Continually feeling drained, worn out, and mentally exhausted despite the amount of workload? Fatigue is not an uncommon term, but it is among the body signs that humans just don’t see and acknowledge. To let you in a little secret: it’s all hardwired into our heads. In this episode, Dr. Amy Mednick, a Board-Certified Adult Psychiatrist specializing in the compassionate treatment of a variety of conditions, shares the curious way the mind works, how to identify the causes of fatigue and learn how to address them, and how every basic human need—seen or unseen—is hardwired into our heads. Tune in now and enter the world of seeing the unseen!
- 4:02 – Psychiatry: The Art Of Understanding People
- 7:50 – The Corporate Wellbeing
- 4:50 – Writing Stuff Down Helps Big Time
- 37:53 – Breaks Are Essential
- 39:52 – You Cannot Sustain The Grit Grind
- 46:27 – Natural Empathy Vs Cognitive Empathy
How do we leverage continuous uncertainty to thrive in this unprecedented new world?
The answer is to build the resilience we need to power us through the challenges we face so that we become “Change Proof.” Prepare to tackle the future with confidence by reading Adam’s latest book Change Proof: Leveraging the Power of Uncertainty to Build Long-Term Resilience.
Watch the episode here
Listen to the podcast here
All Things Brain: The Art Of Recognizing Fatigue And Developing Mental Resilience With Dr. Amy Mednick
You’re going to love this episode of the show. I have Dr. Amy Mednick, who has a passion for all things brain, which started in her undergraduate studies in neuroscience at MIT. She went on to pursue psychiatry at Beth Israel as a field where you can make the most positive change in an area of the highest need. The Coronavirus pandemic moved all of her patient work online and led her to study and write about the effects remote work has on the human brain and its hardwired need for connection.
You’re going to love this conversation. If you’ve not yet taken your own resilience assessment to establish your mental resilience, you can do that for free in three minutes by going to RankMyResilience.com. You’ll get a score in four specific zones of resilience, including something that we’re going to be talking about in this episode with Dr. Mednick. Enjoy.
It’s fun to listen to your own bio read to you, I bet. I know I always enjoy hearing mine. It makes me cringe, to be honest.
I feel the same.
Here’s a question for you. What’s one thing that’s not part of your standard bio that you would love for people to know about you?
I wrote this book. I’m very science-minded. My book is all about science. That’s how I spend most of my days thinking, but my love is fiction. I love to write a novel. I started out with fiction writing and then found myself a scientist.
I’m a fan of fiction writing and always think my skills as a nonfiction writer don’t measure up, if I’m being transparent about it. With creative writing, my writing is somehow less creative.
It’s creative. It’s a different brain space. Especially if you spend so much time in that nonfiction space, it is hard to shift. It’s hard to move to that other space or feel like you can. It’s a different part of your brain.
It is maybe a decent lead-in. I would love for you to maybe provide a little bit of backstory on how you got to where you are. Maybe there’s a pivot or two in there that you might reveal.
I would love to. I was born and raised on East Coast in Jersey. I went to undergrad at MIT, so I was surrounded by a lot of engineers. Most of my friends became engineers. I fell into this small major at the school, which is brain and cognitive science, by accident. I loved it. I fell in love with everything related to the brain. I had an awesome time studying it in school. I decided to go to med school because why not? I wanted to be in a helping profession. I love science. It fit. I went to med school up in the Bronx. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do. I figured I love the brain, so I’ll be a neurologist.
For people out there that are maybe smiling at this, I had my journey to law school. I’m not like you. I couldn’t admit that maybe I went into it a bit randomly, like, “I’ll go to law school.” I spent eighteen years doing that work before I finally pivoted out of that. Let’s go back to you.
I was at med school. The nice thing about med school, and I don’t know if they do this in law school, are you get to try everything out before you commit to anything. That’s a great thing not to just figure out what you love but also so that once you’re a doctor, you know about all the other stuff. I didn’t know and went through the rotations thinking, “I’ll fall back on neurology if I must.” I had no thought ever of being a psychiatrist. I had my psychiatry rotation, and then halfway through, I fell completely in love with it and decided that was what I was going to do. That’s what I did.
I did my psychiatry residency and finally finished school. That was exciting. I started my own psychiatry practice and did a lot of psycho-pharmacology prescribing medications. I came to love that a lot. You start to get to know your patients well. You get to glimpse into their brains. You’re making little adjustments. You’re seeing what happens when we change this and what happens when we change that.
