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Stress Proof Your Brain #469

On the Regular version of today’s show …

Dr Melanie Greenberg joins me to talk about her research surround the brain and stress.

Read more from Melanie on her site –

On the Xtended version …

Melanie and I continue the conversation about how stress impacts married life.

Enjoy the show!

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Speaker 1: You are listening to the regular version of Sexy Marriage Radio You've turned on Sexy Marriage Radio, where the best sex happens in the marriage bed. Here's your host, Dr. Corey Allan.

Corey Allan: Welcome to Sexy Marriage Radio alongside my wife, Pam, as always.

Pam Allan: Glad to be here.

Corey Allan: Having conversations about married life, and love, and sex, and all that, that entails.

Pam Allan: So many things that are encompassed in that.

Corey Allan: And what's been fun is lately with some of the different guests that we've had, we've ventured beyond the world of sex in marriage and just gotten into the life in marriage, and our individual existences in marriage. Because we've always had the thought that whatever you're responsible for in life, that's what you're responsible for which that begins and ends with you.

Pam Allan: Right. And they all bleed over into one another, don't they?

Corey Allan: Absolutely, they all work off each other in concert. In tandem, hopefully, but sometimes it can run amok and cause all kinds of struggles. And then one of the things we often hear from the Sexy Marriage Radio Nation is, "I started with you guys because I was trying to find a way to fix my spouse. And lo and behold, I recognized I got to deal with me."

Pam Allan: Right. That's the best way to do anything.

Corey Allan: That is absolutely the best way. And so if you are a part of the Sexy Marriage Radio Nation, which is, if you're listening to this show, then you're part of the SMR Nation.

Pam Allan: Welcome.

Corey Allan: We want to hear from you. We want to hear what's going on in your world, what questions you may have, or comments, or thoughts. And the way you can get to the front of the line with that is call us at 214-702-9565. Or you can always email us at And that helps set the stage and the path of where we go with every episode of SMR. And if you want to go even deeper into the world of SMR, then that's when you want to join the Academy. We have two different levels. We have the Extended, and then we have the Go All the Way with us. And just recently from the show that we did that was entitled, My Wife's Not Sexually Attracted To Me, there was a comment on Facebook that came in from a wife saying, "Hey, what's the extended version and how can I hear it?" Because she wasn't even aware. And so I jumped on just to give her, "Here's the link to the SMR Academy, which is"
And I love it because right after I made that comment, someone else made an unsolicited plug for the extended content. "The additional content in the podcast is great, but I've found the real value to be the Slack forum." Which is where we have the 24/7 dialogues going on with members that are part of the Academy.

Pam Allan: Part of the Academy, yeah.

Corey Allan: And his further last comment is, "The encouragement and openness of the SMR Nation is worth the price of admission." And I have to wholeheartedly agree.

Pam Allan: Yeah. Shout out to everyone in the Academy and for the support that they give and receive. It's a great group crosstalk people that are a part of that.

Corey Allan: Yeah. The community has been created among the people that are part of the All the Way with us Academy. It's gold. It's worth it because it is a place that there are lots of different dialogues and conversations that go on that, man, they are judgment-free zones to be able to just explore, "What's going on in my life and what's other people's experiences." And so that, I cannot plug it enough. So we wanted to share that. If you're interested, is where you can see all the different levels that are available. We hope to see you there on the inside. Well, coming up on today's for regular free version of Sexy Marriage Radio is a conversation that I had with Dr. Melanie Greenberg. She has a book out entitled The Stress-Proof Brain, and she's talking about mindfulness and neuroplasticity and how it impacts us in life.
And with today's environment of the unknown, and uncertainty, and what's life going to look like on the other side of this, and how do we reopen, and what's safe, what's not in an invisible environment of what we have as far as fear and uncertainty, this is a very appropriate conversation.

Pam Allan: Yeah, I definitely say so. There's so many ways where we are reacting and we don't realize we're even under stress until a week later. And you think, "Why have I been so far off base?" Right?

Corey Allan: Right.

