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Apr 22, 2020

The Switch in Your Brain That Turns Down Stress

Carney traveled all over the planet, seeking out people who understand techniques that enable us to adapt our bodies and our minds to be more resilient. (Photo: Courtesy Foxtopus Ink)
Carney traveled all over the planet, seeking out people who understand techniques that enable us to adapt our bodies and our minds to be more resilient.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a technique that would allow us to vanquish fear and beat back stress? There just might be. In his latest book, The Wedge, bestselling author Scott Carney explains that when humans face challenging situations, our automatic responses tend to make us feel terrible. But the good news is that there are a number of simple methods we can learn to take control of our reactions to stimuli—whether it’s a circling shark or a scary news headline. Over the past few years, Carney traveled all over the planet, seeking out people who understand what he calls the wedge—a technique that enables us to adapt our bodies and our minds to be more resilient in the face of just about anything. In this episode, Outside editor Chrisopher Keyes asks Carney: What exactly is the wedge? And how can we learn it right now?


This episode of the Outside Podcast is brought to you by Visit Florida, one of the country’s great adventure destinations. Have you met a manatee? Airboated in the Everglades? Snorkeled the coral reef? Plan your next Florida adventure at visitflorida.com/outside
 

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

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EPISODE BEGINS 

Outside Podcast Theme: From Outside Magazine and PRX, this is the Outside Podcast.

Mike Roberts (host): What would you think if I were to tell you that there's a switch in your mind that allows you to vanquish fear and eliminate stress -- It sounds great, right? So like where's the switch and how do I flip in? As you might guess, the answers aren't so simple, but they are attainable. At least that's the argument Scott Carney makes in his latest book, The Wedge. Scott is best known for his New York times bestseller, What Doesn't Kill Us, which had him jumping into ice baths with Dutch fitness guru Wim Hof, and taking up all kinds of extreme fitness training. By pushing way, way past the limits of what he thought he could handle, Scott built up incredible physical endurance, and he also cured an autoimmune illness that had plagued him since he was a kid. Along the way, he started to understand how humans can get much better at handling almost any kind of difficult situation. 

It all comes down to a method he now calls The Wedge, which allows us to choose how we respond to challenging stimulus, whether it's a news headline or circling shark, versus being at the mercy of the automatic reactions that so often make us feel terrible. For the last few years, Scott traveled all over the planet seeking out people who understand the subtle ways we can adapt our bodies and our minds to be more resilient in the face of just about anything. Given the state of constant anxiety that we're all in right now in the wake of the Coronavirus, this would seem a very desirable skill to develop, which is why Outside Editor Chris Keyes recently connected with Scott to ask what exactly is The Wedge technique and how can we learn it right now? Here's Chris. 

Chris Keyes: I'll be honest. When I started reading I was like, this is not going to be relevant to readers. And then I dove in and your book is full of these fascinating and, frankly -- we'll get into some of them -- terrifying methods  readers can implement in their lives, but a lot of them really addressed everything from boosting immunity to vanquishing fear and really combating stress. And so as we get in, I want to talk about some of those specific ideas and things and methods that people can apply to their daily lives literally right now when they need them. But let's first dive into your overall premise; as you write early on, humans love comfort to the point of absurdity. What do you mean by that and what's the result? 

Scott Carney: I mean, what is comfort anyway? It's not a thing. It's not like you suddenly arrive at comfort and then you're at the perfect place. What it usually is is like the inverse of stress. Like you were in a stressful situation and now you're not in a stressful situation, so that's how it feels comfort. But there's not like an ideal state where you're in this place and that place will always be comfortable. In fact, what we see is that comfort generally narrows the band of experience that you want to inhabit. So, if you lie on your perfectly comfortable bed for like six days, you're going to hate it, cause it's gonna make you all creaky and less robust. And so I see that concept of comfort as narrowing our range of ability and places in which we can act. If we want to be comfortable in multiple environments, the way you do that is you expose yourself to gentle stresses and things that expand your range so that there's more areas that you could actually feel okay operating in. 