The more you understand people and how they respond to these things, the more you get to know the inner workings of their minds and understanding in general. It is super rewarding work because I found myself helping people fine-tune their own experience of the world to make it a little bit better and build their resilience.The more you understand people and how they respond to things, the more you get to know the inner workings of their minds. Click To Tweet
I was doing that for a long time. You could call it a pivot, but it’s still psychiatry. After a while, I looked for other things because I wanted to have more to offer my patients and medications. I started doing a procedure a few years ago. It’s called transcranial magnetic stimulation. It is a brain stimulation to treat depression. It is to help rewire and help stimulate growth. I started doing TMS. It’s a very office-based procedure. I got it up and running about March 2020. It has taken off. We all know how that went. I pivoted back out of the office and back home.
Luckily, psychiatry, other than the TMS arm, is pretty well-suited for the remote world. I was lucky in that way. All my work went online like everyone else. I continued seeing my patients online and running the rest of my life online like everyone else. A little way into the pandemic, I was approached by a colleague who had this idea for this book about doing remote work. It was pretty early. We didn’t know how to do any of this, but we decided to write a book about it. It’s extremely interesting because we wrote it as we went. We took a year. It was late 2020 and late 2021.
We explored these things. We explored the problems we were having and our patients and our clients were having and put our finger on the why. A lot of the book is about the why. It is about why we are struggling, what’s missing, and what’s hard, and then goes later into strategies. The strategies resonate more because there’s science behind them. That was a lot of my pandemic life. I’m doing all those things, but back out in the real world also, which is lovely.
That’s the story for a lot of us. I have a personal interest in talking about the subject matter of your book, which is why we’re so happy to have you as a guest on the show. A lot of my work as a resilience keynote speaker is under a bigger umbrella. That umbrella is more about well-beingness, if that is a word. It’s the idea that we can take better care of one another and spend massive amounts of our adult lives at work and with other people in that same pursuit. Creating better systems for the care of those around us and for ourselves is a worthwhile pursuit. It’s what I do as opposed to what I was doing as a lawyer. It is a different thing.
This is a time when we are getting granular even about what that looks like as opposed to the big broad strokes of it. We’re like, “I get it. We should take better care of ourselves. We should take better care of others.” It makes sense. Yet, we still are looking at massive attrition levels. People leave the workplace more frequently and more quickly. It was blamed on millennials for a long time. What we see is it’s not Millennials or Gen Zs. People are not having their needs met where they are and they have options. Maybe that’s part of where we are in the cycle of the economy that’s made that possible, too. Who knows? That’s what’s obvious.
I would like to explore a bit of what this remote work world was like for you as you were writing the book, what insights you gained, and what tangible things or the part of the book IS where you’re helping people to figure stuff out. We’re at the stage where we’re not in the ninth inning of it. We’re not in the first inning. We’re somewhere else. People are coming back into the office 2 to 3 days a week.
One of our youngest children got a job in the finance space. He turned down a job to be at a publicly traded company to work five days a week in the office in favor of a job for reasons that included the fact that he could work from home 2 days of the 5. We’re in this situation where it’s hybridized. Organizations are still struggling. Part of when we come into talk to them, it’s about the struggles they have with both attracting new talent, engaging them, and keeping them healthy and happy to the extent that that’s possible even. It is to a greater or less degree, based on the way the culture is set for those kinds of things. I’m going to pass this baton to you. Start anywhere you want in terms of what you learned while you were experiencing this transition and what the book talks about.
It is what I experienced and some common themes of talking to friends and seeing so many of my patients’ experiences. I was online with all of them. They were doing their remote work and their remote parenting. I got the opportunity to peer into a lot of living rooms and home offices and see all these people’s experiences through this.
Some of the common themes were a deep sense of exhaustion and fatigue that was different than anything people had experienced before. They had difficulty with attention and focus. Attention is an interesting area for me. That’s why I like to talk about attention a lot. I treat it. It ties to a lot of our conscious experiences. It’s the attention problems, and then there were the general, “I feel terrible. Why do I feel so terrible? I don’t know why. Why should I?” Since that was what I and my co-author were seeing the most often, we wanted to nail down why those things because they seemed prevalent.
The way we organized things was to identify some basic human needs that don’t get a lot of attention because they’re not obvious. I can get into those needs. The point is that it is all not obvious. We all think we’re fine. We’re like, “Why not? I can be on the computer all day. I can do Zoom meetings back to back. I have another meeting coming up. Why should I get up? I’ll finish. I’ll do it.We all think we're fine, but there are actually basic human needs that don’t get a lot of attention because of how unobvious they are. Click To Tweet
There’s this idea of like, “It’s fine. I can. It can’t be related to the fact that I feel weird, cranky, can’t pay attention, and fatigued in a way I never have known in my life before.” I was very interested in connecting the dots there. Let’s hone in what are the things that are missing and manifesting in these feelings. Once we found those and found the why it makes the strategy so much easier to apply. I tell my patients to apply the strategies all the time. I tell myself, too. It’s hard if you don’t know why. You could tell people to meditate a billion times, but when you explain what they’re missing and why it’s so important, it changes everything. That was a lot of my focus.
