Imagine my surprise when I recently discovered that emotional health is fast becoming a foundational pillar for the length and quality of our lifespan. A subject that was once relegated to the self-help and personal growth space is now being integrated into a healthspan revolution.
Healthspan is not just living longer, it is about living longer without chronic and major health issues, living with vitality, strong cognitive and physical abilities and strong emotional health.
Dr. Peter Attia, host of the very popular podcast, The Drive, and author of “Outlive: The Science & Art of Longevity” emphasizes that while cognitive and physical health are germane to the quality and length of our lives, our emotional health may potentially be the most important component of all. “After all, what good is a long life if you are miserable?”
“Emotional health encompasses happiness, emotional resilience and distress tolerance, mindfulness, stillness and fulfillment, among others. It touches on our sense of individual purpose, as well as our ability to engage in meaningful and supportive relationships with those we love.” — From the Mental & Emotional Health Archives of Dr. Peter Attia (https://peterattiamd.com/category/mental-health/)
While listening to Dr. Attia discuss his new book Outlive with Dr. Andrew Huberman, I found myself completely captivated by the last 48 minutes of that podcast conversation. What he shared so openly about his own emotional health journey fit like a puzzle piece into my recent series of blog posts about the negative impacts of old parenting models. His personal story is so relatable on many levels – and proof positive that it behooves us all to take our emotional health as seriously as our exercise, nutrition and sleep.
From the outside, most of us would just assume that Dr. Peter Attia was living a happy, successful life. A Stanford/John Hopkins/NIH trained physical, he has built a thriving medical career focusing on the applied science of longevity. He has won prestigious awards, was the first person to make the round trip swim from Maui and Lanai, and has a huge following for his extremely popular podcast about longevity. He’s married and has three kids. Sure seems like he checked all the boxes for a good life.
Yet he shared both in his book and in the Huberman Lab podcast that he was driven to be a perfectionist and his inner critic was harsh and unrelenting. He also admits to becoming very skilled at drywall because he was prone to break a lot of things — both when he was younger and into his adult life. It took not one, but two, rock bottom moments in recent years to motivate him to get serious about his emotional health. The root causes of his core emotional issues were in his childhood — unprocessed trauma, lack of emotional language and lack of skillful emotional regulation.
Boom – there it is — the inescapable fact that what has happened in our childhood gets carried right into adulthood — and even when we work hard to build a successful life and check all the boxes, we still can get tripped up by our own unconscious obstacles.
In my recent blog post “Learning What We Need to Teach”, I shared that Dr. Dan Siegel recommends going back and examining our childhood so we can understand our relationship attachment style, how our parents influenced our development and how we made sense of what happened to us.
While Dr. Siegel readily acknowledges that most people are very resistant to revisiting a painful or dysfunctional childhood, it is a clear path to addressing the behavioral patterns and limiting beliefs that become our unconscious obstacles. Dr. Attia would likely frame this examination of our childhood an early intervention for our adult emotional health — and that framework comes from his personal experience and his scientific approach to longevity.
It was just a few years ago, as that second “rock bottom” was hitting hard for him, that Dr. Peter Attia’s good friend pulled him aside and told him he really needed this intervention. His good friend knew firsthand why unpacking family dysfunction and childhood trauma is of paramount importance for a good life. He is none other than Dr. Paul Conti, also a Stanford/Harvard grad, who is a psychiatrist and author of Trauma: The Invisible Epidemic; How Trauma Works and How We Can Heal From It.
The synchronicity of Dr. Paul Conti being a psychiatrist whose focus is on healing trauma and Dr. Attia being a medical doctor whose focus is on longevity and quality of life is not lost me. I have been witnessing the emerging integration of multiple disciplines and modalities for several years. So many significant neuroscience breakthroughs are deeply connected to the mind/body connection; the very integration of emotions with the lower and upper parts of developing brains for which Dr. Dan Siegel advocates the whole brain parenting approach.
We got emotions wrong for generations. Full stop. Emotions are the very first part of our human programming that needs to be installed. Emotions are how we learn to care for, and meet the needs of a precious baby. It is second nature for us to respond appropriately to an infant’s cries or their engaging laughter. How could we have been so blind to the obvious? The old parenting models actually had us overriding the most integral software component of being a human being. This is precisely why we have so many interpersonal difficulties, why our inner critic is so debilitating, and why we perpetuate problems from one generation to the next.
Peter Attia took Paul Conti’s sage advice. He did a deep-dive into this healing work in a 3 week program in Arizona, where he discovered a lot about his childhood that provided answers and insights. He learned tools and practices to help him pivot to the healthy end of his emotional health spectrum.
I was not at all surprised to learn that Dr. Attia was able to go back and look at blocked memories from childhood through the lens of an adult, who is now a parent himself, and discover deep compassion for a little boy who had no way of processing what he was experiencing; a little boy who strived to be “perfect” in order to feel safe and loved. His inner critic who was so hard on him when he missed the mark of “perfection” was parental message playing over and over….for 5 decades of his life.
This transformational experience was an enormous pivot for Dr. Peter Attia. He came to fully comprehend that all the work he was doing to help people live longer, without disease, chronic or major health issues, to ensure they stayed physically active and cognitively healthy was missing one compelling component — emotional health. In his mind, there could be nothing worse than living a very long life and being miserable, discontent and emotionally disregulated throughout it all.
As I listened to Dr. Attia convey all of this to his longtime friend and colleague, Dr. Andrew Huberman, I thought about a very familiar story that really brings this message home — Scrooge in the Christmas Carol. Past, present, future. See how our past influences our present….and where our present blindspots predict our future. We have instinctively known this for generations.