Pam Allan: "Why am I reacting this way?" And I know I've done this, especially early on in this whole COVID and social distancing. There's just a lot of areas that there is stress there and we don't even necessarily realize it.

Corey Allan: Right. And so on the regular version, she and I talk about what do you do with that? How do you address it? What's the difference between chronic and acute? And there's a lot of very valuable information in this. And then coming up in the extended version of today's episode of Sexy Marriage Radio ... which is deeper longer, and there's no ads. You can subscribe at, as I mentioned earlier. We continue the conversation to talk about how does this impact in marriage? Because what's fascinating to me is the way just ... You and I, for example, the way you interact and deal and confront with stress is different than the way I will interact and deal and confront with stress.

Pam Allan: Sure.

Corey Allan: And sometimes those will overlap in not very positive ways.

Pam Allan: Sure.

Corey Allan: Your stress approach might be counter to mine and it's going to drive me crazy. And so we talk about it a little more in detail of what do you do with that? How do you confront that when you're talking about this kind of environment, or just life?

Pam Allan: Yeah, life in general.

Corey Allan: The world we live in, and how it impacts marriage. So all that's coming up on today's show. So my guest today for Sexy Marriage Radio ... and this is a timely conversation because Dr. Melanie Greenberg has a book out entitled The Stress-Proof Brain: Mastering Your Emotional Response to Stress Using Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity. And Melanie, I'm assuming I can speak for you here that at the current state of the world in which we are recording this with the pandemic and the world opening back up, you probably would agree that this work you're doing and the research that you've done to create it, it's timely because there's quite a great deal of stress happening in our world.

Melanie Greenberg: Absolutely. Yeah. And space that we didn't predict. [crosstalk 00:06:57].

Corey Allan: Absolutely. Who would have ever known the size and scope of what's going on. But thank you for taking some time with me today. I want to just dive right into the idea of when you're talking about stress and its impact on a body and on a person, what are some of the main things we need to be aware of?

Melanie Greenberg: Okay, thank you. So stress, the stress response sends us into fight or flight. So what does that mean? It's an emergency part of our brain takes over. There's a certain part of the brain called the amygdala, which is designed to look for threats in the environment and basically prepare us to take action or to run away. And that's because our ancestors used to face threats like lions and tigers. So with time, that got wired into the brain. So basically, stress can make you go into fight or flight. What does that look like? When you're in fight, you can be irritable, you can be jumpy, you can be ... Your thoughts can be all over the place. You can be shouting at your partner before you even realize that you're doing it. And flight can be just that you're anxious that it's hard that you're not connecting with your partner because you're in a runaway kind of a mode. You keep yourself busy so you don't think about the stress.
What's interesting about the stress response is at the same time as fight or flight takes over, is that another part of your brain that's to do more with rest and digestion and actually sexuality it's shut down.

Corey Allan: Really?

Melanie Greenberg: Yeah, those are non essential functions, those are inaudible functions. I mean, they're important, but if you're facing a tiger-

Corey Allan: Yeah, in the moment of if I'm wandering ... Let's go back to the ancestry framework of this. If I'm wandering through the countryside and I come across a lion, in the moment, sex is probably not on my mind.

Melanie Greenberg: Exactly.

Corey Allan: Right. It's not-

Melanie Greenberg: [crosstalk 00:09:04].

Corey Allan: It's not a paramount need or desire at that moment. Instead, it's about, I might need to get away.

Melanie Greenberg: Exactly. Yeah. Same thing. And you wouldn't be eating your breakfast, and stuff like that.

Corey Allan: It's true. All of a sudden, my hunger's gone. So it's deal with something else. I got you.

Melanie Greenberg: And we're wired to ... for the stress response to come up for it to be functional, that we'll have a strong response to deal with some stress so that's manageable. And then that you get to safety, and then you go into recovery, and then you go back to rest and digest and be sexual. The problem is with this kind of stressor like COVID-19 is that it doesn't end. It's not like inaudible that you can say, "Okay, now I'm safe. And so now I can just let go of fight or flight." It tends to require vigilance. We're vigilant. "What's going on in the world? And is it safe out? Should I wear my mask? Should I open back up?" And so that gets in the way of going into recovery mode basically, and focusing of other things.