Keyes: As you say, you know, we inherited these bodies from our ancestors who were constantly adapting to discomfort. So have we kind of narrowed even our ability to adapt because we're so used to -- if it's hot outside, we go into the air conditioned room; if it's cold, we get the heat on. 

Carney: We haven't narrowed our ability to adapt, but we've certainly maladapted ourselves. So if you think about our ancestors, you don't even have to go back 300,000 years, you could go back like 200 years and you'll realize that you were much more at the mercy of the variations in the environment. But our biology evolved in conditions that were constantly changing and we didn't have a technology really that mitigated those, at least not in the way that we do now. Like right now it can be a blizzard outside, I walk into my house and I flip a switch and it's like 72 degrees and perfect. And by doing that, you have this sort of just very narrow band where again, you're comfortable. But if you look at literature from like the 1880s, you'll find that the average temperature in people's houses was like 55 to 57 degrees Fahrenheit. Now it's 72. It's because we've been constantly narrowing that band of where we want to exist. 

However, those abilities have not disappeared. We have the same basic archaic bodies of our ancestors 300,000 years ago. And the way they had robustness was exposing themselves to extremes. It wasn't even exposing selves themselves, they just had extremes hitting them all the time, so their bodies naturally developed robustness. If you took a caveman from 300,000 years ago and you brought them to your modern day apartment, he would also love central heating. He would also love polar fleece. He would also love all of these things. But because he had existed in so many different ranges and she had existed in so many different ranges, they were just able to operate in all sorts of crazy environments. 

Keyes: Your discovery of some of these concepts and ideas began with learning about and writing about Wim Hof, known by some as the ‘Dutch madman.’ Wim has had a huge impact in recent years, but let's assume that most readers don't know who he is and haven't encountered his concepts before. Give us an idea of how you came across him and some of the methods that he's created. 

Carney: I was on an assignment from Playboy magazine to go and meet Wim Hof. And I had at that point in my career, and this was in 2011, I'd been writing a lot about how meditation can kill you and make you go crazy and especially this pursuit for super powers can put you in a really bad spot mentally. And I have a book called The Enlightenment Trap on that topic. When I heard about Wim Hoff and who was this, the Iceman, they call him -- he sits on glaciers in his underwear and controls his body temperature and he says he can control his immune system. And he was running his very first training course open to the public about how to learn the Wim Hof method. And I flew out there to be on it essentially to debunk him. 

Instead, I meet him and in the matter of a week, I am doing the exact same things he is. I'm sitting in ice cold lakes in just a bathing suit. I climb up a mountain in a bathing suit. It's like two degrees Fahrenheit at that time. And I developed that robustness that he has incredibly rapidly. And this was because evolution, the creatures that survived adapted to their environment quickly. And we have those evolutionary ability abilities as humans. And he has a method that can activate that. Out of that research, I released a book called What Doesn't Kill Us that was a New York Times bestseller about his whole experience and how we can use cold environments specifically to change our inner biology. 

And how I got to The Wedge is that at the end of that journey, I climbed up Mount Kilimanjaro in a bathing suit. It was really cold, it was like negative 30 degrees. And I had this sort of transcendent moment at the top of that mountain. I was with Wim Hoff -- and it's like the cheesiest line I've ever actually thought -- but it's like I climb up the mountain and I think to myself, “I am not on the mountain, I am the mountain.” Which is of course absurd in many ways, but it is also this great feeling of oneness and connection to the environment that I felt it was very, very profound. It was like this spiritual moment for me because I realized that by connecting with the sensations of that cold, I was like cooperating with the environment, not fighting against it. And I wanted to find that space in every practice that's out there. I wanted to understand how I could reduce the most significant parts of the Wim Hof method and apply them to absolutely everything. And that's where this concept of The Wedge comes from. And that's where this journey really begins. 