You’ve given us a great roadmap for this conversation because I’d love to start with the why. That makes a tremendous amount of sense. We can then talk about strategy. I’m curious because I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know the strategies ahead of time. I know what we teach on the strategy side. It’d be fun to see where they overlap, and I expect they will. First, I want folks to hear the name of the book.
It is called Humanizing the Remote Experience through Leadership and Coaching. We broke things down on into a few different levels of needs. When I say need, these are basic things that you’re hardwired to require that your body pushes you towards, like hunger. You’re hardwired to need food. When you don’t have enough of it, you feel hungry and then you go eat. If you’re a toddler, you might not know that that’s when you’re hungry. This is where we get into some of these that are not always so obvious.
On a more basic level, there’s the need for safety. There’s the need to feel safe and comfortable in your environment. That’s our brain’s first priority. Anywhere we enter and anything we do, sometimes, it’s unnoticeable or instantaneous, but there’s always an assessment of, “Am I safe here?” As human beings, being safe tends to require the presence of other people. That’s how we were wired. As infants, if we didn’t have other people around, we would not survive, unlike some other animals. We need other people around to survive. We have distress when they leave us alone. A lot of that never goes away. We’re wired for that. We’re wired to feel most comfortable with other people around us. It doesn’t quite go away.
Our question was, we have this need for safety and comfort around other people. Are we getting that met when we’re on these Brady Bunch screens all day? Maybe. We’re having a conversation. We’re connecting. We connect with people all day. It’s great, but what’s missing? Do you shut your laptop at the end of the day? If you’re alone in your room or apartment, does your body know? Does your brain or limbic system know that you were around people all day? If you’re going a week like that and you haven’t been with a person physically, what does that feel like?
If it doesn’t feel quite right, what we see is you’re not safe. You’re hypervigilant. You’re on alert. Your threat system is activated. You’re on the lookout for danger. When that’s the case and when you’re in that mode, you’re not in higher thinking. You’re not concentrating, focusing, listening to the meeting, and doing a list of complex tasks because your body’s in survival mode. Whether or not you’re having a full fight or flight response or a little one, still, your resources are going there.
Stress and strategy are a bit mutually exclusive.
If something might be wrong, then you’re not listening to the budget report.
Your body’s producing cortisol.
You’re like, “Whoa.” You’re looking for the next shoe to drop. If it’s a struggle to pay attention or you find yourself losing focus throughout the day, this could be why you could not meet your need to feel safe and comfortable. Maybe you need to address that. The second need moves up a level.
Can I ask a question about something else you said?
You asked such a brilliant question earlier that when we’re on the Brady Bunch screen, at the end of a day of doing that, does our limbic system know that we are with other people? You didn’t answer that question. I want to know the answer.
I don’t know for sure the answer. The experience is different for different people. There are things that happen in your body when you’re around people or when you’re making direct eye contact with people, which we are not making. I’m looking at your eyes, but if I do what I’m supposed to do and stare straight into my camera so that you get the experience of direct eye contact, I’m looking at a white light.
We’re neither making direct eye contact nor making joint attention on one thing together. We’re missing the oxytocin that comes from that. Endorphins and dopamine, all these things come from these little interactions and these things we do during the day. Our brainwaves synchronize when we’re working together in teams. It’s been studied in teams. It’s been studied a lot in high school students.
It’s the Napoleon Hill thing. The two minds coming together create a third mind. It’s not as farfetched.
It sounds farfetched, but these students, their brainwaves are in sync. The more in sync they are, the more they’re engaged with their teacher. It has been shown and proven across the board. When we’re together, our brains synchronize. These social bonding chemicals flow. We have to assume that can’t all be happening. We’re still connecting. We’re still talking. We’re still joining minds and everything, but there are a lot of other things that we’re missing. It’s physical things. That’s why we say, “It’s fine. I’ve been talking to people all day. I’m sure it’s fine. I talked to people,” but does your body know that?
That’s why when you said that, I thought, “That caused me to pause for a second.” It would be like eating something that made you full or feel full but had no nutritional value. You go, “What did I get out of eating that? Did I eat?”
I remember my first real day venturing back into the office. It was still a little early in the pandemic. I remember I walked down the street and I ran into a neighbor. We walked to the subway together and she went to her office. I was like, “That felt nice.” I had been talking to people, but it’s the serendipity that we ran into each other. I was so excited.
