This week’s conversation is with Dr. David Rabin, MD, PhD, a neuroscientist, board-certified psychiatrist, health tech entrepreneur & inventor who has been studying the impact of chronic stress in humans for more than a decade.
David has always been fascinated by consciousness and our inherent ability to heal ourselves from injury and illness.
As such, he has specifically focused his research on the clinical translation of non-invasive therapies for patients with treatment-resistant illnesses like PTSD and substance use disorders.
David is the co-founder & chief innovation officer at Apollo Neuroscience, which has developed the first scientifically-validated wearable technology that actively improves energy, focus & relaxation, using a novel touch therapy that signals safety to the brain.
This is one of the reasons I’ve been so excited about our partnership with Apollo so I can’t wait for you to learn from David, he is an amazing human being.
In this conversation, we discuss how powerful the human mind is – why we’re uniquely suited to adapt to and overcome adversity and why it’s possible to rewire our brain’s to get a better handle on anxiety and other mental disorders.
“In every moment, there is an opportunity to change the way that we see ourselves by questioning the patterns that we’ve been taught before.”
In This Episode:
What inspired his work?
Studying chronic stress became fascinating to me. There’s a chronic stress response that happens in terms of how we cope with stress mentally, emotionally, and physically. This goes all the way down to our individual cells and our neurons and how all of our cells interact and then how our cells talk to each other, how we talk to each other using stress response hormones, reward response hormones. This led me to studying resilience.
How does he think about resilience?
Resilience is this opportunity for growth where we face challenge. Then, we overcome challenge with whatever we have as tools in the moment. Then, whatever that challenge has pushed on us, we push back, and we bounce back and overcome it. Similar to what Nietzsche said or Obi-Wan said, that which does not kill us makes us stronger is really, I think, this incredible approach to challenge that sets apart those who are incredibly successful and leaders in their fields from those who decide not to take more risks and to run from challenge rather than to face the challenge as an opportunity for growth.
Why is resilience so important to him?
We have this unique opportunity to actually retrain our nervous systems in our bodies to function at a higher level. To prioritize, not just sustained peak performance, but that to sustain peak performance, we must prioritize peak recovery. After working with cells for a long time in this capacity and studying the cellular mechanisms, I thought this is really fascinating, but I really want to work on whole people. No matter how much we fix somebody’s cells in any particular organ, people are still struggling. How do we help them up here more to change the way that their mind, body interacts to facilitate resilience? That led me to my work at the University of Pittsburgh studying Apollo and the autonomic nervous system and really a focus on treatment-resistant mental illness like depression, PTSD, anxiety, substance use disorder and that kind of thing.
The decade of the mind-body
What I see as the current decade we’re in is the decade of the mind body. To me, this is a decade of convergence, not a decade of separation or duality where we’re just talking about the mind or just talking about the body as if they’re separate. One of the things that is so important that we have learned not just from the work that I’ve done, but from the work of so many scientists and physicians before is that when the mind is sick, when the mind is not well or when we’re not well emotionally or spiritually, it can have a negative impact on our bodies and make our bodies sick. When our bodies are ill or not well physically, it can make our minds sick. It can make us emotionally ill. These are irrevocably and intricately interconnected systems. They are not separate.
How does he define or articulate the mind?
The mind is the part of ourselves that has control over what we pay attention to in the world. I think that with my psychiatrist and neuroscience had on, I will tell you that I firmly believe that the most important thing to think about when we think about the mind is free will, which is, by definition or I should say the most helpful interpretation of free will, is the ability to say yes or no at any moment to what we allow in here via our attention.
Negative thought patterns
When we ask ourselves what is wrong with me that my life is so hard, we make an assumption that everyone else’s life is easier and that there’s something actually wrong with us. Then, that creates these negative patterns that literally takes apart. It pulls apart our confidence and our self-esteem from the inside out. It facilitates learning patterns as you were saying earlier of self-deprecation, self-criticism, self-hate and really at the core self-fear rather than what we would hope we would cultivate for growth which is self-gratitude, self-forgiveness, self-compassion and self-love. It’s in understanding the duality of every moment is that all of these things exist in every moment. In every moment that we have in our lives, there is fear, and there is love. Then, there’s everything that stems from fear. There’s everything that stems from love. We have a choice to make a decision to what we choose to pay attention to. That is the mind. What we choose to pay attention to manifests into our reality through our minds. What could be more powerful than that?
