EPISODE 65 | Dr. Marc Schoen | Discomfort Training

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Organizing dinner for a crowd, holiday travel, and ample amounts of family time can be a little overwhelming. It can sometimes take the joy from the most wonderful time of year and studies show the effects of psychological stress can weaken the immune system. Listen to Marc Schoen today to learn how to minimize the all too familiar holiday anxiety.

So if you unravel during pressure, it’s time to learn a technique from Dr. Marc Schoen, Ph.D. that’s called discomfort training. This type of training can help you overcome anxiety during the holidays (& year round) by re-wiring the fear center of the brain which is responsible for your performance under pressure.

Dr. Schoen is the Assistant Clinical Professor at UCLA’s Geffen School of Medicine where he specializes in Boosting Performance and Decision Making Under Pressure. His work has been featured in Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Oprah, WebMD, Fortune Magazine, and many others. Marc has worked extensively with elite athletes, and with top executives helping them strengthen their ability to THRIVE in discomfort. We could all use a little of that!

If you tend to have anxiety when speaking in front of a group, or before planning a social gathering, then discomfort training can transform the way you live.


Today, Marc will teach PRACTICAL ways to…


• Break up with stress

• Improve performance…in business, athletics, and life.

• Physically alter the brain’s fear center

• Release anxiety before a deadline, holiday party, or performance

Connect With Kathi Sharpe-Ross

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Kathy Smith:   Hi Marc. Welcome to the show.

Marc Schoen: Yes. Thank you so much for having me.

Kathy Smith: Well, I’m so excited to talk about this concept because we all have had that feeling. We feel it all the time, and I don’t the listeners to think that you have to be an elite athlete or a business executive to feel that pressure. A lot of people, you’re going to a party tonight and you start to feel some social anxiety, that pressure like, “How am I going to fit in with this group?”

So, whatever kind of pressure you’re feeling in your life, you have ways of dealing with it. So, why don’t you start us down this path of what is discomfort training?

Marc Schoen: Yes, ok. We live in a world that has become so technologically advanced with the end result making our lives theoretically a lot more comfortable. Because of that, paradoxically, we have become less tolerant of being uncomfortable.

We have become far more sensitive to this discomfort in our lives and because of that, since we are more sensitive to discomfort, it is pushing this fear response or what I call the survival instinct and leading us to essentially overreact with fear, stress, anxiety in situations that really don’t merit it, just like you’re saying, a social situation or someone cutting us off on the freeway or someone being insensitive to us.

This was never what the survival instinct was designed for. It was designed those situations that demanded us to take action in genuine, physical stress or threat. So, what we need to do ultimately is retrain our ability to manage discomfort, to change it so that discomfort is much less of a threat. This is what the essence is of discomfort training.

Kathy Smith: So, why don’t you walk me through an example? Let me think about something. Where do I feel uncomfortable? I’m going to be going and talking to a group, there’s 300 people in the audience, I’m backstage, I start to feel my heart racing, I start to feel a little perspiration happening in the palms of hands, I start to feel my stomach tightening a little bit. These are some of the sensations I start to feel when I think about I’m going to be walking on this stage and giving a presentation. So, walk me through how would discomfort training look in a situation like this?

Marc Schoen: Ok. May I give just a little background information first, then, that might be helpful to the listener? We have, essentially, two different parts of our brain. We have three in reality, but we talk about two.

One is this very logical part of the brain – the cerebral cortex. It’s the part that allows us just to reason, abstract reasoning, be insightful and so on. Its goal is just to make sense of the world, to understand it.

We have another part of the brain that is the limbic system or what I like to call the limbic brain. In the limbic brain is where all our visceral motor responses and centers are from fear, anger, pleasure, sleep, pain. The goal of this limbic brain is, essentially, just keeping us out of danger. So, it is looking at any situation that it might perceive as one that is unsafe. It’s clearly a black and white distinction. We’re either safe or we’re not safe.

What happens is that when we get in these situations like you’re describing here, when we have to give a public speech and maybe it’s in front of someone that’s really important to us or that we might be concerned about being judged harshly or we obviously want to succeed at it, what happens is that as this limbic brain experiences in situation, a certain level of discomfort develops in our body. So, we have discomfort not just from a place of physical discomfort where we’re hungry or fatigued or going through a hard workout. We have an emotional discomfort as well, and that is very important.

As the level of discomfort rises within us, the higher it gets, it crosses a certain threshold and this limbic brain, then, says, “Oh, my gosh. I am in danger.” And that’s what sets off the fear response. Once this fear reaction occurs, that’s when the heartbeat kicks in, that’s when the sweating kicks in, that’s when we might get spacey, that’s when we might feel other parts of the body feel tingly and so on.

