In our latest podcast episode, Michael Futterman, Head of Knowledge Labs® Professional Development, interviews Dr. Heidi Hanna, Chief Energy Officer of Synergy Brain Fitness. Dr. Hanna explains why she views stress not as “good” or “bad,” but rather as a form of stimulus that has the potential to fuel positive change. She also shares ideas on how we can control our stress – and even take advantage of it – during this time of uncertainty.
Michael Futterman: Hi, and welcome, my name is Michael Futterman, I am the head of Knowledge Labs Professional Development at Janus Henderson Investors. And I am thrilled to have a guest with me, Dr. Heidi Hanna, who is the Chief Energy Officer of Synergy Brain Fitness, the founding partner of the Academy for Brain Health and Performance, and a fellow advisory board member for the American Institute of Stress. She is a best-selling author and she is a long-time collaborator with us at Janus Henderson Investors. Thank you so much, Heidi, for joining us today.
Heidi Hanna: You are welcome. I am just really impressed with how thrilled you are. That was a great way to start, thank you. And you have a great radio voice, by the way.
Futterman: Thank you so much, I have been working hard on my timber. Yeah, it is one of my core competencies.
Hanna: Good, good.
Futterman: So Heidi, we are here today to talk about stress, and I think that it is safe to say that all of us are experiencing an unprecedented environment in which we can be triggered into having stressful reactions. So let me get right to the heart of the matter: In an environment like this, that we are experiencing, is it even possible for us to manage our stress successfully?
Hanna: Well, I love that you asked it that specific way. I actually couldn’t have teed this up better. Because I would say it is not, and that may not be the answer you think I am going to say, but it is really important in why I say this, this is an important time for a paradigm shift. I think that managing stress is not effective or efficient. In fact, I think we have been trying to do it for a long time unsuccessfully. It is why the statistics are so overwhelmingly intense about our current stress epidemic. So I would say we have to first change the lens through which we look at stress and that is why I use a stress mastery formula. And one of the reasons I love partnering with you guys is, and I would say, and the clients we serve and the partners we work with throughout this industry, is that most people I come across understand that stress really is just stimulus for change. So I have been saying for a long time that I wouldn’t even call it good or bad, I wouldn’t even give it an emotional quality at all. I would just say it is what happens in the gap between demand and capacity. And if we look at it through that lens, it now becomes a potential asset, so stress now has the potential to fuel positive change and something I have started to call positive adaptability. And even just in that term, we are talking about a radical shift, because we have been talking about resilience, but resilience is just bouncing back to where we were before, whereas positive adaptability is becoming better as a result of what we have gone through. So I think right now in this moment of time, we have a really unique opportunity to create this paradigm shift and to actually look at stress through a new lens and to actually use it to help us and not only then do we get the benefits of it, but it stops hurting us. It hurts us because we don’t know how to use it in a positive way.
Futterman: So you said a mouthful there and I want to…
Futterman: No, it is all right, that is why we have you with us today, is because you are so knowledgeable about the topic. And I want to unpack a couple of the things that you described here. One of them is, you said, if I heard you right, that we are not going to be able to manage it successfully, but that what we can do in terms of this idea that adaptability … is what you are talking about increasing our capacity for tolerating stressful events?
Hanna: 100 percent, 100 percent. And so I think what has happened is, if you think about, it seems like it is just semantics, but I know you and I both really love the power of words. So if you think about stress management, most people are going to think about time management and all the demands that are up against us. And it starts to feel very much about the outside. Here is all the things that life is doing to me, and therefore I need to manage it more successfully. And so what happens is, number one, it tends to put people into more of a victim mentality, so it is me against the world. And so we constantly feel overstimulated, underprepared, overfed, undernourished … I mean I could go on a whole soapbox about this topic. But I feel like we are just pushing piles around ultimately.