Corey Allan: Right. Because as you're talking about this, I was sitting here just writing a couple of little notes real quick. And right before you started saying that, I was writing down is there a difference between acute stress or situational? In that sense of something that truly is a safety, a, "My survival is at stake." Which is the amygdala's purpose in a lot of ways. And then you're also talking about it in the context now, chronic, where there's just this ongoing kind of a state of things that is obviously going to have a fallout to us. But is there a difference in the way the brain reacts to those? Or can it differentiate between the two?

Melanie Greenberg: So there is a difference. There's a difference not only in how the brain reacts, but also on the health effects. So acute stress doesn't have as bad a health effect, although it can still be toxic if it's a trauma or something like that. You can also have a kind of acute stress where you master it. I mean, like running a marathon would be an acute stress, or giving a speech, or going to do a job interview. But there's times you can master it and it can have a great outcome, you can prepare. And then it's actually kind of stressful at the time, but it's also enhanced signals that create good feelings and excitement.

Corey Allan: Okay. And is it also because it has an end, it has a set end point?

Melanie Greenberg: Yeah.

Corey Allan: Because like a marathon, I head towards that finish line. I mean, that's the point of it.

Melanie Greenberg: Yeah, exactly. And your job, and you can just enjoy that relief and the fruit of your labor. But with chronic, when there isn't an end, what happens is that your brain can keep releasing adrenaline and cortisol and all these kinds of neurotransmitters that make your heart beat faster, and make you breathing go lower. And as a result, it can be much more fatiguing on your body longterm inaudible you can get out of balance and you can get inflammation.

Corey Allan: Right. Because cortisol is that when your brain gets flooded in the cortisol, it really starts limiting function.

Melanie Greenberg: Yeah, exactly. Cortisol can sometimes attack part of your brain called the hippocampus, which is your verbal memory center. And also your executive functioning can not be working as well because the amygdala is in charge rather than your prefrontal cortex, which is kind of your CEO of the brain. The brain doesn't have a CEO, it's just reacting.

Corey Allan: That's right. That's when ... I got a bunch of different analogies, I'm not even going to try to bring them up just because some of them get into a little dicey on the characteristics of them. But so if you're talking about the impact of stress and then the work that you've got of just stress-proofing your brain, how does one go about doing that?

Melanie Greenberg: So mindfulness is a big piece of it. What mindfulness is, it's a way of relating to the world where ... and to yourself, where you're open to your own experience, and you are just trying to stay in the moment and be compassionate and be more ... Not only reacting, but the observer of your reactions. You can see like, "How are things going here? Do I want to be reacting this way? And if not, let me slow things down and calm things down." And it's also a way to wire in recovery. Because if you're practicing mindfulness meditation, for example, or if you're just slowing things down and having an observer stance and taking things slower as your body starts calming down, and focusing on the senses like what you smell, hear, feel, see. Or like, say, you have a walk in nature would be an example. It's very common to your nervous system and it takes you out of fight or flight. So that's a big piece of it-

Corey Allan: Sorry to interrupt you. One of the questions that comes to my mind is if I'm trying to be mindful in the midst of a stress inducing situation, it seems to me that it's harder then to be in touch with my senses. Because it would almost be like all the resources are being funneled to whatever the situation is. But you're talking about just a more full functioning response would be, "All right, how do I slow myself down?" And then become aware of those and use that act in and of itself as a way to get more in tune with what's really going on.

Melanie Greenberg: Yeah. I mean, that's a good point. I guess you could think of it, so being aware of your senses can be a practice that you do like a stress ... Some people jog, for example. It can be a stress management practice that you do once a day, for example. And at that point, you'll just be focusing on your senses, you won't be trying to deal with the stressor. So it's giving your brain a period of rest and relief. So that's one piece. But if you're being mindful throughout your day while are you going about trying to deal with COVID, that you would be mindful of how you're thinking, how you're acting, "Am I keeping myself safe? Am I making a wise choice here? Does just this choice make sense? How am I relating to other people? Am I considerate of keeping them safe? Am I acting according to my values?" Those would be some examples of how [crosstalk 00:16:09].