So, then, the logical brain – the cerebral cortex – says, “My gosh. I don’t want to feel this way.” So, we try to be positive thinking. “No, there’s no reason to overreact. Stay calm. Take a deep breath.” But it doesn’t work because this limbic brain has a direct connection to our fear reaction in the body, and the cerebral cortex doesn’t have that direct connection. It just can’t have the same power as this limbic brain.

So, discomfort training goes at this limbic brain to train it so that when it starts feeling discomfort that it is not a threat. So, in discomfort training, we want to expose people to higher levels of physical and emotional discomfort and, then, train the brain to not feel that it is in danger.

Kathy Smith: It’s interesting because it might sound counterintuitive, but it’s actually exactly what we do in fitness. I talk about fitness as extending your comfort zone. If you go to lift weights when you first start out lifting, five pounds might feel very heavy. After you do it, all of a sudden, it’s not so heavy anymore. Now, you can do 10 pounds and, then, after that, it’s 15. You’re just extending your comfort level by taking on the challenge. So, it’s slightly different but a little bit of the same of what you’re talking about by taking on the challenge of something that’s uncomfortable–but walk me through this next part–and, then, learning how to retrain your brain in that moment.

Marc Schoen:   That’s such a great example, Kathy. Because we have learned, haven’t we, and we accept almost implicitly that we need some physical pain to get physical gain. When we feel this discomfort from lifting weights or running faster than usual or you’re running longer, we say, “Oh, ok. That’s good because it’s going to help me.”

But look how we don’t make the same sort of analysis and assumption when we feel emotional discomfort. When we feel emotional discomfort, we think, “Oh, my God. This is bad. It’s something to avoid. I’m in danger. From now on, I’m just not going to put myself in this situation.” So, it’s kind of an interesting distinction.

Kathy Smith: Yeah. So, what would you say for the listener at home–and actually even before we go there, what I actually want to Segway into, something we talked about before we jumped on the phone, we were discussing my daughter. For the audience out there, I have two lovely daughters. One of them, right now, is training to go to the Olympics, and she’s going to the Olympic trials in about two months. Her name is Kate Grace, and she runs the 800 meter.

One of the things that goes along with her physical training, which is getting on that track and doing your interval work and your sprints and everything else – your weight training – is the psychological work to overcome anxiety when you get to that start line.

Now, I know that you just wrote a publication for the Olympic committee, but you also have a track record with elite athletes including some at UCLA. Can you tell me a little bit, like, what happens and how do you take them through a process when it’s boom or bust? You’re on the starting line and, now, everything you’ve trained for happens in the next two minutes. How do you help the athlete?

Marc Schoen: Here’s how it works. Here’s a decent metaphor. If we have a fence and the fence is being subjected to very strong winds so it’s wavering back and forth, where is it going to fold first if the wind continues? Ultimately, in its weakest link. That’s where it’s going to break down.

What happens to us is a very similar thing. When we’re under physical and emotional pressure, we’re going to buckle in the area that’s our greatest vulnerability. We all have an Achilles’ heel. So, it’s going to go to that part. For some people, it may be the issue of rejection or judgment or it could be like, “Oh, my gosh. If I don’t do well here, then I have nothing to look forward to. All of my work that I’ve put into this is in vain, and I’m not going to be a winner. That’s what I’ve based my self-esteem on.” These are our Achilles’ heel. It’s this button that gets pushed in these extreme situations.

What we have to do is we can’t change that part of us because we’re a social animal, and it’s important to us to be accepted, to fit in, to feel loved or feel part of something. That’s always going to be part of us. But what we want is that when those issues come up – rejection or judgement – that it does not create a threat or fear response in the body.

So, if we’re on that starting line or we’re going up to give that talk, those old thoughts and worries are going to come up. They’re inevitable. Most people try to say, “Don’t think a negative thought.” Well, it’s not practical. The mind is wired for negative thoughts. That helped us survive as an early species. So, what we want to do is take those thoughts, those fear thoughts, those worries, those Achilles’ heel thoughts and feelings and change them so they no longer evoke the fear response so you can have them, but they are neutralized.

Kathy Smith: This probably the $64,000 question. How do you do that?

Marc Schoen: Yes. Ok. It’s a great question and it is the essence of this, is that what I like to do is if we’re talking about athletes, in this case, is have the athletes come in physically uncomfortable. For example, I have them come in starving, or I have them come in where I put them under a a lot of physical pressure so they’re extremely uncomfortable just like they would be in their event. Then, when they’re in this physically uncomfortable place, I push on them, this Achilles’ heel – whatever it is in them.

So, now, I have the physical discomfort and, now, I’m creating the emotional discomfort in them. Then, I associate it, condition it with a physical state so it forms a trance-like state that gets in the way of the fear response. In other words, they can have the physical discomfort, have the emotional issues come up, but pairing it with this other super relaxed, comfortable state keeps the fear response from happening. The end result is that we’ve trained the brain to feel physical and emotional discomfort without feeling any fear.