So yes, maybe we could minimize some of the demands and we could be more strategic about things like time and energy, and certainly we have programs that we have collaborated on that will help people with those types of tactics. But I think when it really comes down to it, if we are looking for transformation, if we are looking to live life as the best version of ourselves, then we have to really ask ourselves, can we get better? Can we go through COVID-19 and be better as a result of what we have gone through together? And everything about research says that not only can we, but we kind of have to. I mean, even to the point of my dear colleague and mentor who unfortunately passed away this year, Bruce McEwen, who has done just groundbreaking work on this and how stress gets under the skin and how the organ of the brain is really the lens through which we experience all of these things, and this is such a simple idea. But he talks about stress being tamed, tolerable or toxic, and I know we talk about that in our new program as well. But one of the biggest things he taught me was that neuroscience has now clearly shown that when the human system is experiencing stress and we release hormones like cortisol, which we know normally will actually kill brain cells, specifically those in the hippocampus, which affects our memory and attention and mood and learning and all sorts of things, when we also have oxytocin, which is the social bonding chemical, it actually totally changes the process. So now it becomes a growth cocktail instead of a chemical that was breaking us down. And by the way, you don’t have to be physically in the same space to feel this oxytocin rush. I mean, hearing you say that you are thrilled to have me here, I will be honest, I got a little oxytocin from that. Because I was like, “Hey, we have been working really hard on this program and this is a really cool moment,” and, you know, my brain just got kind of jazzed up about that.
So can I now navigate the demands of the construction going on outside my window that has been literally torturing me or, you know, the fact that maybe I could have eaten a little bit more or a little bit sooner or slept a little bit more, can I tolerate that now better because my capacity is higher? I would say absolutely. And that is like – and I know you know this term, it may be less familiar to others – we have post-traumatic stress disorder, which really happens because we experience trauma and our body adapts in a way it is supposed to, but then we can’t come back from that. That is where the disorder comes in. But we also have lots of studies that show post-traumatic stress growth, and that is what I am saying. It is like there has never been a more perfect time to experience growth as a result of this. Let’s not try to manage our way through it, let’s figure out how we master stress and really use it for positive change.
Futterman: Yeah, so not to make light of the situation that is going on here, but really what you are saying is, what does not kill me can only make me stronger?
Hanna: 100 percent. And we could so nerd out on quotes here. I mean, it is funny to me, because literally you could do an entire book on quotes about exactly what we are talking about. I mean, Victor Frankl, right, the gap between stimulus and response. William James talks about that is our true power to change. I mean, there is just quote after quote, mantra after mantra. You know, we can’t get rid of the waves, but we can learn how to surf. And I always tell people, especially with my relationship with REEF, which is a beach brand here in San Diego, I don’t even surf. I consider myself a surfer of life. I like the mentality, I like the emotion of living at the beach. I don’t even go in the water, but to me that is the training that happens when you have really been in tough waters and you have had to figure out how to ride the waves and use the energy and information to fuel a good ride. You know, we are all on a ride to some extent. Again, we could totally quote out about this … I will refrain myself.
Futterman: Now, you know, some of these things are going to be very new for people, and with the achievement-oriented audience that we have, there are going to be people who are going to want to be able to measure their progress and measure their achievement in the coming Zen Masters, right? And I have said on my presentations, right, that I am not a Zen Master. I try and practice this stuff, but my mother told me that anybody that has a belly button makes mistakes and last time I checked, I have one. So I am imperfect, I make…
Hanna: And you can still see it, too.
Futterman: I can still see it for the time being, that has been the thing that has been the hardest for me is not being able to go to the gym and be able to work out in that space. I just don’t like working out at home, it is one of my … it is just a challenge that I have. So I have to overcome that. But my question really is for those people that are out there that are really saying to themselves, alright, I am going to try this stuff, I might be skeptical, and that is going to be my follow-up question, is what do we do with skeptics? But for those that are like, alright, I am going to give this a go, what are some of the signs that they can look for, that they are actually getting better at managing and responding to their stress rather than just reacting to it?