As he was going through what he calls his “rehab and recovery”, Dr. Attia was also deeply entrenched in writing his book, Outlive. There was no way he could not include his profound discovery about emotional health and it’s direct impacts on the quality of our lives — and although his editors and publisher thought it belonged in a separate book, he strongly disagreed. Integration of emotional health was essential to the pillars of longevity and quality of life.
This is so profoundly important, I am going to share it again:
Integration of emotional health is essential for our longevity, physical and cognitive health and the overall quality of our life.
Dr. Attia likes to create a dashboard for his patients as part of his comprehensive approach to mitigating health problems in the future. Not only does he seek to improve the length of their lifespan, he also wants to increase the length of their “healthspan” and shorten the length of “diseasespan.” He acknowledges that we have many ways to predict future possible health consequences by taking into account family history, genetics and using the wide array of medical tools (blood work, MRI’s, bone density, colonoscopy, mammograms, EKG, etc). There are many tools available for pre-screeening and preventive actions for our physical health; and a plethora of ways to measure and mitigate risk.
The same cannot be said for emotional health. There are no clearly defined ways of measuring it. As Dr. Andrew Huberman acknowledged, measuring emotional health is tricky — and language is our dissection tool. If we have a very limited emotional vocabulary and equally limited understanding of our inner emotional world, it would be like trying to do a biopsy with a blindfold on.
Not having a concise way to measure emotional health does not preclude Dr. Attia from adding it to the longevity dashboard for his patients however. He firmly believes that like cognitive and physical health issues, intervening early is key.
Can you imagine the positive and transforming impacts that are on the horizon for our mental health crises if there is a major pivot to include emotional health in comprehensive medical care? And it doesn’t stop there — we have growing evidence that stress and anxiety, unprocessed trauma, dysfunctional environments as well as generational trauma and addictions (epigenetics) contribute significantly to our physical health. Could it be that early intervention on our emotional health be the gateway to solving some of our most perplexing medical issues, including cancer, ALS, dementia and more. I firmly believe that it will.
For the record, Dr. Andrew Huberman was recently a guest on The Drive (Dr. Peter Attia’s podcast) and in that episode, Andrew really opened up about his own childhood, his parent’s contentious divorce and the debilitating impacts that it had on him for a great part of his adult life.
The candor and vulnerability that both of these dynamic, successful young men shared on each other’s podcasts is proof positive that we are witnessing a game-changing breakthrough that is long overdue. The skeletons are coming out of the closets! No more sweeping emotional health under the carpet.
Dr. Attia did not hesitate to point out that the top priority on his personal longevity dashboard is emotional health. He shared that “it is the easiest to get out of balance, the hardest to manage and the one that creates the most pain in his life.“
When Dr. Andrew Huberman pressed his friend for a definition of emotional health, Peter told him that it’s hard to specifically define it, and perhaps more relevant to recognize the components that make up strong, positive emotional health. The following is excerpted from his conversation in the HubermanLab podcast:
“Connectivity with others just seems to be an inescapable part of this (emotional health), so the ability to maintain healthy relationships and attachments to others; having a sense of purpose; being able to regulate your emotions; experiencing fulfillment; experiencing satisfaction — all of these things matter. And, if we take an honest appraisal of ourselves, we will notice that we have deficits is these areas.”
“Being “present” — which may have been less of an issue a hundred years ago than it is today — Being present is very difficult; thoughts about the future, not being satisfied with what is happening in the moment. I have to work hard to overcome those things. When you are present, you generally are in a much better frame of mind.” –Dr. Peter Attia
Connecting the Dots:
When Brene Brown began her research on shame and vulnerability back in 2001, she was an instrumental part of the necessary paleontologist team to excavate our human emotions. There were so many fossilized clues embedded in the stratifications of unprocessed emotions and traumas passed from one generation to the next over centuries.
When Dr. Bruce Perry published his book Born for Love in 2010, he unearthed what happens to infants whose basic needs and emotional pleas are not addressed in calm, loving and supportive ways. He was helping us grasp that there was a serious problem and he sounded an alarm for our growing empathy poverty. It was even more than a disconnect from our shared humanity and empathy – it was a snowball rolling down the hill toward our individual and collective declining emotional health — because we were not fully installing our basic emotional programming.
Also in 2010, Dr. Dan Siegel introduce us to his developing concept of “mindsight”- the newest science of personal transformation made possible through integration of the various parts of brain and mind/body connection. For more than a decade, Dr. Siegel continues to expand on his research and has introduced the most profound contemporary parenting model – The Whole Brain Child. Dr. Siegel is leading the charge for this dynamic pivot that “integrates” our fundamental emotional GPS system with all the parts of a child’s brain, slowly over time, as the child’s brain develops along with their physical bodies. Future generations who are nurtured with a whole brain parenting approach will most certainly be more “emotionally healthy” as adults and in turn, more physical and cognitively healthy as well.
This single pivot will have dramatic and positive impacts on our epigenetics and has the potential to stop generational cycles of inherited health issues, addictions, trauma and dysfunction in its tracks.
Stealing a line from Hamilton – “Look around. Look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.”
We can all be participating in this evolutionary pivot. We start by attending to our own emotional health and then we teach and model this integration for younger generations – for our children, grandchildren and our grandchildren’s babies.
Take advantage of all the resources that are integrating and cross-pollinating to help us live longer, live healthier both physically and cognitively — and most importantly to live a well-balanced, emotionally well-regulated, purpose-filled, satisfying, deeply rewarding life.