navigate what was a stressful time. We didn’t really think we’d kind of still be navigating those stressful times all this time later. And many of us are just trying to kind of get through the day-to-day. And there’s lots of statistics out there about the rise in mental health issues and the role of stress in that. So I’d love for you, initially to start but like, what are your observations about mental health in our culture right now?
Yes. Oh, my gosh, it’s been such a challenging couple of years and an interesting but difficult couple of years. So, you know when I– when I was looking at the early days of the pandemic, it was– if you remember that feeling– it was so overwhelming. And everything was so uncertain at the time that I was just really anticipating people struggling early on.
And I have to say that I was a little bit pleasantly surprised initially at how well people did. I mean, we sort of made this rapid transition to working from home, social distancing, all of that stuff. And I thought people were holding up pretty well for a while. And then it just went on and on and then these different variants and everything we all know about.
I think what’s happened is that, that initial resilience– that was really kind of heartening for me given my work as a psychiatrist– I think it has really been taxed. People have been worn down by this. And in many cases, kind of depleted. I mean, you look at health professionals, and you look at teachers, and really so many first line workers but really across the board.
And I really think it has taken its toll with all the other stresses going on around us. So I know we’re going to want to get in to stress a bit later, but I think what we’re seeing here is just too much too long. And so it’s really, really starting to hit people and not just with anxiety anymore, but I think with depression too.
Yeah, I mean, you mentioned the word resilience and then how a lot of shifts have happened since the beginning of the pandemic. So when you look at stress and it being a central role within health and well-being, can you kind of walk us through when it shifts from normal to excessive to chronic?
Absolutely. I like to remind people, including my patients, that stress is really a normal thing. I think we’ve used the term kind of to mean something bad or something negative. But really, we are so well-designed to respond to stress. I mean, it really is built-in. It is absolutely something we are wired for, and it is normal.
What’s not normal is for stress to go on for so long without a break. I mean, if you think about the stress response, what’s normal is to go into fight or flight. Really, it’s a life-saving maneuver. And that sort of intensity we can only do for maybe a half hour, 45 minutes up to an hour, you know? I mean, if we’re really thinking about running or fighting to save your life, it’s very short-term.
And then if you survive it, then you have to rest. You have to go into that mode of recovery. It’s called rest and digest. And that’s what we’re built for. We are not built to have those stress hormones floating through our body and our brain all the time.
Mm-hmm. Yeah. It just seems like, when there’s no break from it, it’s like, how do you get any sort of relief, you know? And how do we navigate that, and how do we get out of it? And I think that’s part of the reason we want to have you on today is to talk through what are some of those ways that we can work with what we have right now to overcome this and deal with this.
Yeah. Yeah, you know I think a good place to start might be talking about the quick wins, the things that anybody can do virtually at any time to try to really either to soften the effects of stress or to get back on track once it’s really hit you. And I know when I was on with you before, we talked about sleep. And I talk about it almost every chance I get because it’s such a key variable to mental health.
And this is really one of the prime things to go when stress becomes problematic. I think sleep tends to fall kind of early, and then it opens up that cascade of all the other problems that stress, overstress, can lead to. And so there’s only so much we can do to really control our sleep.
But if it’s a problem, I just think people should do everything in their power to keep their sleep on track, really regular. Shut down as much as you can for an hour or two before bed, really pay attention to light. The intensity of light in the evening and using really bright light in the morning, all those things to keep your circadian rhythm intact. And that’s pretty straightforward. Although if people develop big sleep problems, it’s a little more complex.
And then the second really big win is how we move our bodies. And it’s important. I think it’s helpful to remember that the stress response is absolutely gearing you up for physical action and activity. And so just by going with that, by doing what your body is wanting you to do, you do quite a bit to let those stress hormones do their thing and then dissipate.
Because if you’re moving vigorously– and remember, fight or flight is vigorous– you’re doing a lot to reduce the aftereffects of the stress hormones and get them circulating so they get out of your body a little better. And also, it has the huge upside of helping your sleep too. So paying attention to sleep and movement early on are just critical.
So I love that, the sleep and movement, we’re big on that, right? When we think of coming back to the mind, the foundation of what allows us to sleep and move, what you’ve said as far as these past two years, what exactly has been happening to people when you think of the adaptation? Or they’re now trying to build this tolerance, if you will, of what is not normal. So what is physiologically happening within one’s body when it starts to lead to mental illness or when we talk about mental health in that space?