Kathy Smith: I know this is an oversimplification, but could somebody go through that same process and, then, sit in a meditative state. Let’s say you’re extremely hungry, using that example, and somebody who’s trying to lose weight. If you’re extremely hungry and you’re wanting your sugar and you’re wanting your cookies and you’re wanting this and you get to that uncomfortable state, is there something on your own where if you sat and you took deep breaths and you did a three, four, five-minute meditation, visualization, is that a mini way of training yourself to be in that state and, then, retrain your brain of how you think about it?

Marc Schoen: Well, not completely. It’s actually incomplete. We have to do one more part, because people have been told for years, “Just take a couple of deep breaths,” or “Just meditate.” We know that alone isn’t enough to keep people from eating. We have to go one step further.

Like an example, some people feel that when they’re really hungry or even the anticipation of being hungry that something bad is going to happen. Even though you know it’s illogical, there’s a fear response like, “Oh, my gosh. What if I don’t get to eat in time? Something bad’s going to happen,” or “I’m going to die from starvation,” or “I’m going to have a panic attack.” So, it goes to a place that’s totally fear.

What we have to do is add the other part to it is that not only do we train them when they’re hungry, but we have that Achilles’ heel, that fear related to, “Oh, my gosh. I’m going to be starved to death,” or “Something horrible’s going to happen to me.” Now, we bring that issue in with the hunger, then we can pair it with a relaxation response.

Kathy Smith: Interesting. Ok, well, I believe that we all want to perform at our best whether it’s in business, whether it’s athletically, whether it’s in our work day. I believe it all starts with a good night’s sleep. So many people are sleep deprived right now. I think it’s just in our culture. We have this growing sense that you have to be on 24 hours a day.

I think something I read of yours on the Huffington Post that I love the way you put it. You have this pressure to remain alert and attentive and awake. Basically, you say, though, that that can sabotage kind of the natural rhythms of our body. So, when it’s time to switch gears and jump into bed and fall fast asleep that we resist that sleepy feeling, and I think that’s probably why one or two out of every six listeners out there probably did not get a good night’s sleep last night. So, do you have any suggestions with your techniques on how to develop a healthy sleep hygiene?

Marc Schoen:   Yes, absolutely. The example that you gave when we are really conditioning ourselves to resist our natural rhythms, so if we’re forcing ourselves to stay awake all the time even in those times when we really should be starting to having a softer landing into a sleepy feeling, we’re getting in the way of it. So, now, it’s 11:00, we say, “Oh my God. I get to sleep,” so we just throw that gear into park, but we’re still revving so high. So, it’s hard to resuscitate and revive a sleepy feeling that we’ve been pushing away all day long or early part of the evening.

What we want to do is train ourselves to rev–less speeded is what we want to do. So, we want to start slowing down so that when it’s bedtime, the rhythm is already slower in the body rather than just sort of abruptly going to sleep. That’s one very big part of it.

A lot of times people will report, “Oh, yeah. I have dinner and, then, a couple of hours after dinner I start getting a little tired, but I’ve still got things I’ve got to do.” Then, they pull out the computer and they start texting or turn on something pretty enlivening on TV and, then, they lose the sleepy feeling. They try to recover it again, but they can’t find it.

One thing is to, rather than to speed back up again, is to start using that to go to sleep. That’s one thing that’s really important. The second thing is, is that if we are revved up and able to fall asleep even though we are revved up, there’s a decent chance that we’re going to awaken in the middle of the night. So, I think of this like this is that we have a certain high bar and this is like a certain threshold. Let’s say that’s our right hand at a certain level.

Then, we have our left hand is how much stress and how revved up we are in the body. What happens is that the left hand is the stress and energy and frequency. Let’s say the right hand is the sleepy chemicals that build up in the body, and they help create the sleepy feeling. So, let’s say, for example, that the activation and revved up is, let’s say, 10 feet high. The sleepy feeling on the right side has to get higher than 10 feet. If it gets, let’s say, 12 feet then we can fall asleep.

Let’s just say, during the night, that 12 feet is slowly–and sleepy chemicals like serotonin are being metabolized and chewed up and digested. Eventually, that 12 feet falls below that 10 feet of activation in the body. When it does, we wake up and we’re alert and, then, it’s hard to recover the sleepy feeling. But what if we lowered that activation level when we go to bed?

So, instead of it being 10 feet, it’s down to one foot or two feet. Then, if we wake up in the middle of the night – or we may not wake up at all – but even if we did, the sleepy feeling on the right side is still so much greater. So, step number two is, yes, slow down how sped up we are before we go to bed. That’s so critical to do that.