I then went down into the subway, and it got there. As I got there, I slipped through the doors. Dopamine is those things that are these huge surges. It’s meeting her on the corner. The endorphin is these huge tiny little winds that I had getting to my office. It’s nothing that we think about, “I don’t have to commute. It’s great.” All those little teeny things add up when we’re missing them.
I won’t take us down this path. I’m curious if you’ve heard of the weak tie research.
For anybody else also, this is neat. It’s the early ‘70s. I can’t remember the name of the researcher. Forgive me. You can look it up. It’s called the weak tie connections. The concept was that a lot of the greatest innovations that have occurred within the working space or within organizations have occurred at that classic water cooler meeting, that random meeting in the hallway, or in the break room. It was studied how important those were to the innovative process and why being in the office to some degree is vitally important to the evolution of whatever that organization’s purpose is because we need to be in proximity to other people, not just people on our own team.
There is a whole thing about how mentorship works that’s so vitally important. You’re getting to know people. You’re connecting. Those random meetings are so essential. I did some writing during the pandemic about weak ties in connection with what you’re saying. It is the idea that when we were locked in place and all the other things were in front of a computer screen more than anything else, we missed those interactions that you described. Those interactions are so important to how resilient we feel in the face of existential threats, which are everywhere.
Our world is a complicated place. It’s no different now than it was in 1930 when there was a great depression and a dust bowl happening at the very same time. We somehow came through that. That weak tie connection is the term for maybe a little bit of what you were experiencing, which is so cool.
I agree. That water cooler stuff is so vital. Those are meetings that you have that are not scheduled. You have the side comments. It’s all these little tiny things that need to happen spontaneously, and then they don’t. You can’t schedule all of them.
It’s not new to us. We’re in this maybe awkward adolescent phase of this thing. I’m asking a future work question. How much are we going to keep of what we were forced to learn to do versus what we were doing before?
I hear about a lot of people like your son. A lot of my patients were very happy working remotely and getting to be with their kids. I hear so many workplaces where it’s for show. It’s so clearly for optics. There was a lot of value to the flexibility, to be at home, and to bring workers in because they should be there because you bought new office space. There are so many issues there. There’s so much lack of respect and understanding. That’s not the thing that engages workers. People need to be happy and feel understood and not feel overworked to be happy at work. That’s essential.
There are all these problems I’m listing, but these are not problems that are solved by a five-day work week either where you’re commuting every day and killing yourself over it. We had this opportunity to explore how much of this we can do online and what’s missing when we do it online. It is shortsighted to say, “Let’s go back,” because we found some stuff that worked. We gave people more of an opportunity to attend to their self-care and to be where they need to be for their families. It’s a tough world out there. It’s hard to get everything done, especially as working parents and everything. Let’s use it.
It’s silly to go back to what we were doing before when we figured out a lot of ways to make this work. We’re like, “Let’s identify the things that don’t work when we’re at home and what things we’re missing from the organization, and then try to get those things. What’s the combination? What works for people? What’s going to keep people well? Otherwise, they’re not going to do good work.”
That wouldn’t be a sustainable recipe. Nobody would think that would somehow create a sustainable performance.
We had this great experiment. We were like, “Let’s keep this stuff that worked because there was some great stuff here.”
On the strategy side, I’d love to know the book a little bit. Don’t give us all of it because we want people to go get the book. Give us maybe a taste of some of what strategies are in there.
The ones that I’m most interested in are the ones about energy. I’ll backtrack a little to talk about where the fatigue problems come from. I talked about the attention problem. With Zoom fatigue, an explanation we give for that is there’s this other need, which is to be understood, to understand people, and to make sense of the world. Our brains have to evolve a lot to be able to make sense of this incredibly complex world, language, people, and relationships. There’s so much to analyze in every waking moment that if you had to do it all fresh, you would last ten minutes, and then you’d have to go back to sleep because all of your brain energy would be spent.
As a result, with all these wonderful shortcuts, the brain has evolved to make assumptions, to take bigger pictures, and to make things more energy efficient. You can’t decipher everything that you’re perceiving in every single moment. That goes for perception and for relating with people. For example, a big shortcut is prediction. The brain loves predictions. The brain is a huge prediction generator. If it already saw something, it’s going to want to predict the same thing’s going to happen the next time. That’s often helpful. That does save a lot of energy. We have all these great shortcuts and they were not built for Zoom. They were as all designed for a three-dimensional world. When you translate them into a two-dimensional world, they fall flat.You can't decipher everything that you perceive in every single moment. Click To Tweet
There are a couple of problems. All of the cues, signals, body language, and things we use to predict what people mean and to understand people, either they’re missing or distorted. Missing is a problem. It makes things harder. I can’t see your whole body. I can’t feel your body language. We talked about the whole eye contact problem. We’re like, “I’m going to do a lot of extra work because I’m missing stuff. I don’t have enough information, so I’m going to fill in the blanks.”