Yeah, so it’s been interesting to see how people responded differently to the lockdown kind of thing. You know, I think most of us intuitively have thought that that would be hugely stressful. It is for most people. But I have a lot of my patients that actually found it to be sort of relieving in a way.
You know, anybody with any kind of social anxiety or just the busyness that our lives have become, most of us, there was a little bit of a break there. And I think that early on, physiologically, it might have almost been a reprieve for some of us, just to be able to step back, kind of didn’t have much to do other than maybe resting and being with family and immediate family and so forth. And so there was a way in which it was almost a little bit of a nice break for some people in that sense.
And I think that that’s a useful thing to remember is that we really do need downtime, and we need rest time in order for the body to self-regulate, to get back to its baseline again. It’s almost like kind of rebooting the computer when it gets jammed up and you see that horrible circle of death. The best thing to do might be to shut it down and reset it again.
But I think that what we’re experiencing now is the long-term effect of too much stress hormones for too long. And I’m going to try to give you a very quick and dirty neuroscience of stress here, just because I think it’s useful to understand it. So there are two parts of us that really deal with this– one part that’s in the brain, the central nervous system, and then the other part that’s essentially everything outside of the brain.
And that part outside of the brain is really what I think of as the stress response system. And that also contains two parts. They are the adrenal glands, which make the stress hormones, and then there’s what’s called the autonomic nervous system, which kind of is managing everything behind the scenes. It’s like the silent partner that’s really controlling almost all of our essential functions in our body.
And remember that most of our essential functions are really about survival. And so when we’re in fight-or-flight mode, when survival is front and center, a lot of those essential functions go quiet. We don’t need to be digesting food if we’re running for our lives. We need to be really, really hyperfocused, vigilant, be able to see any danger, be able to move really quickly. We need strength and power and focus.
And that’s the good stuff that comes from fight or flight. But over time, you can’t sustain that. And some of those very brain chemicals that have been sort of stimulated, things like dopamine and norepinephrine, that kind of energizing focusing parts of the brain, they start to fray at the edges. That system gets a little depleted. And that’s when I think the– I think that’s what we’re seeing now, the fatigue and the lethargy and just, how do I keep putting one foot in front of another because you’re kind of depleted.
Well, it sounds like– I mean, that’s burnout to a degree, right? We’re seeing that at a pretty high level, it seems like, because it’s just like just going, going, going. How long can you sustain that? You know what I mean? Just ongoing stress, but we have to just keep putting one foot in front of the other one. Really, we need that break.
That’s right. That’s right. I think this last round of Omicron was really hard to take because I think everybody was feeling pretty good a few months ago, as if we were starting to come out of this, maybe it was behind us. And then, bam, you get hit again.
And it’s just hard to take that when you’re already feeling down and feeling as if you’re beginning to emerge. I still think we’re almost there. I’m optimistic about all this, but it’s been so much back and forth. It’s kind of hard to really have faith on it.
Right. So I want to go back. You mentioned earlier anxiety and depression. And obviously, stress plays a role with those. I had read a statistic near the end of last year, around over a third of Americans have symptoms of anxiety and depression, most are not diagnosed. What are your– what’s your take on that? And what role does stress play in those two most common mental health issues that are affecting so many of us?
Yeah. When I did my training in psychiatry, we learned that genetics accounts for almost 50% of why some people develop mental illness and others don’t. But genetics are, while they’re important, they’re not the reason why a person develops anxiety or depression right now at this point in their lives. It’s almost always stress that triggers that.
So you might have the genetic makeup, the being at risk for one of these things, but it may never manifest unless these conditions sort of come together that cause it. And then I think when life is as stressful as it has been recently– and actually it didn’t just start with the pandemic, it’s been going on for a while, I think– but when it’s that stressful, then you don’t even need the genetics for these conditions. You can still develop anxiety or depression.
And I don’t want to overdo this, but I think probably the single most important thing that triggers an episode of one of those is when sleep goes. And then people who are vulnerable can very quickly fall into anxiety or depression. I think that if you look at how people are feeling overall and just the mood and the tenor of our nation right now, you might almost think that feeling anxious and even a little depressed is normal because it’s affecting most people, nearly everyone to some degree.