How being bullied impacted him
One of my personal biggest traumas in my life that I had to overcome was the catastrophic destruction to my own self-esteem that occurred when I first went to school and was picked on because I was different from the other kids. I had different interests. I was more sensitive. I embodied characteristics that our society deems as not necessarily masculine. They were more sensitive vulnerable feminine qualities wanting to listen to other people, wanting to feel feelings. Those kinds of things were not valued in my schools growing up. What was I taught? I was taught that I need to shut those parts out of my life, that those parts, as early as I can remember, probably around three or four when I first went to preschool, I remember learning that those parts of myself were not valuable to society. I literally take those parts like many people. I shove them down to not come out unless I know that I’m actually safe to allow them to come out. This is such a common experience for so many people, but that over time trains my ego. It’s trained my survival system in my brain which we call in terms of neural networks the default mode network which is it’s a network of many regions in our brain that talk to each other when our minds are at rest that’s consistent with ego and survival-focused states, preservation-focused states. It trained that network to devalue these sensitive parts of me.
It’s possible to rewire the brain
In every moment, there is an opportunity to change the way that we see ourselves by questioning the patterns that we’ve been taught from before. That is what literally requires our default mode network, is that initial recognizing the opportunity to question, recognizing the opportunity to make a different choice and then making a different choice and then, practicing over time making those different choices starting with just the way we think about ourselves is fundamental to rewiring and retraining our brains over time.
Humans have a unique ability to adapt to adversity
Humans have a unique ability to adapt to adversity. That is our core strength. We didn’t evolve because we’re so good at maintaining and achieving stability. We, as humans, evolved where we got in the world from an evolutionary scientific perspective because we excel more than anything at the ability to adapt and overcome adversity. Overcoming that adversity requires working within ourselves to do whatever we can to optimize our system, feed ourselves the highest performance fuel for our high-performing car of our bodies. Feed ourselves the best knowledge and the best wisdom surround ourselves with the best role models to help us understand. We used to have elders in our communities to help us understand how to cope with stress. It’s hard to figure this stuff out on your own. Having those people around us that are better than us and that are stronger than us who have been through it before is exquisitely helpful.
We all have untapped potential
We all have incredible untapped potential that is available to us at any time. We just have to acknowledge that perhaps we don’t really know what we’re capable of. Perhaps when we are told that we have to, we have to know what we’re capable of. We have to know who we are based on what other people think, based on satisfying others or based on satisfying this idea of what we think we should be. Then, we will create the box that we get trapped in. It’s acknowledging that we don’t know what we’re capable of in this lifetime that allows us to tear down the walls of that box and really open up all possibilities to step out of default mode to step out of making choices because of fear and start making choices from a standpoint of strength and recognizing that ultimately as humans we have a hell of a lot more in common than we do different and that if Michael Jordan can do it, then we can do it. Michael Jordan is human. He’s not an alien. He’s not Jesus. He’s not God. He’s a human being, and so are all these other incredible people, these incredible athletes, these incredible role models that we have. Those people are sources of knowledge for us. They’re role models.
Even if we don’t have those role models in our immediate vicinity, we can find them in other parts of our lives to inspire us, to recognize that we may be capable of hell a lot more than we think we are.
The four pillars that help build trust in self
Self-gratitude, self-forgiveness, self-compassion, self-love which really when you practice these core emotional skills, form this foundation of trust in ourselves again which again that trust was ruptured often for many of us as children which is what trauma does when it’s unprocessed or, in general, that we practice these skills. We rebuild our trust in ourselves. That literally nurtures our self-confidence and our self-esteem to open up that full potential.
Why these four pillars are so important
These four pillars are so critical because they are mind skills that we have control over when we approach life. When we approach our thoughts, when we approach our feelings anything from the inside or outside, we have the choice to choose to face challenge with frustration and annoyance or anger or we have the opportunity to face every challenge with gratitude. When we face something whether its just getting up in the morning, whether it’s trying to fall asleep at night or whether it’s a challenging work project or a challenge that is unexpected from some other part of our lives, we have the opportunity to say, “Oh, god. Why me,” which many of us have been taught. I was taught that, or we have the opportunity to say I am grateful for this opportunity to grow. That is resilience practicing that great gratitude expression is literally building an emotional muscle in our minds or really between our minds and our bodies. It reminds us that we’re safe because we’re in control of how we relate to this challenge we’re facing.
What is the source of most anxiety?