Distorted is even worse because I’m getting the cues, but I’m wrong. I’m making a whole false assumption. For example, you make a joke and get an awkward pause because your boss’s internet was delayed. It’s just a little pause. You see a little glitch and then you’re like, “Okay,” but in that two seconds where you were paused, you were like, “What did I say?” You go back and read over. You’re like, “Did I think back over what I said? How am I going to fix this? What am I going to do?” He’s back and everything’s fine, so you think, “That was a little glitch. I’m fine.”
You don’t even realize necessarily that your brain did that work.
That’s happening all day long. We don’t realize that. We’re like, “We’re fine. We’re doing our thing back to back to back.” I believe that’s where Zoom fatigue comes from. It’s so much more work than we’re used to doing. It’s more than what meets the eye and what we usually go through on a regular day, but we’re doing it anyway.
We’re great at adapting. There’s somebody out there going, “That’s the great thing about this species.” We are only here because we’ve become the greatest adapters.
We’re great at adapting. We adapt over a long period of time. We’ve been Zooming for two years regularly. That’s not a lot of time on the evolutionary scale. We can’t expect our brains to evolve to be fluent in what it’s like to communicate in Zoom in this way. If we realize that there are problems, there’s misinformation, and there are glitches here, that’s where we can start to improve the situation. We’re going to interact remotely. It’s not going to be perfect, but we can do it in a healthy way.
Maybe awareness and understanding are so fundamental to any kind of change. I’m listening to you say this and I’m going, “How often have I taken it for granted that an hour is an hour?” If it was an hour doing something outside or an hour in the office on Zoom, my brain’s not necessarily saying to me, “With the hour that passed, I worked 20% harder during that hour than during a similar hour in a different environment.” Our brains don’t send us that level of recon.
What they do is they run out of steam. That’s what fatigue is. Fatigue is there’s nothing left. The gas tank is empty. It’s interesting. With mental fatigue, we also don’t understand that as well as we should. When we have physical fatigue, we stop. If your legs don’t work anymore, you’d stop running. You can’t do it. We don’t treat mental fatigue. You did 20% more, so you’re going to run out earlier than you would have, but we have our coffee and we push.
There was this interesting study out of the UK several years ago where they had two groups of people. One group did something very passive for an hour and a half and the other group did something emotionally challenging and cognitively draining. They used their brains hard for an hour and a half. They put both groups on stationary bikes and said, “Ride until you can’t ride anymore.” The cognitively challenged group rode significantly shorter. They got to exhaustion faster because it was all drawing from the same gas tank. We just don’t acknowledge it. We’re like, “Push. Keep going. I’ll rest later.”
Part of what we see in certain cultures, certain upbringings, programming from family and others, and certainly what we see in the cultures of workplaces is a grind mentality. I do a lot of speaking all over the US and all over the globe. In the last few years, it was mostly domestically. In certain places in this country, grinding is probably one of the highest compliments you can pay to someone. We’re like, “You’re great at that. You can grind away. You’re so gritty and tenacious.”
I apologize. It’s not that Angela Duckworth needs me to apologize. I’m sure I’m impacting nothing when it comes to her popularity, book sales, or anything. She’s got a great TED Talk, too. I feel like the grit thing is not our philosophy. Resilience is not about endurance. Resilience is about recovery. It’s about the way we ritualize our recovery and how we refill the tank. Can you refill the tank throughout the day so that you don’t deplete to the degree that you have been? Therefore, you do get more longevity, capacity, and all that good stuff.
That’s one of the main strategies that we talk about. It’s exactly what you’re saying. It’s stopping. It’s so un-American and it’s so hard to do. There’s this great research. They were researchers studying athlete performance. It was made by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. What they found in athletes, and it carried over to all of us, is that you need 15 to 20 minutes of rest for every 90 minutes of work. As they were studying athletes, they were looking at who’s the best. They were looking at tennis players. The biggest difference they found was not how they were playing but what they were doing in between playing and how they were taking breaks.
It’s so essential to recognize when you have been working for 90 to 120 minutes. If you’ve been working that hard, you need to stop. It’s so hard not to finish and then say, “I’ll take a break.” The truth is if you work eight hours straight versus 90-minute increments with breaks, you’re going to do better work. You’re going to be healthier and work better. It’s very counterintuitive. It’s hard to stop.