But people who really have a clinical condition, either one of those, anxiety or depression– at least the way I define that– it is because they have lost their ability to function in some really core way that they need to function. So it might be work, it might be relationships, it might be tending to their household, whatever it is, but not able to function in the way that they normally can anymore.
Yeah. Dr. Emmons, I want to take a piece from an article that you actually did. It was talking about improving your mental health from your senses, and it says, completing emotional cycles. And it says here, instead of ignoring or repressing painful emotions like sadness, anger, feeling them fully allows us to digest the process and then to let them go. So with the sensory experiences, they don’t do that directly, but they can help ground us while our bodies take care of the rest. So can you take us a layer deeper as far as what you meant by that?
Yeah, great, thank you. So this is getting us into the realm of the slightly more difficult things to do. We’ve talked about the low-hanging fruit or kind of the easy wins. These are things that are a little more difficult. And there’s two parts to your question there. And the more difficult, the more nuanced thing, is to really begin to learn how to digest your emotional experiences, how to process them in such a way that you actually can let them go or be rid of them, that you don’t carry them with you.
But in the meantime, the second part of your question, while you are doing that or preparing yourself or learning those skills, there’s a lot of benefit to having some means of keeping yourself grounded. And so that’s where the physical senses come in. And I think there’s so many ways to go about this that everybody can find something that suits them. So it really is physical.
You really just think about your body and what it craves and what it needs. And so it might be, for some people, simply touch. It might be petting a dog or a cat, or holding one of those stress balls and squeezing it, or doing something else that gives you a kind of a pleasant sensation of touch. Might even be just gently stroking yourself and your arm or your leg or something like that.
For other people, it might be using heat, some form of heat like even a warm bath or shower, or better yet, a sauna or a whirlpool or something. And then I think there’s a lot to be said for aromatherapy in this instance, using some sort of smell. One of the things to remember about that is when you take a smell in, something through your nose, it has a very direct line to your brain. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time to get there.
And it can be super helpful. There’s some things that are known to be calming. Lavender is a great example. But really, it’s whatever is pleasing to you. And again, it’s just using the sense to help focus your mind on something right in front of you so that there’s less room for all this nebulous activity of thinking. That is what really gets us into trouble.
It’s just going around our heads all the time, right? I know you’ve done an article on that too with monkey mind. We’ve talked through that as well.
We all know that.
Yes. Yes, we do. Well you– I mean, you said there are more difficult things, and some of those things that come down to nutrition too and how we support our bodies with nutrition in our minds, right? So can you speak to a little bit of that side of it? And when it comes to stress and then, by default, anxiety and depression and dealing with that?
Yeah. Here again, there probably are some really quick wins and then some longer-term things that might help shore you up over time. But I think the really quick things are to really pay attention to stabilizing your blood sugar. I think that’s a huge piece of this because remember, when you’re in fight or flight, your blood sugar is really going into the tissues. It’s getting out of the bloodstream into the brain, into your muscles.
But also, the cortisol that gets produced has a huge effect on insulin, which is– the job of insulin is basically to get the blood sugar into the cells. And so you’re really impacting the whole system that stabilizes blood sugar and keeps that energy flowing, especially the energy to your brain.
So eating often, keeping snacks and meals balanced so you don’t have just a carb snack but you’ve got carbs with some protein or with some good healthy fats. That’s super, super helpful. I think that when our bodies are highly stressed we might actually, in the short term, do well by having some more carbs than usual, particularly if they’re pretty healthy ones not just a sugary thing but something that takes a little while to break down.
I think over time, eating– paying attention to how stress is making you eat, which it tends to make you crave more carbs and sweets and kind of mess with your blood sugar. So the longer-term solution might actually be to back away from carbs and really keep them high in fiber so it’s better balanced with protein and carbs.
That makes sense.
Yeah. I just want to throw out there, I know me personally, I reached out during the time of when I was heightened with anxiety, and I felt like I was just going down a downward spiral and I needed help. What I want to throw out there is I know we have an ego-driven type society, and a lot of people do not want to ask for help. So for those listeners right now that are tuning in, what are certain things that you would say, hey, it’s OK to ask for help.
And I’m speaking from a male’s perspective, just, we’re almost conditioned that it’s like the vulnerability, we don’t want to show that. And then I feel like also we have women as well in that space. So what would you suggest? How can we get people to break down that barrier to actually raise their hand and say, hey, I need your help?