Keyes: And I want to put a pin in that for a second cause I want to get to the wedge. But I do want to stick on Wim Hoff for just a second, cause you went there pretty quickly from being a skeptic and taking a week long course to climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in your underpants. (laughs) So tell us what did you learn there? What are these methods? And I know that at least more recently what have seemed like just cockamamie ideas have been backed up by research -- so what is he doing and what do we know about the effectiveness of his approach? 

Carney: So the Wim Hof method is basically two things. The first one is a breathing method where you learn to hold your breath for an extended period of time. And when you do that by hyperventilating or what they call it, super ventilating, it sounds like this (breathes in and out deeply). You did about 30 of those breaths, so you're really dizzy. And then you exhale and hold your breath for as long as you can. And the first time you do it, you might hold your breath for 40 seconds or a minute. But as you do more and more rounds, you're able to hold your breath with empty lungs --so you've exhaled -- for three or four minutes at a time. What you're really doing here in addition to just holding your breath in a way, who cares about that -- but what you're really doing is creating a stress in your body and it's sort of like the anvil that you're working against. And then you're trying to focus on those sensations of essentially gasping and trying to push those sensations a little bit further away. Now, we're not trying to do this till you pass out. We're trying to do this just so you get to that sort of breaking point and you do this 10% before you get there. So that's one half of his method. 

The second half of his method is intentional sort of cold exposure, whether this is a cold shower or an ice bath or something along those lines. And your autonomic reaction  -- and by autonomic I mean your automatic bodily responses that you don't have a lot of control over. As you jump into an ice bath and everything clenches up and it's horrible, right? And you're fighting it and you're like, ah, no! You can just imagine a nice bath and those sensations will probably come to your head. Now in the Wim Hof method, you get in there and then instead of that clenching feeling, which is really your fight or flight responses, what we call the sympathetic nervous system so that's adrenaline and cortisol and all these stress hormones going into your body -- instead of doing that, you relax in the ice water and you will yourself to just be like, I'm here, I'm okay and I can do this. And you relax all of your muscles. And by doing that your body activates a different way to warm itself than the shivering. 

Essentially these two methods are creating  stresses that push up against your automatic processes. And then it's using your mind to reduce those automatic processes and control them. The very first time I jumped into the ice water with Wim, this concept of the wedge popped into my head. It was like, okay, we're here and I'm putting a wedge in between that stimulus of the cold water and the response I have to shivering. And so I'm literally like using, intentions I guess it is, to create space where there was no space before. 

Keyes: What is the research shown about his methods -- because he says he can boost his immunity through these processes. And from what I understand that's actually happened and been shown to work. 

Carney: Well, there is no research that I am aware of boosting his immunity. That to me seems like you take an active infection and somehow you do better with it. While I think that is possible, the clinical research on him is a little bit different than that. It is -- this is the 2014 Radoud study where Wim trained 14 college students in his method for a week. And basically they did the same training program I did, which was hyperventilating and holding their breath and climbing up a mountain in their skivvies and reducing their shiver responses. They brought these students back to Radboud University. This is in Holland. And they injected them with endotoxin. Endotoxin is E. Colo bacteria that has been killed by heat. So it has all of the markers on its cellular walls to trigger a primary immune response, which is basically the fevers and shakes that you would get if you get the flu or sort of  that initial drive away the bad guys in your body response. 

Now, the guys who ran this, Peter Pickers and Mathias Cox, had designed a study to test immune suppressant drugs. So, if you take it like you get an organ transplant, you get a kidney from another person, you put it in your body, you have to turn down your immune system. Most of your body will reject the organ. They had devised tests to test whether the drugs successfully lowered the immune system. And what Wim Hof had claimed was that you could use his methods and turn down your immune responses. What happens is these kids all go into this lab, they inject them all with this endotoxin and where they should have had high fevers, achy joints, all the things you would have with a primary immune response, they instead had almost no reactivity to it. 