Corey Allan: Okay. So this is almost ... Because what I'm hearing you describe, Melanie, is this idea of how do I have self-awareness? But it's almost objective. It's almost third-party self-aware ... I have a little bit of component of my experience of observing me from outside of my experience to a degree. Not just being fully immersed to where I'm tossed to and from, but then I'm guessing you could also say, "I don't want to be fully disconnected from the experience of what's going on too."

Melanie Greenberg: Exactly. So you're operating at two levels in a way, probably engaging the two different areas in the brain.

Corey Allan: Absolutely.

Melanie Greenberg: But it's helpful because if you're not observing, then you may not be making as wise a choice. Like you'd be more led by your fear, for example, or by other things like seeing other people that's dangerous, something like that.

Corey Allan: Because are you in the camp that has, if we're fully led by our emotions, that can often cause a little bit of collateral damage, if not at times, a lot of collateral damage because our emotions aren't always logical ... That doesn't fit together in the right framework. That our emotions are reactive and destructive sometimes just because it's just instinct. It's just response. It's not a thought through, "Hold on. What's an appropriate response to this?"

Melanie Greenberg: Right. I mean, I think emotions have their uses, they have a function to give us information.

Corey Allan: Sure.

Melanie Greenberg: The state of the world or about the state of ourselves. But what happens if they are intense and too intense and reactive, if they can be overblown from the situation, they can make you be too impulsive. So I believe emotions have a function, but you need to calm them down to the level that they can be useful.

Corey Allan: Yeah. Not just let them run amok and run the whole show because that's-

Melanie Greenberg: Exactly.

Corey Allan: ... that creates too much of an issue. And I think that's what I'm picking up from you in all of this really is, I've come into the framework of life is a bell curve if you think about our existence. And our goal is to avoid the extremes of those bell curves.

Melanie Greenberg: Mm-hmm (affirmative). That's a good point [inaudible 00:18:34].

Corey Allan: Going one or the other is where we'll start having fall out that's not beneficial to ourselves or others. But if we can stay somewhere in there ... And that gives us freedom in the sense of, I can be more towards my emotional side and still be in tune and in check. And I can be more towards my logical side and still be in tune and in check. And I'm better functioning that way.

Melanie Greenberg: So I mean, one question you can ask yourself is, "Can I think and feel at the same time?" Because if you're emotionally flooded, you're generally going to think. Or sometimes you can get into a detached state where you're just thinking and judging, but inaudible really connected emotionally. Sometimes that can happen between couples where one's in a kind of a judging mode or trying to fix things, trying to solve a problem. And the other one's more in an emotional mode like, "I'm feeling bad and I want you to listen and care." So the people miss each other and the other one's like, "Well, why are you being so irrational?"

Corey Allan: Yeah. You miss each other and it's personal.

Melanie Greenberg: Yeah, exactly.

Corey Allan: So you made a comment just a few minutes ago about in the moment of these stressful times, learning compassion, that ... Expand on that because I'm assuming you mean self-compassion in there too, because that's a huge component of our existence and being better.

Melanie Greenberg: Sure, exactly. Self-compassion and other compassion, but self-compassion tends to be what we struggle with the most. Often, it's easier to feel compassion for other people and we tend to be hard and critical on ourselves, and especially under stress. I think under stress, we can react by turning on ourselves, beating ... criticizing ourselves, feeling shame, like, "Why are we in this bad situation? Maybe we did ... Why didn't we prepare better? Or maybe we did something." We look for what we did wrong to cause [crosstalk 00:20:36]. That we're not enough. And then also we can be too demanding of ourselves. For example, having to do lockdown and be just as productive as you always are, not having any space for the stress, or maybe you should be having the perfect house, or something like that, or making a five course meal every night. I mean, you may choose to do something, the house or a nice cooking sometimes, but again, you can get into perfectionism and that can get in your way.