Great question. I think we’re seeing something pretty unusual these days with a lot of athletes actually coming out and speaking openly about their challenges with mental health. And I think it might be breaking down that very thing that you’re talking about, David, because you see these people that you think are tough as nails, and they are. And yet they’re also struggling and kind of admitting it.
And I actually think that athletics and coaching is a pretty good metaphor for this. If you really, really want to be good at your craft, at your sport, you’re not going to do it all on your own. You’re going to ask questions. You’re going to take coaching, take some guidance. And I think it’s really very, very similar.
This notion that we’re somehow weak if we are overcome by feelings, or stress, or anxiety, it’s just not true. And we need to let that go collectively. Just like it would be untrue if an athlete thought that they should be able to do this totally on their own and be the best at their sport without any help or guidance. It just doesn’t fly.
So I think just acknowledging when you simply don’t have the skills or the reserves in the tank to keep going, it’s just good common sense to acknowledge that, to see it when it’s happening. And then probably the trickier part is to find the right help. There’s lots and lots of people right now who are looking and needing to get some more support.
And honestly, the mental health professionals are pretty overwhelmed right now. And it’s hard to get in, even. It’s hard to get the help that you need, which is one reason why I think the kind of work that you do with the podcast or with your magazine and just in that I try to do with mine too is to reach larger numbers of people with really good common sense tools. It doesn’t replace the need for therapy, but it’s still really good to get things out there and be able to help people when they’re so much at need.
Right. Well, and one of the things that you do in your column so well is that you introduce people to– I mean the name of your column is Natural Mental Health, and so it’s looking at ways that we– things we can each do in our own lives to ideally support our mental well-being. And I know you’ve covered, at various points, different nutrients, or minerals, or things that can be helpful for people who might be struggling and a place to start. Are there any of those that you would want to mention today or talk about that are good for most people in general?
Yeah I’ll talk about– I’ll mention three things that I think are– [COUGHS] I’m really focusing right now on the stress, anxiety kind of phenomenon. And one of the simplest and most effective, and actually very inexpensive, nutrients is magnesium. Magnesium is so important to the body’s ability to reset itself.
So neurons after they fired and muscles after they’ve contracted, they use magnesium to help reset so that they can be active again. And so it’s calming. It helps with sleep. It helps reduce muscle tension. And a lot of people are deficient in it. So it’s a little bit important to pay attention to the kind of magnesium that you use because some of them are a little harder on the gut and others are easier. Also, there are some that get absorbed better in the brain. I think magnesium L-threonate is the best for brain function.
Second thing is L-theanine. And this is an amino acid, very, very helpful for calming anxiety. And it can be even be a little bit helpful for sleep even though it’s not sedating. It’s the thing in green tea that might make green tea so soothing and calming even though it’s got a little bit of caffeine in it. So L-theanine is an amino acid. Magnesium was a mineral.
The third thing I’ll mention, because I’ve so many of my patients have benefited from this, is CBD oil, using some kind of a CBD product. And this is something I use myself, actually, for– I started using it for some inflammation, tendinitis kind of stuff, which it’s helped, but it’s a side benefit, it’s really helped my sleep. And I think– I don’t know. I’m calmer than I used to be. Let’s put it that way.
So I think those three things, I consider them to be quite safe and easily accessed and kind of broadly helpful for what’s going on right now.
Yeah, I want to go back to– I know you said in the beginning, it was almost 50% as associated with mental health within whether it’s hereditary or within the DNA. So for those listeners, is that more because of the environment that they grew up in, those are environmental factors? And then if so, for those listeners once again tuning in, how do we now say, OK, just that 50% is there, but there’s also this other end of the 50% and how you cannot necessarily become a product of your environment, and you can actually change the way your body feels and what you’re feeling.
Yeah. Thanks for bringing us back to that because I meant to add that even though I still think it’s true that the genetics make up a very, very big part of what makes us vulnerable, but I think that even with diagnoses like anxiety and depression, stress accounts for about 80% of people who have those things. So that’s a little confusing, those numbers there. But suffice it to say that it’s stress that triggers most of this.
And even in people like– the genetic studies were done with identical twins, so their genes are identical. And yet one of those twins might develop depression, and the other one doesn’t. Well, why is that? That’s telling us, really, that even if you’ve got the genes for an illness like this, there’s a lot you can do to prevent the illness from showing up.