Breaks are essential. Breaks in nature are even better than regular breaks. Several studies have shown that. It has been shown that it calms the amygdala and the fight or flight system. It decreases the cortisol to be in nature. You can even look at it. The same was true if you were looking at nature in a natural scene. This is a human thing. Put a lot of emphasis on breaks, how you’re managing your energy, and how you’re refilling your fuel tank.
It’s so interesting, too. Those refills, we call it a toggle. It’s a bit of intermittent training, which I learned when I was a college swimmer. It’s interval training. I’ve read some studies about how 5 or 10-minute breaks between Zooms cool the brain. I’m a visual learner. On the one side, it’s a hot head. Yellow, orange, and red are what the brain lights up as. With breaks of 5 to 10 minutes, the brain is blue again. It’s cool. On some level, this is common sense. Yet, on another level, this is all new territory. In many ways, this is new territory.
Also, we’re living in different times. The grit and grind thing was a thing. I’m sure a lot of people succeeded. I was a workaholic attorney for eighteen years. I know what it’s like to work an 80 to 90-hour week and get a lot of stuff done. That’s what a lot of people get. There’s an ROI that you get out of being that kind of person. Yet, what we see is that you cannot sustain that. Also, the performance is what falls off. You were, in fact, an athlete looking to be at your best, which is so much more under the microscope because you lose a point or lose a match because you’re not at your best.
Tennis players, in between the points, the switch goes off. I remember that study. It was cool because their heart rate goes down. They might have been running crazy on the court to go after a ball or whatever. In between, their heart rate dips. It goes back to a resting heart rate in between. That’s their little intermittent 30-second and 60-second recovery. What do we do? We’re not athletes like that, but we can sit at our desks and rub our ears. You can close your eyes, breathe deeply for a few moments, and stretch. You could take a walk. I don’t know if you found this in your research, too. The sweet spot for us is 10 to 30 minutes. Sixty seconds is great for a state change. It’s momentary. It helps, but 10 to 30 minutes intermittently throughout the day is powerful.
That’s what NASA found, too. There was a NASA study on the ideal nap. It’s the best peak astronaut cognitive performance. I can’t remember the exact number. It was what you said. It’s between 20 and 30 minutes for the peak nap.
I don’t want to wake up grumpy. 10 to 30 minutes is good because you’re not grumpy.
It didn’t go far enough that you’re grumpy. It’s a great point about athletes. If you’re not doing it right, you see it in the points or the performance. If it’s a lawyer, it’s his ulcer 25 years later. It’s the cortisol.
Nobody’s seeing it on the scoreboard.
It’s the kid at home that gets the brunt of it or the dog. These are the things that turn into poor behavior. I don’t try to get on too high a horse with this stuff. We’re living in a world that’s always being called divisive. A lot of this is in the US, but it’s elsewhere, too, where people feel more divided and angry at each other. This is a question, not a statement. I would love to get your thoughts on this. Is it that we are different somehow that the pandemic or any of these things have somehow altered us, or are we depleted? Are we flat-out exhausted and that’s why we have such little patience for other people?
Yeah. We’re certainly depleted. Are we different? These things go together because what’s different is we do more where there’s more expected from us. There’s more to do. We have all these modern conveniences and yet, somehow, it’s not delivering all the free time we were supposed to get from all these modern technologies. It feels like there is more to do for most people than it’s possible to do in a day. There are so many demands and we’re depleted. There’s more being asked of us and more being taken from us energy-wise. We have less to give. We get depleted and then we have even less. We bicker, fight with each other, and get cranky and mean.
In putting it in those terms, it doesn’t make it go away, but understanding it is helpful to me. I’m not coming from a place of judgment as much as I am coming from a place of compassion, perhaps, or empathy. We’re all going through it. Regardless of your political color or whatever other thing we divide into, that’s our common denominator. We’re all feeling that way.
Eleanor Roosevelt wasn’t worried about posting on three social channels in the midst of every other thing. They are at different times. I get it. You can’t compare. When you put it that way that there is more being asked of us and more being taken, then that becomes exponential. It is like a bank account. If your resilience is depleted or if you’re in a deficit, if the next day you are also going to be in deficit, you can imagine that at some point, you run out. The same is true of having more deposits to that resilience bank account and you’re in a surplus that it’s exponential in the other direction as well. You’re getting compound interest on those deposits if you stay in surplus.
Empathy and perspective-taking take energy. You have to have something left to be able to do that. Those are going to go away when you’re depleted. The more we can fuel our bank accounts and have these different sources to turn to and draw from, the more we have the energy to understand the other point of view, understand the other side, and give them some grace and all of those things. We can’t do that if we all have this much left and we’re using it up to get home and get to Netflix.