And what this showed was that they could turn off their immune systems or at least turn off their immune reactions with this practice. And a why that's relevant is that the world is currently plagued with autoimmune issues like arthritis, Crohn's disease, lupus -- even Covid-19, one of the primary ways that it kills you is with your immune system actually killing you, not necessarily the direct action of the virus, it's actually your immune system sort of goes crazy and tries to tamp down and that fills fluid in your lungs and that's one of the ways that you die from Covid. What the Wim Hof method shows is that you can turn down those responses. So it has had amazing effects for people suffering from autoimmune issues. Now does it help with immunity itself? There has been no good studies on that that I'm aware of. They haven't injected him with live at E. Coli and see if he could just beat it back. Maybe they will do that in the future. Maybe there's some ethical problems with that. 

Keyes: This is a good transition to what you describe in the book as “by far the least interesting immune system remission story in the annals of medicine,” which is one of my favorite lines by the way. But you were a canker sore sufferer and you noticed that they went away after this. 

Carney: Right, and I talked to so many people who had like really serious autoimmune illnesses that sort of went into remission with the Wim Hof method. But for me, I've had these canker sores, which are these white mouth ulcers that pop into my mouth, since before I can even remember; my mother told me about my first canker sore and for me, they were really bad. They were about the size of a dime. And I would get them at least once a month, sometimes every two weeks, and they'd last for a week and they suck. They just made life miserable even though they weren't life-threatening. And after I did the story for Playboy in 2011, I just kept on doing the method. And  after about like four or five months, I was like, Hey, I haven't had a canker sore. That's weird. And I didn't even connect the dots at that point to be honest. Now we're about almost 10 years out for me doing the Wim Hof method pretty much daily. And I have gotten one canker sore in that 10 year period.  

Roberts: We'll be right back. 

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Keyes: You went in as a skeptic, and now you totally have bought in, but the experience also made you think, and this is the title of the book -- you wanted to look for these other wedges of where you could get in and  intervene between the stimulus and response, to create these stressful experiences that you could intervene in and adapt to how you experience those feelings. So what's your definition of the wedge? 

Carney: So the easiest definition, and there's actually sort of multiple definitions in the book as we get sort of deeper into the concepts, but the most accessible one is creating space between stimulus and response. So whatever's coming in from the outside world or in some cases, even the internal world, that sort of like emotional turmoil,  and that sort of thing, is focusing on the sensations of that and then delaying or choosing how you want to respond to it. And so it's like creating space between stimulus and response so we don't just act and react automatically, but we choose whether we want to. That concept of the wedge, you can either create more space or in some cases you can actually remove the space so that you do act automatically, but you've sort of done that consciously. 

Keyes: So the first topic that you started exploring beyond sort of what you've done with Wim was fear. Why start there? 

Carney:The amazing thing about fear is that it's this visceral response in your body, right? But it doesn't have to do with a direct threat against you. It's not like cold. In cold, you're in the effect of the cold water and it triggers it and that's it. And there's sort of a pathway that triggers this cold response. But fear is really in your head first because it's about you anticipating something in the future. Like if you were actually in the moment of being mauled by a tiger, you're not afraid, right? You are being mauled by a tiger. It's a very different thing. You're afraid when you think about getting mauled by that tiger. 

So I wanted to look at anticipation and how time gets factored in to these responses because that is really how we experience anxiety. You have that tightness in your chest, the tight stomach  -- these sensations that are sort of this intermediary between what you might experience in the future, what you imagine you might experience in the future, and what you're feeling right now. And I wanted to look at that. 

I went to the Huberman Lab at Stanford University and Andrew Huberman is this amazing neuroscientist out there, definitely check out his work. What he does is he dunks people in to swim with great white sharks in a virtual reality environment where you're swimming with the sharks and it should trigger a fear response in people who are especially susceptible to this, and they have like a mild panic attack maybe or like the sensations of anxiety in them, and by exposing them to these stimulus over and over again, Andrew Huberman makes the connections between autonomic arousal to stimulus and the stimulus that he's presenting. So he has a sort of a standard stimulus for people. Over repeated exposure, people lose their fear of great white sharks. Now for me, when I swam in his vert with his virtual sharks, I didn't feel that much. I mean, I'm not really scared of like a movie of some sharks swimming around. So I actually had to find later some things that actually made me more scared than that, which I do find a little later in the book. 