And that’s where all of these lifestyle factors and learning the good mental and emotional skills, they really, really come in and make a difference. Plus, being lucky enough to avoid some of the really major life stresses or at least not having them all come at once, which is, unfortunately, what I think has happened in the last couple of years.
Yeah. It’s just, it’s nice to hear that we have some level of control over this to a degree, that we’re that other 50% for those of us who might not have that or who have a genetic predisposition potentially. And that’s something to kind of look to as a light, I think, when there is– in hard times.
I usually emphasize this as well to my patients, that even people with the genetics really strong and who have had these problems most of their lives, even then there is a lot that they can do to modify it.
Yep, that’s something to hold on to right there. So one thing I just wanted to ask you, I know– obviously, we’ve talked to you. Before the pandemic, you were one of our first guests on the podcast in person. Then there was a pandemic, we talked to you during that. Now we’re kind of almost on the other side of this it seems like, what are you feeling hopeful and optimistic about these days?
Oh, good question. Well, I do think that we have come through this largely intact. If you look at how adaptable people are, which we’ve seen throughout this last two years, and how many people really have held up even though they might not be feeling at their best. I mean, to me, it’s just been another really striking example of resilience that I think is there. And I think if anything, it might even grow at the end of all this.
I feel like so many right now, that we’re just about on the other side of this as a real pandemic at least, that we’ll have to live with it. But we know how to do that. We know how to adapt. And we can do that. But to be able to move out of all of the pandemic has meant would be such a huge relief and an opening.
So I feel good about where we’re at right now. I feel really good about how well I’ve seen people manage their way through this. And I also think that they’re bringing this conversation to a higher level of mental health and well-being and what we can do to really accomplish that. I think that in the end, that is going to be very, very good for us as a society.
Absolutely. Well, David, any other questions for Dr. Emmons?
Well, we got some hot seat questions.
We do have that. Before we get to that–
Dr. Emmons, anything else you would want to add to that before we have David ask you his hot five that we’ll call them, I guess?
No, I don’t think so. I think we covered a lot of good ground.
Excellent. Well, David, over to you.
You got your questions.
Easy five, easy five, some fun ones here. So health and wealth, what makes those words synonymous to you?
Ooh, health and wealth?
Oh. Because they both enrich our lives. They both give us what we need to be able to live as fully and deeply as we want to.
I love it. Love it. Would you rather go on a long walk or simply just listen to music?
I would rather go on a long walk and either listen to a podcast or music while I’m doing.
The best of both worlds. OK. What book have you read that changed the way you looked at things within life?
Ooh. I want to get a good one here. Well, this is a book I’ve come back to many times. The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle. And another one that I kept coming back to, The Untethered Soul. Those are two really beautiful books.
Love it. Love it.
Writing those down.
I know, right. All right, what brings you joy in life?
I became a grandfather this week for the first time.
That’s a huge source of joy. Honestly, family, friends, being able to feel good in my body, move, get outdoors. Well, there’s so many sources of joy. I’m actually, I’m going to put a plug-in here for my Joy Lab program because it’s been so great for me to be working on that program. We’ve got almost a year under our belt now of cultivating all of these different elements of joy. We got 12 of them, one per month. And it has really been fun and joyful just to work on it.
I think we need to go through that program. That’d be fun.
Yeah. Last but now least, here we go, what do you want to leave as a stamp of impact in the year 2022?
Hmm. Very simple. I want to– I really want to be more present to the people in my life when I’m with them, just to really be there with them.
I love that.
We could all do that.
I think it seems like a good lesson. Thank you. All right. Well, Dr. Emmons, we want to make sure people know where they can find you. So they can visit NaturalMentalHealth.com and JoyLab.coach. Is that right?
Alright. Anywhere else? Are you on any of the social platforms?
Yeah. I mean, both Joy Lab and Natural Mental Health are on all the major social platforms. And we have a podcast, the Joy Lab podcast, which is, at this point, is once a month. And encourage people to check that out too. It’s available on any of the podcast apps.
So great. We’ll be there right alongside you, hopefully. So, well, thank you for coming back with us again. It’s so nice to see you again and to have you share your ideas and insights with us.
Oh, it’s always a pleasure. I love working with you two.
Alright, til next time then.
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