Corey Allan: Right. Because the drive of it really isn't for yourself, it's for perception of something else or some ... I'm looking for something from something external, which is typically a lot of the time where that's what's driving me rather than I'm letting people see who I really am.

Melanie Greenberg: Right. Exactly. And so that's to be too demanding or too based on the external or to be too self-critical and shame-based, both of them are not healthy for you. Although many of us or all of us have these tendencies-

Corey Allan: Sure.

Melanie Greenberg: ... inaudible human. But we need to learn how do we stand up for ourselves against them, I suppose. How do we give ourselves the space to have more choice? Or how do we allow ourselves to understand what our own needs and feelings are, and to listen to them and to allow them?

Corey Allan: Okay. So is that like suspending judgment on the feelings to where they're just almost much more neutral rather than being judgemental? Because don't we get into this habit of something happens ... So let's go with the COVID and the quarantine, and I've been locked down for seven weeks and I'm feeling depressed. And I immediately then feel mad or down and judgmental on the fact that I feel down rather than what if I'd suspend judgment on I'm feeling depressed and I see it as, "Well, yeah. I could see why I could feel a little down."

Melanie Greenberg: Yeah, exactly.

Corey Allan: And I don't immediately go into the negative connotation of that, I go into the situational aspect of it.

Melanie Greenberg: Yeah, exactly. I mean, I think that's part of self-compassion is looking at the circumstances, viewing your behavior in the light of circumstances and being flexible. Not being inflexible and just living by rigid rules. You can live by your values, but you have to also be flexible. And don't have the same expectations of yourself when you're under severe stress than you are when things are right, allow-

Corey Allan: Okay. So practice a little forgiveness of yourself too, grace.

Melanie Greenberg: Yeah. Allow yourself to be a bit tired, a bit lazy, a bit depressed.

Corey Allan: Okay. Well, I also-

Melanie Greenberg: Yeah, but not extreme, but just-

Corey Allan: Sure.

Melanie Greenberg: ... allow yourself to be human.

Corey Allan: Yeah. Well, and I've come across this with some of the clients I've been working as this thing is going on and some of it is just ... You make a comment on some of your work on just some of the simple things you can do that are situational. Because obviously if you look at these objectively, you can get this idea of, "Oh, that makes sense on why I would be stressed about this." Right?

Melanie Greenberg: Totally.

Corey Allan: Whereas sometimes I just don't have that outward view, that objective view and I'm too caught up in the moment. The flip side of that I can use too. Some of my clients, they're like, "Man, I don't know what it is, Corey. I'm just been down. I've just been ... I'm not productive." And they're just listing this whole thing of just they're in a pretty good funk.

Melanie Greenberg: Exactly.

Corey Allan: And a lot of times, I have two go-to questions with that. One is, "When was the last time you took a shower?" Because if they're not going anywhere, sometimes they just ... "You know what? It's actually been three days." "Well, then maybe that's what you need to do as soon as we hang up. Go shower and put on a fresh set of clothes. Actually dress up like you're going to go do something. Not just the top half for the Zoom call, do the full dress." And then the other go-to it's just, "When's the last time you exercise?" And you alluded to that on whenever you can jog or do some of these things, it gives the brain a break.

Melanie Greenberg: Right. It releases the stress. Exactly.

Corey Allan: Because it lets the body do some work for the brain, even though the brain is really leading the charge, but it gives some of those areas to just unwind.

Melanie Greenberg: Yeah, exactly. It's so important. I mean, you alluded to things that I think are important. One is routine, and I think routine keeps our brain happy. It makes us feel things are meaningful, and makes us feel productive, and things like that. And it just keeps the normality so it's not taken over by chaos and panic. And then the second thing is exercise. And exercise has a lot of benefits. It's good for depression, it lifts your mood, there's the dopamine rush, all these opioids. There are relaxing hormones that are released. And the other thing was exercise, it's really good for your brain. So actually there's a lot of research, it helps you concentrate much better, it helps you think clearly, it helps you be focused, and it helps you maybe inhibit distractions. So all of those are really ... Sometimes to be more creative, all of those are really good for your brain as well.