Is empathy a higher-functioning activity? Does it take more energy from our brains to be empathetic and to be angry, for example?
I believe so. There are two kinds of empathy. There’s the one that comes pretty naturally when you feel what someone feels, and then there’s cognitive empathy which is a little bit more active where you don’t understand. When you don’t have as much in common with the person or common background, cognitively, you can still actively think about how it might feel to be them. This is a skill that can be built even if it doesn’t come naturally, but you’re not going to do that. If you don’t have enough energy, you’re going to give up.
I could talk to you for days, but we won’t and we can’t. This is my final question to you. Is there one thing that is your go-to? It’s the thing that you do if you are depleted. You’ve either done this to avoid the depletion or you recognize that’s what’s happening for you and you go to that one thing. What is that thing?
The thing that I’ve become most aware of and conscious of in all of these things is that all of this stuff takes a big cognitive load. It’s what we’re talking about here with not having anything left. We have this cognitive load we’re carrying all day. We add to it. We ask more of it. The Zoom meetings take more from it. That’s something I’ve become extremely conscious of living through the pandemic and juggling more and more than I could ever imagine. I’m getting to capacity I never did before, but I’m like, “I can’t go farther.”
There are a lot of strategies in the book about decreasing cognitive load. Those are probably some of the ones I took to heart the most. They’re simple. It’s surprising, but we try to make our brain do everything all on its own. Putting things down on paper is powerful and strong, even if you can’t check them off the list. Not holding them in your brain, not holding them in your working memory, and not having all the plates in the air is a strong obvious technique. I started doing it. I’m doing everything at once.
We have a tendency to say, “Do it. Answer the text quickly because it’ll be done and you can do all of the things.” I stopped doing that. When a thing pops into my head, I write it down. I’ll put it on a Post-it note, so it’s out then. It’s out of my head. It’s on a Post-it note. It’s organizable. Your brain doesn’t have to ruminate on it anymore. Your brain lets things go better. You can decrease rumination by writing things down.
You also sleep better. That’s another good study. People who wrote a very specific to-do list for the next day slept way better because they can unload it from their brains. It seems silly, but your brain handles things differently when they are in physical space in front of you instead of only being held internally and doing all that work.Your brain handles things differently when they are in physical space in front of you instead of just only held internally and doing all that work. Click To Tweet
I’m so happy to hear you say those. That’s super helpful. It’s so tangible. It’s so relatively easy. I’m holding up my notebook. It’s good to know that I’m doing it for a reason. The thing about writing notes and having so many of these things is I never go back. I have this habit of taking a yellow highlighter and then I’ll highlight the things I want to be able to go back to. Those are the most important stuff. The chances of me going back are probably 80% no in the ordinary course. Yet, the writing itself is I feel like I’m letting go.
You unloaded all of that information. It probably means that you kept taking in more because it was unloaded. You’re like, “It’s safe over here. I can take in some more. There’s room for more.” It’s very powerful.
Say the name of the book. I’m sure lots of people are going to go out and buy it. I know I am.
I’m going to read it and then I want to invite you to come back for part two.
I’d love to. That’d be fun. I like that.
If this episode resonated with you, we’d love to know. We’d love to hear it in the comments. If you’re inclined to leave a review on whatever platform that you consume this show, that would be so lovely. The five-star reviews are epic. When we do read a review, oftentimes, what we’ll do is read that review in another episode to edify you for doing that. It’s wonderful for us. It feels good. It feels great.
Lastly, if there’s somebody that you know that would benefit from any part of this discussion or all of this discussion, feel free to share this episode with whoever that might be. The one great thing about it is that we’ve got resources. It’s so easy for us to be able to access them. There’s a lot. When you find one that is good and works, it’s cool to share it with the people that you care about. With that, Amy, thank you so much for your time.
As usual, I did promise that this would be a great episode. I want to summarize a couple of my own personal takeaways here. It was profound to talk with Dr. Mednick about how it is that we have gotten as exhausted as so many of us have felt. We dove into the why and how it is that our brains are hardwired for certain needs. Some of these needs we are aware of and some of these needs we are unconscious of. It’s quite astounding that we could be in need of things and yet, at the same time, be completely oblivious to those things. It’s no wonder that we feel the way we do and that we have heightened levels of anxiety, tension, and dis-ease in many areas of our lives because, in fact, we are not meeting some basic needs that we’re simply unaware of.
I thought the conversation where it tracked to those things was very powerful. We talked about some pretty tangible studies, including that UK study that looked at two different groups. One is they were chewing on some pretty difficult mental tasks cognitively. They were utilizing their brains in a particular way to solve some problems. Another group was at rest. Both groups were asked to simply get on treadmills and stationary bikes and exert themselves physically.