Hanna: Yeah, that is a great question. And I think there are a few different ways to look at this. I think that you can … man, there are so many ways I could go with this. You know, I look at the lens, or I look through the lens of energy, so when I think about stress, I always think about it being the gap between demand and capacity and five primary areas. So, those being physical, emotional, mental, spiritual and social. So I could say the same thing here, and it is why I do love the tools that we have and I know you are going to be sharing those with everybody, things like the energy audits and the stress audits and stress load audit and just different things that can help people kind of check in with themselves. But I would say even if you don’t have those, to just ask yourself on a scale of zero to 10, if you were going to give yourself a score of your capacity in physical energy, which is really that capacity, like how energized are we, most people can come up with a score there. Let’s say emotional capacity, and that that is really about whether or not you are seeing more positive or seeing more negative, and where are you at there? What is your bucket as far as your emotional energy? Mentally, are you able to focus and pay attention? You know, if you are in a conversation with someone, can you really be fully present or do you feel yourself being distracted or pulled toward your phone, or what you might be missing out on? If we think spiritually, do you feel connected to your values and your vision and your mission? Do you have beliefs that guide you? Do you feel like you are actually showing up as the person you want to be, that is a good way to ask that one. And I would say socially, you know, are you supporting others? Are you feeling supported? And know that social capacity is not about how many friends you have or how many followers you have or how many people are at the bar after your presentation, it is really, do you feel connected?
And so if you were to just zero to 10 for all of those and then add that up and multiply it by two, you get a score essentially out of a hundred. And I usually tell people this is how you know first of all how charged are you, how energized are you? And there is no right answer. You and everyone else in this industry wants me to give them a score and say where they should be. I don’t know, I don’t know where you want to be. You know, it is like people who say, “Well, I only sleep six hours at night and I am doing great.” And I always say, “I am sure you are, you could do better,” because you will do better if you sleep more. I am not going to argue that with you. So I would say the same thing here, you know, are you happy with how you are showing up? And I will say for me, personally, where this shows up, it shows up physically, because I do tend to embody stress a lot, so it is usually weight gain, not weight loss. I am always like, why am I not the person who loses weight when I get stressed?
Futterman: Right, why didn’t I get that reaction?
Hanna: I want that gene. You know, physically I get headaches and backaches and I will get dizzy and things like that, but honestly the one that really shows up for me is when I am just not very kind to my husband. And my husband is the kindest human I have ever met in my life and this man, I mean I waited 43 years to find him, this man lives to love me and it is just the sweetest thing. And you know what, I am looking at him going, “Land the plane, honey.” Like that is just not nice. So it is in those moments, and I feel it and I notice it and I try to cut down the amount of irritability and frustration and shortness that I have. My guess is that there are probably other people here that would relate to that, whether it is with a partner, spouse, colleague, client, child … you know, and those moments have a serious impact on us and on them. So yeah.
Futterman: Yeah, absolutely. Right, I am here in my house with my 12- and 13-year-old, a wife and a dog that could bark at any moment and it is certainly … I mean, yeah, I am trying to produce content for our clients and for our listeners and it is super stressful. And I think what I take away from what you have just described is this idea that you need to listen to yourself. And I think one of the challenges for a lot of reasons, whether it is the devices that we have or the always-on environment or just the way that we have trained ourselves to be constantly, you know, looking for that next stimulus and not taking that time to reflect and be, you know, what a lot of the gurus would say is be mindful, and that is really just paying attention to what am I feeling right now? And learning to recognize those moments so that you can then say, you know what, I don’t have to believe in that. Just because I think it doesn’t mean that I have to believe in that. And I have a choice, once I am able to identify that hey, I am doing this better or I am not doing this as well as I would like, but I know I would like to be doing better. I can start to recognize that in the moment and then take more deliberate conscious action rather than that non-conscious action that we are so used to.
Hanna: And that requires something really important: I want to land this, I want to make sure this lands with everybody, and you are probably going to be like, “Yeah, Heidi, we get it.” Okay, here is the most important thing, get clear on who you want to be. Get clear on how you want to feel. Get clear on how you want others to feel around you. Because if you don’t, you have nothing to compare it to. I can’t tell you how to live your life to be your best self. I don’t know what your best self is, you need to decide. And guess what, that could change every hour, it could change every day, but we always have the chance to choose. So you have to get clear on that. That is why quiet time, reflection time, journaling, meditating, listen to music, working out, doing all of those things to get a clear mind so that we can say, “I have now have something to measure it against.” But don’t measure it against an assessment, even though we love assessments and they can help you. Figure out what that means, what is a word or a phrase or a mantra that describes you when you are showing up as your best self and then use that for a while to anchor back into and to compare yourself to.