Kathy Smith: So, it’s having a bedtime ritual. I know I love my bedtime ritual. But it is after a certain point, I’m no longer–there are exceptions all the time, but I’m no longer on the computer, answering emails and whether it’s–for me, it’s reading a book. Even if it’s 15 minutes of reading, if I’m really revved up, I jump into a hot bathtub. What relaxes me is a hot bathtub, put some nice, essential oils in there, get out a good book and, then, do a few stretches, maybe listen to a meditation tape if something really out of the norm happened that day and you’re thought processing. My thing is if, let’s say, something bad happened or you weren’t expecting and the thoughts are racing, how do I slow those thoughts down? Having that ritual, I agree, allows me to sleep like a baby. You’re right, if you wake up, it’s a quickie, but you’re back asleep again.

Marc Schoen: Yeah, that is perfect. That’s well done. Sadly, a lot of folks don’t do that and, so, it does create poor sleep hygiene. Then, if you think about this, it could go one step further. Let’s say this bad sleep hygiene really becomes part of the routine, then we’re not sleeping. Then, we start worrying, “Oh, my gosh. Will I fall asleep in time? I’ve got to get up at 6:00 in the morning and I need seven hours of sleep; otherwise, I’ll be exhausted the next day.” Then, all of this noise starts happening, then it stirs up the body. It’s that whole limbic response, and once we get stirred up into that fear response, it is so difficult to recover the sleep feeling.

So, it’s again, back to what we were talking about earlier. We have to make it so those worry thoughts no longer push the fear button.

Kathy Smith: By the way, do you have some sort of a meditation or any tapes that you sell that help people fall asleep and stay relaxed?

Marc Schoen: Yeah, for your listeners, there’s a breath technique that I use in a lot of my work that would be free to your listeners if they want to download it. It’s on my website. I probably should spell my name. It’s m-a-r-c-s-c-h-o-e-n.com. They could download it for free or email me from there. But, yes, there is a sleep sound file and a stress sound file, a resilient sound file that a lot of people use for the very purpose that we’re talking about to just facilitate that state prior to going to sleep.

Kathy Smith: Ok. And by the way, we’ll have notes about the podcast and we’ll have all the links for you that you can get all of Dr. Schoen’s materials.

I know time has went by so fast, but I want to thank you, Marc, for first of all being on the show, for teaching us how to, I guess, say welcome and retrain our brain’s reaction to pressure and discomfort and all these imperfect conditions that we’re surrounded by and how to get a good night’s sleep.

So, if you want to learn more about Dr. Marc Schoen, his book, Your Survival Instinct is Killing You or get some of these great audios, you can go to his website, which is MarcSchoen.com.

Thank you, Marc. I’ve really enjoyed it. I could talk for hours to you. You’re so fascinating.

Marc Schoen: Thank you so much for taking an interest in my work and for the interview. I appreciate it.

Kathy Smith: I could talk to Marc for hours. I love this kind of information because learning to be our best in uncomfortable situations is something we can all benefit from. Now, I know when I’ve gone on TV shows or I have to give a speech in front of big crowds, many times that anxiety that creeps in will overshadow my performance, so I’m not giving the best of me because of that anxiety response.

What I’ve learned through the years and what Marc has taught us and has reinforced is that you can take that response and learn to work with it instead of just ignoring it. So, instead of my saying, “Oh, I don’t feel uncomfortable,” or “I feel ok,” just acknowledging where you’re at. I remember in the early days, people would say, “Aren’t you nervous to go on the Today show,” or “Aren’t you nervous to speak in front of thousands of people?”

And I would try to hide it, “No, no. No big deal.” And inside, my stomach was churning and my throat, I was perspiring and I was running in the bathroom and having to go to the bathroom and trying to pat off the sweat. What I’ve learned through the years is that starting to acknowledge it, starting to learn techniques that you can learn to destress, to take away, to minimize that stress response but at the same time to make you understand that it’s natural and to kind of work with it.

So, eventually, people would say, “Are you nervous about going up in front of thousands of people?”

And I would rephrase that. I would go, “You know what? I’m really, really excited. Yeah, I’m excited.” That’s how I started to redefine. Excitement can feel the same way. Excitement is, “Oh my gosh. I get to do something exciting. I’m getting married. I’m really excited,” and all those exciting feelings are rushing up inside of me. But you still have to learn how to manage the feelings, and as you do, you will bring your best self forward.

So, I enjoyed spending time with you today. One last thing before we go. I would love it if you would write a review. It’s so helpful. I can’t tell you how important it is. Just one review really bumps the show up higher on the iTunes chart so more people can find us. If you write the reviews and you write a question, I read them. And, then, I’m going to answer your question. So, it’s a win-win situation. So, give us a review.

I can’t wait until next week. See you.