But I do want to segue here because the most important thing that I learned in the Huberman :ab was where the neural pathways that encode information in our body, which is really the central concept in The Wedge that I think is very worthwhile for people to understand. So I'm gonna use the example of an ice bath because I think a lot of people can at least imagine what an ice bath would feel like. 

The very first time you experience anything in the world, it has to come in through your peripheral nervous system. It has to come in through your fingers, your skin, your ears, your eyes, right? Because your brain, this center of processing power, is locked inside your skull, floating in a little salt bath up there. So it's sort of locked away. So it needs the sensory system to make sense of the world. Essentially everything you ever experience has to come through those pathways, which means that how we make sense of sensation is ultimately these are the bits and bytes that make up human cognition. This is like literally the ones and zeros of our human computer in our brain. The very first time you experience anything, that sensation wires through your peripheral nervous system,  rockets up your spinal cord and ends up in the very lowest bit of your brain, which is the limbic system, so-called lizard brain. 

And if it's a new sensation, let's say this is the first time you dunked into the ice water, this signal comes up with basically a quality, there's this sensation but it doesn't have any meaning, it's more or less data, and there's a volume control attachment. It's like a strong symbol. So ice water rockets in there. And so we know it's a strong value to it. And I like to think of the limbic system as something like a library. And in this library there is a librarian and she's got like all of these books of previous sensations that she's felt on the wall. And this signal comes in and the  librarian looks at the signal, checks the whole library and says, Hey, I've never felt this ice water thing before. And so she doesn't know what to do with it. It's just data. So she kicks it over to this book binding area of the brain called the Paralympic system. And this is like a centimeter away. It's super close and this is all happening extremely quickly. The Paralympic system picks it up and this book guy says, okay, great, we have a new sensation. I don't know what it means.To define its meaning, it goes around and looks at your current emotional state, whatever emotion you're having and for various reasons, the emotion that's associated with cold  is unmitigated horror, right? Terror and just the worst thing ever. It's probably because, the very first thing you experienced is going from a warm environment inside your mother to the cold environment of the air outside. But anyway, so there is like an earlier related symbol out there. But anyway, so you have unmitigated horror and terror for ice water. 

He binds that book sensation and emotion kicks it back down to the library and he says, great, unmitigated horror, gere's our ice water. And then you go about your business being miserable in the ice water. Now this is the most important thing of neural symbols is that the next time you jump in ice water, have a similar experience, that signal rockets through your peripheral nerves, goes up your spinal cord, into your limbic system. The librarian looks around her library, sees the old symbol that you had before and says, look, here it is. I know what this means. This means unmitigated terror and horror. And she does not kick it up to the Paralympic system, which means that every time you experience a sensation that you've experienced before, you are living in your emotional past. And this is like the central way that human cognition works. For whatever reason, we're wired this way, this is what it is. And so the goal of The Wedge is essentially to add new neural symbols to that library because the library doesn't lose the symbols. Those books are there always. However, you can create new symbols when you know how this process works to bond new sensations or even old sensations with new emotions. And you can start to override and make those books on the librarian shelves much more rich. 

Keyes: So to take it back to Huberman’s lab, if you were say, terrified of sharks and, to continue the librarian metaphor, Huberman, your librarian, pulls out the book of sharks, you put on the VR mask and it's unmitigated horror. What's the wedge now in this process of exposure? By exposing you to that, and I'm assuming it's sort of repeated bouts of being exposed to it, what is the wedge in that process? 

Carney: Well, it's multiple things at once because we're not just experiencing, a shark when we're experiencing a shark, right? We are experiencing the full array of information that's coming from your sensory system. So you might see a shark, but you're also feeling water. There's temperature on your skin. There's a number of sensations you have, even if they're sub perceptual, happening all at once. And seeing a great white shark is actually a very complex symbol because there's thousands of things going on at once, but essentially when you're swimming with virtual sharks, you're already in a safe spot, right? You walked into the virtual reality simulator, you saw the scientists on the other side, they told you you're going to be safe and you just have to press this button and you're going to be able to get out of this situation and they've prepped you in every way possible to make this not a fearful situation for you. 