Futterman: Yeah, from the temple of Delphi to Shakespeare, it has always been, “Know thyself.”
Hanna: To Janus Henderson right now.
Futterman: To Janus Henderson … we are putting those all on an equal level at this point. But the unspoken part of those phrases is, you know, the work that goes into knowing thyself. So what are some of the things, and then we will land this thing, but what are some of the techniques that you recommend to people that would help them sort of gain that clarity on who they are or in the case of a lot of people, who they aspire to be?
Hanna: Yeah, well, one of the things my research partner, Dr. Evian Gordon, and I always keep coming back to is that it is really less about what you do and the timing that matters most. And so what I mean is like this is why I wrote my book, “Recharge.” It was actually … I was working with you guys, I was teaching Brain Works at the time, I had already written the book that Brain Works was based off of and I kept telling people, “You have just got to recharge your own battery.” And people would say, “What do you mean, and what do you do, and tell me what to do and give me a prescription,” and I was like, “Oh, people, I can’t tell you want to do, you have got to figure it out. But let me give you some guidance, let me create a framework for you.”
And so I started really thinking about this, when is it most important for us to recharge? And so first thing in the morning, what I call prime time, we have to plug in our brain, our nervous system, our mind into how we want the day to be, right? So it is those questions and how do we do that? We mediate, we pray, we read something inspirational, we do journaling. There is an amazing book called “The Artist’s Way,” and I have been doing this process now since January 2, the day that my friend passed away, and it has been a game changer for me. Actually, you don’t even have to read the book, just write three pages every morning, journal for three pages. And I could not stick with journaling, but I finally just said, “I am going to force this, just three pages, that is it.” And I now actually am excited to go to sleep, so that I can wake up and do my morning writing. So whatever that looks like for you, listen to music, right? Take your dog for a walk, hang out with your kids, watch a funny video. There are so many things you can do, but really before you do anything, invest in yourself, recharge your brain, plug in, right, to the energy that you want to have.
And then I would say, on the other side of the day, just as important, if not more so, is how you unplug or unwind from the day. So what do you do at that moment. And I would say at least an hour before you go to bed, to start letting go of the day and really transitioning and letting go of the work, the stress, the worries, all of that. So again, same types of rituals or routines can be helpful. Keep a notepad next to your bed, so you can just jot down ideas on paper, try not to look at technology or anything too stimulating. My dear friend, Michael Breus, who is the sleep doctor, he and I have had an ongoing debate about whether or not you can watch TV in the bedroom. I think he says yes, because his wife does and he doesn’t want to get a divorce, I still say no, but we have different reasons. So he says the stimulation to the nervous system through the eyes, the TV is too far away, unless you are looking at it. Don’t look at an iPad or a phone or whatever, but if it is on the wall and you are in bed, then you are fine, you are not getting that activation of the blue light and the things most people think about. I still say fine, but make sure it is something funny, boring … like, don’t activate your nervous system. If it is something you are trying to pay attention to or if there is like disruptive noises or patterns or if it is the stuff I tend to want to watch before bed like Homeland or Breaking Bad, it is not good for your sleep patterns.
Futterman: Right? No.
Hanna: This is a good time, by the way, to just kind of meditate, reflect, listen to music, use essential oils, and so it is the bookends of the day, how you unplug and how you plug in in the morning. And then recharge: how are you going to recharge your battery? At least three times during the day, how are you going to turn off the noise, the stress, the stimulation of the day and do something that is just restorative. And again, the same types of solutions really work. I tend to focus on things that are sensory in nature, so physical activity, moving your body, smelling essential oils and we have got some special blends I am happy to share with your group at some point that really mimic the experience of being at the beach. You can listen to sounds, we know the sounds of ocean waves crashing, for example, is the most calming to the human nervous system, some deep breathing, some natural light. You know, it is common sense, it is common sense stuff that is just not common practice. So we have to practice, and this … I will go again to asking the personal question for you: Which one of those would be most impactful and most realistic? If you are not a morning person, don’t make it the morning, make it the evening before you go to bed. If it is the other way around, like I pass out right now about 8:00 and I am waking up at 4. I have decided to just go with it, it is okay. So I am not going to try to have a bedtime routine at 9:00, because I am not going to make it. I am going to have a killer morning routine that I really look forward to, and then I am going to actually set an alarm clock by about 6:00 to say, “That is it for me, no more work.” And I know many people are going, “Yeah, I could never do that.” I bet you could. I bet if you actually saw how efficient and effective you were, you would realize you can get more done in less time if you manage your energy accordingly. And again, that is a whole other program, so…
Futterman: Right. And then it is true there are a lot of people that are out there that are going to say, “This is all chakras and, you know, astral projections and pseudoscience,” but…
Hanna: Right, go back to San Diego.