The source of most anxiety that most of us face on a day-to-day basis is spending our limited attention that we have in every day, our limited amount of time to attend to any number of things, we spend more of that time thinking about things we don’t have control over the things we do. The more time we spend thinking about things we don’t have control over of which there are literally infinite, the more we feel out of control. The more we spend time thinking about things that we are afraid of and thinking about from a fearful context, the more we feel afraid, and the more time we spend feeling gratitude, the more grateful we feel. The more time we spend expressing forgiveness to ourselves for things we’ve done wrong because everyone makes mistakes and failure are the best way to grow, the less shame we feel. The more we express compassion to ourselves knowing that we will make mistakes in the future knowing that as much as we feel like we need to be moving faster, we’re moving at the pace that we were meant to move at and that everything will come in time with patience and with work just like we didn’t get here overnight, we’re not going to get to the next stage overnight. Then, that self-compassion pushes back against our self-critic and balances the negative self-talk with self-love. Then, that trust that we build ourselves with these practices literally allows us to form this foundation of trust in ourselves which allows us to trust others. We can’t truly trust or love others and be vulnerable around others until we’re truly comfortable with that trust and vulnerability within ourselves.
The goal of Apollo
What we were trying to do with Apollo was create a technology that we could give people to take out of the office and they could take on their own time at home using in their everyday day-to-day lives that delivers a frequency of gentle soothing vibration to the body. This device delivers a very gentle vibration to the skin that just like somebody holding your hand or giving you a hug on a bad day reminds that reptilian amygdala in the center of our brains to say if I have the time to pay attention to the feeling of somebody giving me a hug right now or the feeling of this gentle soothing vibration on my skin or the feeling of the air coming into my lungs with a deep breath that I can’t possibly be running from a lion in this moment which is actually a subconscious loop, meaning it’s typically beneath our level of awareness. We don’t know that safety feedback loop is happening, but every time we take that time to direct our attention to that soothing stimulus, that loop gets activated. Then, we can learn to consciously activate it over time. Apollo serves as a tool to help us train ourselves to self-induce safety states more often in our every moment of our whole lives by helping us recognize that the body can be calm. If the body can be calm, we’re not in a life or death situation. Does that make sense?
How are body reacts to stress
The stress response system, which we call the sympathetic nervous system, responds to threat and then the parasympathetic vagal system which is that rest and digest recovery response system responds to safety. These two systems are constantly both coexisting in our bodies all the time and in almost all animals that we know of in this world. When we are in a threatening situation, forget about whether it’s actual or real, but when you’re under threat, we want our bodies to recognize that quickly. We want our heart rate to go up. We want our bodies to recognize it even before we consciously recognize it. We want our heart rate to go up quickly. We want our respiratory rate to get faster and deeper to feed more oxygen to our skeletal muscles and our motor cortex to be able to either fight, flight, or freeze to get us to survival and safety.
What about once we’re no longer under stress?
Once we get to safety, once we’re in a safe environment, the threat is gone. We know cognitively, consciously that threat is no longer around that we should have a quick drop in our heart rate back to resting. We should have a quick drop in our respiratory rate. We should have a quick drop in our blood pressure and a quick slowing down of the speed of our thoughts, for instance. That doesn’t happen for people with PTSD. It doesn’t happen people with many mental illnesses actually. It doesn’t happen to people with insomnia or chronic pain as well. That can be measured as heart rate variability, the speed with which everything goes up to stress and calms down to safety. Low heart rate variability is almost unanimous across people with severe PTSD and treatment-resistant mental illness which is fascinating.
How does HRV play a role in this?
When we’re running from a lion, our heart rate goes up to 160. We want that HRV, the heart rate variability, the time between each beat to drop which it naturally will under threat, but when we’re not actually under threat, like we’re going on stage, give a talk, that is not the time that we want to be in a low adaptability state or in a threat state. We want to be at our peak. We want our attention to be under our control. We want to have all of our emotion regulation capabilities at our fingertips. We want to feel as present and focused in the moment as possible.
Apollo is based on music
It’s basically music composed for your skin instead of your ears. This is fundamentally music is such an important metaphor because music is in, a lot of ways, our go-to to help us shift from one state of energy or mood to another. It’s such an easy tool to access and has been for a long time that many of us just totally take it for granted. There’s a really interesting opportunity in that, that Apollo helps to activate that system and helps to align our actions with our intentions. That is where the win is. The win is alignment. It’s being in tune and having our actions in tune with our intentions.
Where does he see the future of technology for human flourishing heading?
I see the future of technology as technology that empowers us to heal ourselves on our own which is really a Hippocratic approach to medicine which is not making our patients dependent on us or dependent on a healthcare system or dependent on medicine, but actually using the medicine and the healing practices and the tools, like, technology to help teach us or remind us of our innate inborn ability to heal ourselves.