Then you sit in this laboratory, you're exposed to the sharks and if you are a sharkaphobe -- which I wish I knew the word for that, but there probably is one -- but if you're a sharkaphobe, you've already wired the visual sensation of a shark to all sorts of unmitigated horror, but you're trying to control the sensations around that so that you're trying to bond them to those other safe signals that you've had before, so that you can now overcome this situation. That would be the idea here. And this is also a very standard psychological technique in cognitive behavioral therapy. There's exposure therapy. How do you get somebody to not be afraid of heights? You don't take them to the edge of the Grand Canyon and say, look down and you just get used to it, right? You start by like having them walk up some stairs and maybe stand on a chair and it's very slow exposure where the stimulus of the height is gradually introduced until you're able to overcome it. 

Keyes: What I wanted to get to next is breath work. And again, this connects back to Wim Hof, but you also explore all kinds of techniques that are out there and being developed now. And it can get a little bit sprawling and overwhelming when you think about all these different methods. So there's a Wim Hof, there's the DMT breathing, there's some of the stuff you learned with Brian Mackenzie. But maybe we should start by talking about what they all have in common. This idea of CO2 tolerance -- what is that and why is addressing it so helpful? 

Carney: Let's go back to what they all have in common first,  which is breath is the very first thing that the Buddha taught -- it's the second thing that Buddha taught for meditation, right? It is this bodily process which is so perfectly balanced between automatic and conscious -- for this whole conversation that you've been listening to me yammer on you've been just breathing and you've probably not been thinking about your breathing, but now you're thinking about your breathing and you can take a breath. It's this magical sort of place where there's this perfect parity between automatic and consciousness. And this is why just about every meditation technique that has existed for at least 5,000 years that we're aware of goes back to the breath. And there are so many techniques, that really provide a variety of responses whether it's about anxiety or depression on one end to intense athletic performance on another, where you might be having like almost hallucinogenic experiences with the breath. And it's such a powerful tool. I can't go through all of it in this book and I don't even try. 

Now the question about CO2 tolerance is very interesting. Uh, because when you breathe, you're breathing in oxygen, the oxygen enters your body and it hits your hemoglobin in your blood and this goes around and then you exhale carbon dioxide. So you're exhaling carbon and oxygen. And for whatever reason, evolution thought this was a good idea, you cannot detect oxygen in your system. You don't have any chemo receptors to detect your oxygen levels. What you do have are chemo receptors that detect the byproduct of respiration, which is CO2. So when your gas, when you're holding your breath and your gas and you feel like you want to gasp, the reason you feel you want a gas is because CO2 has built up in your lungs. And that is what is sending off alarm bells. 

Now CO2 tolerance is interesting because if you want to increase your athletic ability, if you want to build up the floor of your athletic ability, one method which is incredibly good is what Brian McKenzie calls building up CO2 tolerance where wherein you restrict your respiration rate and you restrict the volume of air going into your body during exercise, which by which I mean not breathing through your mouth but breathing through your nose. And by doing that you become accustomed to CO2 in your bloodstream and you're able to resist that sort of breaking point, those sensations of anxiety that happened when you have too much CO2 in your system -- you're able to sort of wedge yourself against that. What he sees is that when you start training with his oxygen restriction and then you take off the mask, you have this huge athletic boost that you can take into all sorts of performance. 

Keyes: And how does CO2 tolerance come into play with the Wim Hof method that you described earlier. 

Carney: So with the Wim Hof method, the primary mechanism is blowing off CO2. So you're hyperventilating (breathes in and out) and when you're doing that, you're exhaling, um, all of that CO2 you have. That part of the breathing is not building up CO2 tolerance, its blowing off all your CO2 so that you can do various sorts of work in that environment with no CO2. So if you're holding your breath, the CO2 slowly builds up again, but you're starting from like -2 instead of starting at 0. However, the more you do the Wim Hof method and you're holding your breath with empty lungs. You've exhaled, you're holding your breath there. And as you get better and better at holding your breath, you're actually now filling up your lungs with CO2 again because your blood is still moving through your body and, and so CO2 is being dumped back in your lungs, and by doing at the sort of the tail end of a breath hold, especially like a three minute breath hold, you're becoming very resilient to CO2 in that environment. 