Corey Allan: Absolutely. I liked the idea and the principal just because ... I mean, Melanie, to me as we close out the first section, a segment of the show today, I'm sitting here just thinking through, "Okay, we live in a world right now that it already has had a lot of stress." I mean, chronic stress is just a level of the Western world, just because you're just inundated with things. Now, you add a whole another level with the pandemic and an uncertainty, which I think the brain freaks out. That's what you were alluding to also. The brain freaks out most to uncertainty.

Melanie Greenberg: Exactly.

Corey Allan: I don't have a quantifiable enemy that I can see to rally against in this thing, instead it's this-

Melanie Greenberg: Exactly.

Corey Allan: ... whole big-

Melanie Greenberg: It's everywhere.

Corey Allan: ... unknown thing. Yes, it's an invisible thing that I can't put my finger on it, so there's all kinds of fear that comes from that. But you're talking about, just how do I come back and center myself, get connected with the moment, be aware of my self-talk, just be an objective observer of my existence. And likely we'll just start to find, okay, this has given me some cues that I can start to explore further, that I can at least take the edge off a little bit.

Melanie Greenberg: Are you asking me how or you're just summarizing?

Corey Allan: I think I'm just trying to see if that's ... I mean, I think that's where we've landed.

Melanie Greenberg: Yeah. That is where we've landed. I agree. Yeah. That's a good summary I think.

Corey Allan: And then I'm trying to then ... I guess I'll tee this up for the extended content for those that are members of the Academy. How then ... Because you can't just completely ever get rid of stress in your life. It's going to happen.

Melanie Greenberg: Right. Exactly.

Corey Allan: So you're talking about building better levels of tolerance to it maybe, you're talking about better responses to it. But I'm also curious ... Because you teed it up a little bit with the idea of this plays out and it can wreak havoc maritally when you're talking about relationships because one person's stress environments are different than the others. So let's go there here in just a minute, okay?

Melanie Greenberg: Sure.

Corey Allan: So I have to give you a little bit of chance to let members of the SMR Nation, if they want to know more and find more of you, how can they find you, and the books, and the work that you do?

Melanie Greenberg: Oh, sure. So my book is The Stress-Proof Brain and you can find it on Amazon, and Barnes & Noble, et cetera. You can also go to my website. Dr, D-R Melanie's M-E-L-A-N-I-E G-R-E-E-N-B-E-R-G .com. Or you can google me and you'll find all my links. I also write a blog for Psychology Today called The Mindful Self-Express

Corey Allan: Perfect. And I'll put all that information in the show notes. So those of you that are listening in the SMR Nation and driving, don't try to write that down. That adds another level of stress. Drive safely, and focus on what you're doing please instead. Melanie, thank you so much for the time you spent with me thus far, and I'm excited to keep talking in the extended content.

Melanie Greenberg: Me too. Thank you.

Corey Allan: I'm wondering if there will ever be a time in this earth where we can live without stress?

Pam Allan: Wouldn't that be fabulous?

Corey Allan: I don't know. I mean, wishful thinking? Yes. But it seems like that's just a part of human existence.

Pam Allan: It seems like it is. I mean, we say there's no ... There's good anxieties too, right?

Corey Allan: Right.

Pam Allan: Bad and good. And those are the things that mold us, and shape us, and form us. But stress is here. It's part of it.

Corey Allan: Yeah, I want to-

Pam Allan: It's part of it-

Corey Allan: Let's wrap up.

Pam Allan: ... and we got to learn to cope with it.

Corey Allan: Let's wrap up today's show with just the concept of a lot of times what life presents us is what we hope it will present us as we get the choice of this anxiety or no anxiety. But the reality is I get a choice of which anxiety do I want. So the best thing I can do is lean into the conflict and the content that's happening in my life, and deal with it better and respond better. And that's what we're trying to help happens here with Sexy Marriage Radio. So if we left something undone, let us know, 214-702-9565, or So wherever you are, whatever you've been doing, however you've been listening, thank you for taking the time out of your week to spend it again with us. We'll see you next time.