What that study showed was that the groups that had been chewing on things mentally versus those that had not fatigued much quicker. That’s relevant because so many of us don’t recognize the impact of mental fatigue on our physical feelings as well as how we feel on our energy levels, our ability to be patient with other people, our ability to do simple tasks, and how we feel at the end of the day. That’s whether we feel like that sponge or that washcloth that’s rung out or we feel more energized and ready for the next transition, like back from the work-life into the home life and into the intimacy with our loved ones and other things that we might even have interest in that often, we are too exhausted and have no energy for. That’s quite telling.
We were talking about not only the why but also the strategy. I was sharing something about our toggle methodology. It’s the way we, like a light switch, recommend that people intermittently throughout the day are in their energy zone and then in a rest and recovery zone, even if that rest and recovery zone is only a few moments or a few minutes. The sweet spot is more like 10 to 30 minutes. That’s what our research reveals. We talk a bit about that as well.
I loved how Amy shared this concept of decreasing cognitive load with us because the cognitive load on all of us is greater and more is being asked. She said more is being asked of us and more is being taken from us in the course of an average day. By that, she means that we have an increased cognitive load from all the meetings, everything that we’re being drawn into online through the proliferation of more content, and our roles both in our work lives as well as in our personal lives as citizens. All of that is increasing the cognitive load.
There are simple things that we can be doing to decrease that load such as writing things down. We both shared that that’s a habit of ours to take notes and write things down. Even if you don’t go back and read it later or refer to it at some other point, writing it down allows your brain to let it go and release it as a means of having space for other things to come in. Writing things down is a very powerful tool that I realized in speaking with Amy. It has been a saving grace for me because I do this frequently. I have books of writings of things, notes, etc., that I often don’t go back to. Sometimes I do, but often not. Writing it down is a process of letting go.
You could write to-do lists and write them at night, even before bed. You could write down the day’s agenda and what it is that’s coming ahead tomorrow because then, your brain can let it go and you would sleep more soundly. You would have more effective rest at night when your brain is not otherwise chewing on all the things that it is holding onto.
There are too many things to cover in a summary of what this talk was about. We also talked about taking breaks in nature and not even needing to get in nature. If you can’t get out and see a tree or touch a tree, looking at even a picture of a tree when we’re taking a 5-minute break or a 10-minute break between our meetings immediately calms us down and cools our brains. It brings us back into a state of more homeostasis or equilibrium, giving us the capacity to go further.
I analogized it to a bank account that resilience is like a bank account where the goal is to make more deposits than withdrawals for obvious reasons. To say that a little bit differently, when we are making more withdrawals than deposits, we are in deficit. Day after day when that’s the case, it has a compound effect. No wonder we find people that are burned out because of that.
When we are making more deposits than withdrawals, we’re in surplus. Day after day that you’re in surplus, you gain a compounding effect in that area as well so that you are able to have the energy to outperform problems more easily. You’re able to be more resilient mentally, emotionally, physically, and even spiritually so that things that would otherwise take you out, which are things that would stress you out, or things that are difficult that come all of a sudden that are greater uncertainties or greater adversities that might be present, you are more able to deal with those things. You’re better equipped. You have the capacity to resolve those and to creatively find solutions to those things in a way that people who are depleted physically cannot do.
I loved the conversation. If you don’t know where you are and how you are doing resilience-wise, mentally, emotionally, physically, or even spiritually, you can simply find your own score and also get resources all for free in three minutes’ time. It couldn’t be easier. You go to RankMyResilience.com. Three minutes later, answering sixteen questions, you will have your answers in the four zones of resilience as well as the kinds of small little changes that you could make. These hacks that Dr. Mednick and I started speaking about in this episode, a whole host of those things, are available to you as a resource and a gift for taking the time to get your own score.
With that, please share this episode with anybody that you think could benefit from it. As always, we appreciate your comments. You can leave one at AdamMarkel.com/Comment. We read them. I answer them personally. If it’s something you’re willing to do, leaving a review is helpful not just for us to see those five-star reviews but for other people who evaluate a show based on what other people like you think of the conversation itself. Hopefully, you’ve loved it and that it is something that you’ve gotten value from. Ciao for now. We’ll see you next time.
- Dr. Amy Mednick
About Dr. Amy Mednick
Dr. Mednick’s passion for all things brain started with her undergraduate studies in neuroscience at MIT. She went on to pursue psychiatry at Beth Israel, as a field where she could make the most positive change in an area of highest need. The coronavirus pandemic moved all her patient work online, and led her to study and write about the effects remote work has on the human brain and its hard-wired need for connection.