Keyes: Let's talk about a three minute breath hold, which feels a little bit like going to the moon to me. But you've been doing as you said close to a decade of some of these breath work practices and anyone who's done, even as simple as trying to swim the length of a pool underwater knows that visceral feeling of panic. “I need a breath, I need a breath.” And one of the things I was amazed by is how you've sort of gotten to a place where that feeling that we are all very familiar with is as you describe it, is a place you kind of enjoy going. Describe that. Like what through this work, what is happening to make that more tolerable and even on some level pleasurable. 

Carney: Cool. So I want to just break in before I answer that question just briefly cause you talked about swimming laps underwater. Uh, under no circumstances should you ever mix Wim Hof breathing with swimming underwater. I know it makes intuitive sense. Hey, I can hold my breath for three minutes so that I can swim underwater for awhile. This has been shown -- it has killed about nine people at this point for people who do this because the Wim Hof method, the mechanisms behind it are not the mechanisms behind free diving. Free diving, you're building up only CO2 tolerance, whereas Wim Hoff, you're blowing off CO2. And for reasons that we don't really need to get into here too much, you can black out on the Wim Hof method, fairly easy underwater. People who have done this have died. Just don't do that. 

Keyes:The question was really just -- I use the underwater example mostly just for listeners to understand kind of the sensation of holding your breath for a long time. And let's say, okay, we're above the water for the sensation you're on your couch in a comfortable setting, holding your breath, and you start to feel that bit of panic. Nobody really likes that. You say you've gotten to a point where you kind of enjoy going there and I want to know how that is and what that sensation feels like now to you. 

Carney: It is so interesting because now when I'm doing an intense breathing session, I want to get to a place where my mind is sort of shutting down. I know that sounds really bad, but it's not as bad as it sounds. I want to get to that point where my consciousness is sort of diminishing, but I'm still aware of my consciousness. And this is sort of that liminal space where you have sort of almost transcendental experiences and I have a lot of the neuroscience in the book for how this works. But essentially once you're not bound by the traditional stresses of the world and your brain starts shutting itself down, you have these sort of ecstatic moments that can can feel very deep and meaningful. You can get that in sort of a longer breath holds as long as you don't go too far -- you don't really want to pass out. This is before the passing out phase and you can sort of extend that euphoria you feel in the Wim Hof by doing longer breath sessions and three rounds. 

But you do this for like an hour -- hyperventilating, holding your breath and hyperventilating, hold your breath -- and you see all these crazy colors. And I see faces and weird symbols and it's a really intense meditation that I get something out of it. And it's really sort of hard to describe what that is. I mean, there's not a lot of great clinical research on what those symbols are that are coming up in my mind, but I find something deep, something very connected to the universe cause my ego sort of dissolves in that moment. 

Another very interesting thing is that later in the book, I'm at this brain Institute in Oklahoma where a doctor there is studying anxiety and how the body processes things, and one of the ways that people panic is because they have too much CO2 in their system in general. Most Americans are sort of chronic shallow breathers like breathe through our mouth and we don't like fill up our lungs. That means that CO2 sort of builds up in the bottom and his theory and, and it's backed up in a lot of places, is that if you just cleared the CO2, you wouldn't be as anxious. You might think that the reason you're having a panic attack is because you had this fight with your wife and then you're worried about your job and whatnot. But in reality it's just because you're not breathing well. This is his sort of one of the sort of main tenants. 