Futterman: Go back to San Diego, right. You are in Boulder where everybody is a hippie. And you know, I get it, being a recovering New Yorker, that, you know, there is a certain amount of skepticism out there. But my favorite musician says that without deviation from the norm, there can be no progress. And I think that that is the thing for our listeners to really take away is that you will keep getting the same results if you keep doing the same stuff. All we are asking you to do is try something different. And we can’t tell you that this thing is going to be the one thing for you. You have got to figure that out, right? So I think your comments here about trying out a ritual and creating that habit and making it stick, it takes some effort, but the dividends and the returns can be huge if it works for you. You have just got to take the time to figure out what does work for you.
Hanna: And take the time, and I would also say look at where in your life you would say failure is not an option and tie it into that. And so what I mean by that is, is it your children, is it your partner or spouse, is it your clients? And by the way, don’t underestimate that. I mean, I feel like I still get flak all the time, people will say, “Whoa, it must be so hard that you had to choose your career over having a family.” I don’t have kids, I am okay with it. I have four grandkids, there are plenty of kids out there that I can help in this world. My passion is my work and I own that. And so for me, it is being responsible, of doing what I know I need to do to best serve my clients. And I think that is okay. So I just want to put that out there as well, is like create the story that you need to tell yourself that says failure is not an option. That really is going to have you go take that walk or do the deep breathing or get a massage or meditate, whatever it is. What do you need to believe about your impact, your legacy, those types of things that is going to be totally dependent on whether or not you can recharge your own battery and master stress.
Futterman: Two more quick questions. One is, what about others? So, obviously all of our listeners are going to be super skilled and perfect in managing their own situations, of course.
Hanna: I know you guys, come on, you can’t pull that one over me.
Futterman: Listen to this podcast and you will be 100%, right? But what about for the people that don’t have the opportunity to hear the podcast, their loved ones, their kids, their spouses … What is your advice to people that might be helping others manage their stress?
Hanna: Number one by far is you have to model it, so whether they are children, friends, clients, bosses, employees, loved ones, enemies … doesn’t matter. People will watch what you do, they will notice how they feel, they won’t care a whole lot about what you say. So I do think it is important to really model that. It is one of the issues we have in leadership right now is that leaders are trying to tell employees to take better care of themselves as leaders deteriorate. And it is just not okay. In my mind, it is kind of like doctors who say one thing and do another … like, you are not a healer, you are not a leader if you can’t lead yourself and really show up as an example, that is number one.
Number two is listen. Just really listen. You know, when someone is struggling and they are feeling stressed, they don’t want you to fix it regardless of what you tell yourself. I can definitely tell you this in male/female dynamics and by the way, that is not just men and women. There are male and female brain patterns and different things like that. But you know, females tend to want to talk through things, brainstorm, be creative, be curious. I know I will share something with my husband and he just starts to speak, poor guy, I don’t let him, because he is going to want to take away my pain. I don’t want him to, I just want him to listen. So when you authentically listen to someone and all you have to do is appreciate them by saying, “That must really be hard,” oh my gosh, what a gift you give them. Because most people today, it is like we are not willing to just sit with someone else in their discomfort. We have to take it away, because we don’t feel good about it. If you can just sit with them for a second and acknowledge that times are hard, you will have a tremendous, positive impact on them.
Futterman: Yeah, well listen, you have been a tremendous, tremendous guest today. I really want to say thank you so much, I learn so much every time that we talk with each other. And I hope our listeners did, too. And just thank you and I hope that you continue to feel better.
Hanna: Thank you.