And so what cognitive behavioral therapists will often do in their therapeutic settings is a lot of people are really nervous about having a panic attack because you feel very out of control and you can induce a panic attack and almost anyone by having them breathe in a high mixture of CO2. So you just take a bunch of CO2, have them inhale. And for most people you'll have this very intense panic attack. Indeed, even people who have damaged amygdala, which are the fear centers in the brain -- people have lesions in there and are incapable biologically of having fear. This doctor has tested them by giving them the CO2 burst and they go crazy. They have intense anxiety. Now he said, you've been doing the Wim Hof method for a long time. I want to see how you respond to CO2. Oh, this is great. An experiment, I can't wait to do it. And I sit there in his test and like I have the whole test on video, which is pretty fascinating to see. And the test works like this. You take a breath, you press a button, you take a breath, and then you exhale and then he just sees how badly you freak out and you're supposed to do three button pushes over the course of 30 minutes. 

I take the CO2, and I take this full lung retention and I'm immediately in that place where I'm having that transcendent Wim Hof experience. I'm like, Whoa, this is great. And the guy that the neuroscientist is like sitting across me, he's like, it’s what? And  then I hit the button like eight times in the next minute. And he's like, I've never seen this before in my life. You have somehow changed the way your body naturally responds to CO2. He's fascinated and I now he's actually designed to study and he's working with people to do the Wim Hof method and CO2 studies to see what the hell I just did. And I'm not an anxious person. There's probably a connection there. 

Keyes: So let's end with the present moment that we're living through. Many of us are housebound now. We're dealing with a global pandemic and we're just awash in bad news, which are essentially all the ingredients, the perfect mix to just spike anxiety. So what's the one hack that you described that you think that would be most beneficial for our listeners? 

Carney: We're in March 25th right now. The other day they announced social distancing measures in my city and sort of around the country. And my interaction with the world at that point was full of anxiety. Like I was posting things on Facebook that were this policy is bad or this policy is smart. Forget that politician. I was doing all these things and refreshing my browser and getting in fights with people on the internet. I know no one else here has ever done that, who's listening, but this is something that I did specifically. And what was going on there when I sat back to think about it was I was trying to control the external world with my emotions, right? And everyone else was totally into it too because they were also commenting and trying to control the world with their emotions. 

But there's nothing you can do about changing the things that are outside of your control by refreshing a browser. We can't anger our ways into altering the world. And we have these like -- this is an evolutionary mismatch. Have you ever gotten to a point where you wanted to like throw your computer out the window because something bad happened on it? Like why are you having a physical response to this sort of like mundane object? And it's because we go back to this evolutionary concept of -- when our ancestors were on the Savannah fighting their lions every threat, environmental, animal, whatever, always had a physical output to it. And our body released cortisol and energy into our systems in order to deal with the thing right in front of us. 

But right now we don't have that. And when we're looking at the internet, we're looking at these really terrible things going on out in the world. We want to control those things, but we can't. And we need to let those go. And instead whatever anxiety is being generated from you or me constantly refreshing my browser needs to find a physical stress to match it. And this is the most important thing right now for me. Breath work with the Wim Hof method. That night I was up all night like fighting with people in my brain and in the morning I did my normal breath practice and it just interrupted that cycle. It just got right in the middle of it because when you're holding your breath for three minutes, your brain is not super active, right? You're reaching that transcendent space. So that cycle got interrupted and I felt a million times better because I found a physical thing to push against. And this is what you need to do right now is you need to get out and if you have a practice like yoga or running or kettlebells or whatever it is, double down on that right now. And that is a wedge into what the anxiety is, cause you need to find that physical space to interact. If you want to talk about specific things in my book, just about any one of those things is a way to start looking at the world around you for stresses that are appropriate to the stresses we're getting through our virtual devices. 

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OUTRO

Roberts: That's Outside editor Chris Keyes, speaking with author Scott Carney about his new book, The Wedge. You can read an excerpt to focus on changing your relationship to fear outsideonline.com/thewedge. This episode of the Outside Podcast is brought to you by Visit Florida, one of the country's great adventure destinations. Learn more about the incredible experiences to be had across the sunshine state at visitflorida.com/outside. 

We'll be back next week.

The Outside Podcast

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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.